The MTA has frequently come under fire for its real estate holdings. Politicians and advocates believe that the authority doesn’t make proper use of the space it both rents and owns, and underground, commercial opportunities are decidedly low rent. It is a problem the MTA is trying to solve in order to generate more money.
A few weeks ago, news broke that the authority may try to offload some real estate holdings as part of the overall overhaul of the way the MTA works. Meanwhile, back in November, MTA CEO and Chairman Jay Walder spoke to me about the need to find a more diverse and appealing group of businesses willing to take out space underground. It’s a process.
In Chicago, the CTA is engaged in a similar process, and the Windy City’s Tribune profiled that authority’s real estate overhaul. Jon Hilkevitch reports:
The Chicago Transit Authority, which has its hands full running trains and buses, concedes it has no business managing the retail concessions on its properties. Sixty-six of the 137 concession spaces at CTA rail stations are vacant, according to the transit agency. Commuters aren’t exactly missing their trains to buy the snacks and refreshments available at the open concession stands either.
The grimy appearance of CTA subway tunnels extends up the escalators to many of the vendor stalls, which haven’t been overhauled in decades. A campaign is beginning to upgrade the selection of offerings to commuters and boost CTA rental income by attracting new retail tenants, including national chains that would operate rail station stores in multiple CTA stations, officials said…
Commuters may soon be able to drop off their dry cleaning, conduct other business or just buy a cup of coffee right inside or next door to their “L” stop. The two newest leases are with Maui Wowi Hawaiian, a coffee and smoothie shop that will open at the CTA Belmont station serving the Red, Brown and Purple/Evanston Express lines; and Lupito’s juice bar at the Damen station on the Pink Line, officials said. Both businesses are scheduled to open this spring.
Upscale merchandise could become part of the mix too. Vending machines that feature iPods and digital cameras are deployed at increasing numbers of airports, and they may turn up at CTA rail stations as well. The CTA is considering vending machines that dispense DVDs and electronics at select rail stations, CTA President Richard Rodriguez has said.
There’s more than a little amount of common sense involved in the CTA’s thinking. While many of their stations have a more visible ground-level component than New York’s do, the simple idea of placing vending machines in stations could be one that tips. Why shouldn’t I be able to grab a DVD from a Redbox machine at Grand Army Plaza? If the MTA can maintain its MetroCard Vending Machines and if my local Key Food can keep in better working order than its credit card readers, convenience would demand one in the subway.
Of course, the idea that the subway is for anything other than commuting is tough sell. Other than concession stands, businesses aren’t drawn to the subways because of its negative connotations. It’s dirty; it’s dark; it’s delayed. I prefer my dry cleaners to inhabit a clean building with some modicum of proper venting instead of the dirt- and rat-infested subway system.
Still, money is tight. Transit agencies have to get creative with their rent-seeking efforts, and perhaps Chicago is on to something. As New York searches for a similar solution, they could do far worse than to take a cue from our neighbors to the west.