Progress Report: Union Square — 40 years of evolution and growth

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Jennifer Falk is bullish on Union Square.

BY JENNIFER E. FALK | As the Union Square Partnership celebrates its 40th anniversary, our community has a lot to reflect upon. Union Square was a very different place in 1976: New York City was facing decline, and public spaces were no longer considered safe and accessible. That year, a group of community activists known as Sweet 14 joined together to reclaim Union Square Park as a welcoming public space for all.

Fast-forward to today: Union Square is transformed. Our bustling retail scene is as vibrant as ever and continues to grow each year. At 2.5 percent, our commercial market boasts one of the lowest vacancy rates in the city and the area has become a highly sought-after location for the city’s growing population of tech, media, advertising and innovation companies. And our beloved Union Square Park continues to flourish as a world-class urban oasis.

Thanks to the efforts of our founding board members, including Con Edison and The New School, the Partnership has worked for four decades to effect the growth and positive change of our neighborhood. As Manhattan’s oldest business improvement district, or BID, the Union Square Partnership has played a multifaceted role in shaping and elevating the experience of everyone who lives, works and visits Union Square. With so much activity over the last year, and even more on the way, we have much to celebrate this anniversary.

Several notable projects are coming to the district. Last fall, the city’s Economic Development Corporation announced the redevelopment of the P.C. Richard site at 124 E. 14th St., and the agency is currently reviewing proposals for a new tech hub and an extensive ground-floor retail component. We are proud of our advocacy that helped the current tenant, P.C. Richard, extend its lease until construction on the new development begins, so that the site remains active and vibrant.

The iconic Tammany Hall building is also undergoing redevelopment to restore the beauty of this storied landmark and create new opportunities for retail and office space in the district. The property will feature a flagship retail opportunity at one of the square’s most visible corners, at the gateway to Midtown South’s Park Ave. South corridor. As these exciting developments get underway, we look forward to welcoming new neighborhood partners to our community.

Union Square experienced exceptional growth over the last year. With more than 40 retail openings, including Dylan’s Candy Bar and Banana Republic’s new flagship location, our district entered 2016 with one of the city’s strongest retail markets. With such a diverse array of retailers attracting thousands of shoppers to the district each week, it is truly an exciting time for businesses in Union Square.

Our district has remained at the center of the city’s culinary news. Our beloved Greenmarket, which is also celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, continues to draw chefs to our district. In fact, when Danny Meyer sought a new space for Union Square Cafe, he prioritized locations near the Greenmarket in his search. Last fall, we were delighted when he announced that Union Square Cafe would move within the neighborhood to a prime corner space at 235 Park Ave. South, just two blocks from the Greenmarket.

Union Square’s reputation as the city’s epicenter for wellness and fitness has also continued to grow with the arrival of new athletic retailers and studios. Lululemon debuted its 11,500-square-foot flagship last fall, the brand’s largest store to date. At 126 Fifth Ave., Athleta also opened a studio beneath its existing retail, and plans to offer up to five classes a day. High-end fitness apparel retailers, including Bandier, Sweaty Betty and Tory Burch’s Tory Sport, have also opened locations in the district.

To showcase the abundance of athleisure retailers, studios and gyms that have flocked to our district, the Partnership presented our second Annual Union Square Sweat Fest in February. Drawing more than 1,000 participants, we opened the weeklong health and fitness festival with three classes led by well-known celebrity trainers. Throughout the week, participants enjoyed complimentary classes and giveaways thanks to dozens of participating local businesses.

With more than 383,000 pedestrians visiting the square daily and more than 35 million annual commuters, it is clear that Union Square’s popularity continues to rise. Our district’s highly active transit hub made it a top choice for the city’s first beta location for LinkNYC, an initiative to transform the New York’s payphone infrastructure into Wi-Fi kiosks. In January, four new Wi-Fi kiosks were installed along Third Ave. between 15th and 19th Sts., and we are thrilled that Union Square has been at the forefront of this exciting new program.

To keep up with our district’s growing popularity, the Partnership is continuing to invest in the maintenance and beautification of Union Square Park. This year, in addition to our extensive landscaping work in the park, we also are overhauling the median malls along Union Square East and Park Ave. South, adding 80 new trees and a brand-new landscaping design with help from our partners at ORDA Management and the city’s Department of Parks.

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Hot Peas n’ Butter performs at Summer in the Square, a free weekly summer entertainment series presented by the Union Square Partnership. Photo courtesy of the Union Square Partnership

In the midst of all of this activity, we are also expanding our public programming to highlight the strength and diversity of our business community. The success of Sweat Fest is already driving excitement for our Summer in the Square series, returning on June 16 with free live performances, family-friendly activities and fitness classes. Following our first highly successful movie screening series in 2015, we are delighted to announce that the Partnership will once again present feature films as part of our program.

Looking back on the last four decades, it is undeniable that our district has come a long way. The spirit that drove Sweet 14 to improve, beautify and champion this dynamic neighborhood in 1976 is the same spirit that motivates the Partnership BID to continue that work today. We are proud of what we have accomplished together and thank our board members, community supporters, and city and state partners who have worked collaboratively with us to continue to make Union Square a truly unique neighborhood.

We look forward to another 40 years of growth with all of the businesses, residents and visitors that make Union Square a vibrant, welcoming environment.

Falk is executive director, Union Square Partnership business improvement district

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