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Shoppers ride an escalator at the Centaurus, a new mall in Islamabad. The project is a potential target for terrorism. (Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS)
Shoppers ride an escalator at the Centaurus, a new mall in Islamabad. The project is a potential target for terrorism. (Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS)

Pakistanis brave blackouts, earthquakes and terrorism for a retail fix Add to ...

On a weekday evening in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, a stream of families and young couples line up to pass through the security detectors at the Centaurus Mall, a five-floor behemoth behind which loom the undulating green Margalla Hills.

The project is not without risks, including being a potential target for terrorism and large-scale tremors. But there are metal detectors that shoppers must step through and X-ray machines where visitors place their purses and bags. And to protect the mall against earthquakes, like the 7.6-magnitude disaster of 2005, the Centaurus project claims to be resilient to quakes up to a magnitude of 9.5.

The greater gamble, though, is whether in a country plagued by terrorism and an economy crippled by electricity blackouts, there will be enough locals to embrace the therapeutic value of shopping.

Centaurus’ chief executive officer, Sardar Yasir Ilyas Khan, bats away any skepticism. “The mall was created for everyone – for all the classes. We’ve got people selling Hugo Boss, Armani, Versace and we’ve got people selling local textiles and local brands as well. It’s a perfect mix,” he said.

Long accustomed to outdoor shopping arcades, Pakistanis are being offered air-conditioned shopping in a megamall – filling a major gap in the retail sector in Islamabad and the nearby city of Rawalpindi.

“It is our only entertainment,” joked Centaurus regular and teacher Uzma Humayoun Khan, who brought her teenagers along for the visit.

But this is also a country where the minimum wage is about $100 a month. A megamall with designer wear, watches and shoes is out of reach for many.

The initial average of 10,000 visitors per weekday has doubled over four months, the mall says.

Many of the expected 280 clothing, shoe and fast-food shops are already open – including a Second Cup drawing coffee enthusiasts and Canadian expats. Other stores with a Canadian connection – Marble Slab Creamery and Yogen Früz – are also expected to open, said Mr. Khan.

With Ramadan set to begin next week, the mall will stay open daily for three extra hours – until 2 a.m. The extended hours, as well as the opening of a five-theatre cinema and a 30,000-square-foot amusement area with bumper cars and video games, are expected to result in a further spike in visitors.

For retailers, however, the increased traffic at the mall, which opened in February, hasn’t necessarily translated to sales.

“There’s lot of window shoppers, there’s not a lot of buyers,” said Izzah Ahmed, owner of a smoothie outlet called Juicy Gossip.

“The rents are expensive. I’m paying 165,000 [rupees] per month [$1,730] – which for this little tiny place, it’s costing me a lot,” she said, adding that her shop is 53 square feet in a section of the mall where some stores have yet to open. However, Ms. Ahmed remains confident sales will pick up.

Glitzy shopping malls – including an earlier project in Karachi facing the Arabian Sea – distill what many Pakistanis wish their country could be: an example of ambition and planning.

But the Centaurus is an electricity-hungry project in a power-starved country. It has to rely on massive backup generators that fire up during scheduled blackouts every other hour. And the city is building a separate grid station to meet the mall’s electricity demand.

The project was designed by Dubai-based architects, project managed by a Kuwait-based firm and built with the help of Chinese cranes and workers. The shopping centre is the first phase of a project that will include apartments and office space in the three 32-storey towers that sit on top of the mall.

Mr. Khan sees it as a Pakistani landmark that his family will replicate in other cities.

“When we [Pakistanis] travel the world, we see a lot great things. When we come back to Pakistan, we ask: Why can we not have something similar here for people to be a part and for people to enjoy themselves?” he said.

Fauzia Aziz Minallah, a local author and artist, has opposed the project since it was first announced more than seven years ago.

“When they were promoting Centaurus, do you know what they called Centaurus? ‘Identity of Pakistan,’” said Ms. Minallah, with a laugh, adding that Pakistan’s identity lies in the ancient Buddhist ruins in nearby Taxila and in the archeological site of Mohenjo Daro, a planned city that existed 3,000 years ago and is a record of the achievements of the Indus valley civilization.

She finds Centaurus aesthetically unappealing. “I don’t like all this concrete,” said Ms. Minallah, who has written books about Islamabad’s cultural history and its trees.

If only her teenage sons, who frequent Centaurus, agreed.

“Maybe they [will] grow up with my values. But right now, I’m not going to force my values on them,” she said.

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