Retail taps an underground source

| 26 Apr 2016 | 11:17

Dining’s gone underground. So has shopping for cosmetics, hats and sunglasses.

On a renovated passageway connecting the two subway lines at the 59th Street-Columbus Circle subway station, dozens of businesses, including several sit-down restaurants and, of course, coffee outlets, are vying for commuters’ attention, and their dollars.

TurnStyle, as the 30,000-square-foot commercial corridor was christened, opened last week.

“Most of the times you think of subways as kind of icky and grimy and this is fresh and cool and it’s a community spot. That’s what I’m just digging about it,” said Lisa DeSpain, a composer and musician, after grabbing coffee at one of the bakeries. “It makes me feel less grumpy. I can de-stress from a commute.”

TurnStyle, the brainchild of Susan Fine, who heads the development company OasesRe, cost about $14.5 million, all of which was privately raised by an investment team led by Fine and Goldman Sachs Urban Investment, a TurnStyle spokesman said.

The venture is short on chains; most of TurnStyle’s retailers are independent, city-based small businesses with some cachet. In other words, it’s no longer your great-grandparents’ IND stop, circa 1932, the year the Eighth Avenue subway line opened.

“High-end works because it’s different,” said the spokesman, David Simpson. “It’s New York City, people have a certain expectation that when things are changed, they’re changed for the better.”

Simpson said that for all its distinction, TurnStyle is a utilitarian outpost, however singular, and will attract a distinctly different clientele than that shopping above ground.

“Time Warner Center is a shopping center, people who don’t work during the day will come there for high-end shopping. That’s not the demographic that TurnStyle will cater to. It will be for people going to and from work or people who live in the area and operate as a spot for them to grab a gift for someone or an organic juice,” he said.

Fine, then the MTA’s director of real estate, managed Grand Central’s renovation in the 1990s. She and her company will have operational control is responsible for maintaining the space and its appearance. Simpson said the venture directly created about 250 jobs. Nearly all of the retail space has been leased, he said.

The lease runs for 20 years, plus a 10-year extension at the tenant’s option. In the first year, the MTA will receive 10 percent of TurnStyle’s net operating income and in the second year 10 percent of gross revenue. In year three, the agency will receive an annual base rent of $720,000 that will increase 3 percent annually, as well as 20 percent of gross revenue exceeding a so-called “breakpoint” that starts at $2.77 million and climbs to $3.37 million by the start of the option period.

TurnStyle is drawing aspiring entrepreneurs and small companies, themselves hopeful of attracting some of those who add up to the station’s 23 million annual subway fares — or, since it’s outside the turnstiles, even those who don’t ride the trains.

Jeff Zhang, who owns Spectre & Co., a menswear company, opened his first store at TurnStyle. His space, like many of the other stores, is separated from the pathway by glass windows and a door, giving his shop and some of the other boutiques a stand-alone feel. “We’re really excited about the foot traffic and being in Midtown West,” Zhang said. “People come in during lunch breaks, while coming to work or getting off work and they’re curious. And there’s a good number of tourists too.”

In the middle of the football-field-long corridor, among a line of booths, Greyston Bakery stocks its first retail location with two of its bestselling products: chocolate fudge brownies and brown sugar blondies.

“There’s a constant stream of traffic, it’s clean, it’s open,” said Greyston’s Mindy Srebnik. “I mean, what’s better for a subway station?”

On a recent afternoon, the space is crowded and animated. Lines form at Ellary’s Greens, MeltKraft and other food vendors as people who work above ground venture below for lunch.

Alan Markinson, former house manager at the Helen Hayes Theater, doesn’t like subways but since he lives two blocks from the market, nevertheless came down to visit. Sitting in one of the few seats at fast-food sushi place Yong Kang Street, he considers the redesign and comes away impressed. “It’s bright, it’s airy, it’s better than I thought it would be,” he says. “For New York it’s kind of unusual and I like the fact that it’s rather compact. You can actually get around and see the business everyone’s doing.”