Home U.S. Transit SystemsCTA From Chicago, a glimpse at the subway real estate future

From Chicago, a glimpse at the subway real estate future

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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BG April 5, 2011 - 1:00 am

I’m all for creative ideas, but putting an airport Best Buy-type vending machine in the subway seems like a bad idea . . . far too easy to make a crime target out of the machine or its patrons.

Benjamin Kabak April 5, 2011 - 1:02 am

I was thinking more along the lines of $1 DVDs and not $150 iPods.

Scott E April 5, 2011 - 7:36 am

“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.”

So, does the MTA have an internal component that handles the leases and marketing of these places, or do they use a third-party firm (as they do CBS Outdoor for advertising) to handle this?

John-2 April 5, 2011 - 9:23 am

It seems like you’d have to be pretty careful in picking your locations, as well as doing credit/debt card-only payment options on any vending machines, in order to avoid the vending machine vandalism problems that plagued the system before Ronan had the food service vending machines removed in the early 1970s.

Peter April 5, 2011 - 9:48 am

In response to Scott E, the Real Estate Dept handles concessions and other leasing and commercial use of non-operational assets of the MTA – NYCT, MNR, LIRR, TBTA, SIRT, etc., generating over $200 million in 2009, probably half of that from the most heavily-populated NYCT system, where small stores & advertising efficiently reach the greatest number of people.

New & creative uses will need to be devised, as newsstands, the traditional most-popular and lucrative retail use, are becoming obsolete in the digital media age.

Hank April 5, 2011 - 11:00 am

I wonder how much the merchants could or should be involved in the maintenance and upkeep of the stations? At the access points for the uptown 86th st. & lex station, the merchants currently ensconsed to little to maintain the station

Woody April 5, 2011 - 12:18 pm

Not keen on selling candy or chewing gum through vending machines, but I could often pay a buck for a bottled water, please.

Woody April 5, 2011 - 12:21 pm

Also, apparently some police effort is expended to keep the guys giving away free newspapers above ground. Why not make a deal with Metro, amNewYork, the Village Voice, and others to allow them to dispense newspapers in all stations. Sometimes I hurry to the platform and then I’d picked up something to read while waiting.

Hank April 6, 2011 - 11:17 am

How about charging those “free daylies” for the cost of cleaning up after them? Not to mention the hassel of the obese distributors they have parked outside the subway steps, slowing ingress/egress?

Woody April 5, 2011 - 12:41 pm

I also wish they’d bring back pay toilets, or any toilets at all. The toilets were removed because druggies loitered there to prey on distracted users, relieving them of their valuables while they were trying to relieve themselves.

Don’t we have hot-shot policing now to keep this problem under control? Security cameras and all that. Or transfer a few cops, from ticketing cyclists running red lights when Central Park is closed to traffic, to the assignment of making public toilets safe for the public. Is it too much to ask, Commissioner Kelly, that you make it safe to take a leak in NYC?

Or use low tech, like the rest of the world, and pay attendants who may be otherwise almost unemployable, or dare I say, who actually seem to like the work. (I’m thinking of an attendant in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who got to be known in certain circles for briefly closing the facilities when they weren’t too busy so he could entertain a special friend. But he always kept the place clean and safe.)

Anyway, I’d gladly pay and/or tip the attendant if I could just go when I need to go. Alas, I have reached the age and number of meds that I’m sometimes in such pain and distress I’m about to declare a Medical Emergency, when all I need is a minute at a simple urinal. And I know I am not alone.

Daniel Howard April 5, 2011 - 2:06 pm

If you charge say 50c or a buck, you could probably cover the cost of clean, attended toilets at many stations, and have a person around to keep an eye on the nearby vending machines. You could mark the toilet stations on the map, so if a straphanger really had to go on their way to work, they’d know where they could get off for a little relief!

It beats urinating on the third rail.

John-2 April 5, 2011 - 3:01 pm

Those French-made self-cleaning toilets that got a try-out on the city streets could be used in the locations in the stations where the rest rooms used to be. Single-person/single seat, with 15-minute time limits and some sort of Metrocard/Smartcard form of payment for access and maintenance costs could probably work, while as long as the locations are close enough to the staffed fare entry points and/or security monitors that should cut down on vandalism.

Alon Levy April 5, 2011 - 4:46 pm

I like the idea of having public toilets – seriously, if they have them at Midtown Homeless Shelter Penn Station, they can have them on the subway.

That said, urinals and cameras in bathrooms both strike me as terrible ideas. One for reasons of public health and gender split (no urinals = bathrooms can be unisex = less need for space), and one for reasons of civil liberties.

John-2 April 5, 2011 - 10:42 pm

Well, I was thinking more of security cameras outside the facilities, pointed at the doors to ID anyone who left the loo at a point before any vandalism was discovered. The former restroom spaces in the stations are there; it would just be a matter of fitting the mechanics of the self-cleaning apparatus into the existing space.

tacony palmyra April 5, 2011 - 1:16 pm

Hot towels. Massages. Mani/pedi. Commuting can be stressful. Let’s make it less so.

Definitely agree that lease contracts should include strict requirements for tenants’ cleaning the spaces and even the areas around them.

Peter April 5, 2011 - 5:09 pm

Hank – The stores on the uptown side at 86 & Lex are in the basement of the adjacent building, and while the building is obliged by the terms of an Entrance Agreement with NYCT to maintain their premises, enforcement is spotty at best. Complain to your elected officials or directly to the MTA.

Sufficient space for new Subway restrooms would be practically impossible to find or create in most existing subway stations, especially on the IRT & BMT. Even if space could be made, plumbing and contemporary building codes would make their construction exorbitantly expensive. Safety & maintenance would also be very very difficult. Look at the Men’s Rooms in Penn Station and GCT, which are probably as good as could be expected – they are often chiefly inhabited by homeless people, creating a highly undesirable environment, despite frequent cleaning. In the subway, such issues would be orders of magnitude worse, by far.


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