Union Square Report Depicts Rebound

Manhattan’s Union Square, with its diversity of businesses, high-rises and teeming crowds of students, office workers, residents, shoppers, tourists and protesters, continues to recover in the wake of the pandemic.

Target, Crate & Barrel, Saatva luxury mattresses, AT&T and Levain Bakery are launching stores in Union Square, following openings earlier this year by Allbirds, Parachute and Pandora. And Aritzia is relocating to a larger space at 115 Fifth Avenue from a few blocks south.

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A total of 32 new businesses have arrived, 22 more will be arriving to the neighborhood this year, and 126 businesses have opened since 2020, taking advantage of storefront opportunities that became available during the pandemic. Seven of these businesses, including Sephora, Books of Wonder and Cure Thrift Shop, have relocated to larger or upgraded spaces within the neighborhood.

Pedestrian traffic, including those arriving by foot, bike or transit, is tracking at 98 percent of where it was in 2019 (before COVID-19 spread globally in 2020) and is 10 percent higher than midtown Manhattan. But like other urban neighborhoods, the office population on Mondays and Fridays remains low, though it ramps up Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

The statistics are from the 2023 Union Square Commercial Market Report issued Wednesday by the Union Square Partnership, which covers the blocks immediately surrounding Union Square Park as well as 14th Street between First and Sixth Avenues.

The partnership has a comprehensive road map for modernizing and reimagining Union Square with greater pedestrian space, landscaping and transit accessibility, called “USQNext,” that could be implemented sometime in the future.

“The plan would be the first major capital investment in Union Square in nearly 15 years, and the first really significant redesign of the entire square in almost four decades,” said Julie Stein, the new executive director of the Union Square Partnership, a business improvement district.

Julie Stein
Julie Stein

While redesign may be top-of-mind for the future, Union Square was most recently in the news for the Aug. 4 riot, which broke out after thousands of young people arrived for a supposed giveaway by social media influencer Kai Cenat and received nothing, causing mayhem. Police reported this week that 16 rioters that climbed on and damaged a BMW are wanted, and that Cenat faces several charges including inciting the riot, though that wasn’t his intention.

Stein said the Police, Fire and Parks Departments and the partnership “in the moment the event was happening were doing everything they could for crowd control and making sure all of the attendees were able to stay safe and disperse safely.

“We were also incredibly impressed and grateful at the coordinated effort between the city and our team to make sure that the district was open for business the very next morning. The Department of Sanitation and the Parks Department helped clean the sidewalks and streets in the park alongside our cleaning team. They did a tremendous job cleaning up and power washing very early Saturday morning to make sure that the Greenmarket could open for business as usual Saturday morning.”

In response to the riot, “We’re going to be talking to the city about ways to better anticipate what’s happening on social media, and how we can have an additional permanent presence in the park to make sure that everyone stays safe. No one anticipated the August 4 event would get so big and how quickly it got so big,” Stein said.

“The most important message is for all events in the Square to be permitted and planned in advance with the Parks Department so we make sure we put the proper crowd control in place to keep everyone who attends safe,” she added. With the permitting, the Parks Department coordinates with the Police Department on events, Stein noted.

Mobile vendors bore the brunt of riot damages, Stein said. “For the most part, the buildings themselves did not sustain any damage — no graffiti, no broken windows. Some stores sustained minor damage but mostly, people dispersed peacefully. There was about $55,000 worth of damage to our landscaping and park. We’ve started a fundraiser for donations to help us replace plantings.”

Union Square, she said, “is a very vibrant place, full of people. As a mixed-use neighborhood, the businesses, offices, shoppers, tourists and residents drive foot traffic and a lot of positive trends. The street life is very dynamic.”

The 2023 Union Square Commercial Market Report indicates that more than 450,000 square feet of commercial office space and 65,000 square feet of retail space has been leased since January 2022 and that Union Square added 12 ground-floor businesses in the second quarter of this year, marking the best quarter since the start of the pandemic in terms of additions. The report also cited the Förena 50-unit luxury condo on Sixth Avenue and 14th Street, which completed construction in July and has 6,000 square feet of available retail space.

Among Union Square’s anchors: Zeckendorf Towers, Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Consolidated Edison, the W New York hotel, Trader Joe’s, Rothmans menswear, and the Greenmarket, which is open Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and the Holiday Market, which runs through the holiday season. Union Square Park is also a major subway hub and among the city’s busiest. Other big-name retailers are ABC Carpet & Home and Paragon Sports.

The vacancy rate within the BID’s borders is currently 15 percent, down from 17 percent last year, with ground-floor rents fronting the park at $279 per foot compared to $212 on average.

Asked if she sees voids in the retail offerings, or “white space” that could be filled, Stein suggested that it’s more about building upon the concentration of businesses already present — restaurants, home design stores, off-pricers. She also sees room for additional cultural institutions, tech and finance firms, with this year’s opening of Civic Hall, a center for tech and job training, conferences and events at 124 East 14th Street as well as housing offices for GameChanger and Sequoia Capital. Microsoft, last July, opened offices at 122 Fifth Avenue, an 11-story mixed-use project that underwent a $100 million renovation.

Asked how the USQNext plan is progressing, Stein said, “Since its release in 2021, we’ve been meeting with the city, the state and we are going to be engaging all stakeholders. One of my key assignments is to work with the team to move the vision plan forward. This is going to be a very important public/private partnership. We need all of the partners to come together on the next level of design and come up with a funding plan. It’s a vision plan that spans several years. Our hope is to make significant progress in the coming months in our engagement with the city and the state, but there’s no specific timeline for implementation yet.”

The partnership’s “Summer in the Square” program offered Thursday morning yoga and meditation, kids’ events midday, live music at lunchtime, Thursday movie nights and other activations. “This year, we turned the North Plaza into pickleball courts with CityPickle and Paragon Sports,” said Stein, adding that the summer program resumed this year after being cancelled through the pandemic. “We feel we’re back — and fully programmed.”

Before joining the partnership on July 17 this year, Stein, a native New Yorker, was executive director of the “New” New York Panel of civic leaders and industry experts developing initiatives to reimagine business districts and enhance the region’s economy in the aftermath of COVID-19. Stein’s leadership culminated in the “Making New York Work for Everyone” action plan in December 2022, affecting changes from public space and transportation, to housing and child care.

Earlier, Stein was senior vice president in the asset management division and cohead of the portfolio management department for New York City Economic Development Corporation, involved in managing more than 220 properties. And before that, she served as executive director of Sunset Park, overseeing leasing, campus planning and placemaking for the corporation’s industrial assets in Sunset Park, including the Brooklyn Army Terminal and the Made in New York Campus at Bush Terminal. Stein also worked on the city’s public wholesale and retail food markets.

Joining the Union Square Partnership, she said, “fits right in my wheelhouse. I’m really excited to bring my prior experience in public and private real estate transactions, asset management and economic development into our efforts to curate Union Square with a dynamic mix of vibrant uses, building upon its competitive advantages.”

A rendering of Union Square from the USQNext vision plan: more pedestrian space, greenery and transit access.

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