Home MTA Economics At Columbus Circle, a retail-focused trial run

At Columbus Circle, a retail-focused trial run

by Benjamin Kabak

At some point, when the MTA finally opens the Fulton Street Transit Center and perhaps too when East Side Access comes online, the authority will have a wealth of commercial real estate in high-traffic areas that they want someone else to manage. When the time comes, the authority will try to identify a private entity to take out a master lease for the space and manage it. For now, though, the rehabilitated Columbus Circle with 11,500 unused square feet of retail space will serve as a guinea pig.

The authority announced this week that it has begun the RFP process to find a real estate company willing to sublease 13 spaces in the Columbus Circle space. The winning bidder will oversee the various retailers while also marketing the concourse as a retail destination and keeping the straphanger circulation areas in front of the stores free of trash and other potential hazards. The stores would occupy the concourse that runs underneath 8th Ave. for a few blocks. (Check out some photos right here.)

“It is imperative that the MTA find new ways to reduce expenses and make the most out of its real estate portfolio,” MTA Chairman Joseph J. Lhota said in a statement. “Thinking creatively about our real estate holdings and the way we engage with the private sector has led us to pursue a partnership that we expect will increase MTA revenue and allow us to focus our resources on those parts of the station where they are most needed. We think this public-private partnership will prove to be a useful model that will help us improve the management of retail spaces at larger stations going forward.”

In the release touting this effort, the MTA noted that this would be the first agreement of its kind. A private sector firm would be for subletting individual retail spaces and for maintaining adjoining public areas within the transit system. At Grand Central, the MTA maintains the public concourses. If all goes well, the same model will be exported to Fulton St.

In a way though, it’s easy to view this as a tacit admission from the MTA that retail isn’t a strength. Columbus Circle is the seventh busiest station in the system, and the renovations have been completed for some time now. The retail spots though remain empty, and with each passing day, the MTA isn’t realizing dollars it could use. As long as they draw some interest in the space, they’ll earn some dollars too.

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John June 21, 2012 - 3:49 pm

I have seen advertising at these store windows including some cool digital ads so I think they have been making money on those.

Boris June 21, 2012 - 4:17 pm

In general, the MTA needs to become much more of a real estate developer. With the exception of the Hudson Yards project, the city has yet to start doing any transit-oriented development. This means we fail to use the efficiencies inherent in transit facilities. There isn’t much time left for Bloomberg, but the next mayor should fight for preferential treatment for projects next to transit, the way Bloomberg fights for megadevelopers today.

Peter June 21, 2012 - 6:37 pm

Clearly retail isn’t an MTA strength, but why couldn’t it be? Hire a couple competent executives from the world of commercial real estate and develop and manage these spaces on its own. The MTA has vast real estate holdings that are not being monetized. The agency should reap the full benefits rather than contracting out the management to a private firm. This seems like such an obvious way to improve the long-term bottom line — instead, it’ll probably end up being a repeat of Atlantic Yards and Hudson Yards. Sell off the rights for a fraction of what they’ll end up being worth to a private interest.

R. Graham June 21, 2012 - 7:49 pm

The MTA owns a gluttony of air rights. It’s time to start making some money. Start getting those platform built over many of the train yards throughout the city. You solve two problems. The train storage problem during harsh winters and yard accessibility to vandals. All while making a profit off of the air rights from some developer who wanted to prop an office or condo over a train yard.

Then you eliminate the unsightliness train yards causes most neighborhoods by being that big open gap of space no one wants to see. Private parks also might be a good idea.

al June 21, 2012 - 8:19 pm

The NYCBOT/NYCTA have decked over some of the yards, but they tend to be housing projects. Some of the yards have complications. The LIC yard has tunnels adjacent and underneath.

BoerumHillScott June 21, 2012 - 8:50 pm

I think contracting out retail management out makes perfect sense. That is the model that many airports use: sign a package deal with an company for most or all retail/food operations, and let them decide what brands to bring in and how to run it.


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