Union Square: New York’s Gathering Spot For Art, Tech and Real Estate
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When the city of New York mapped out what would become its grid system, it kept its main thoroughfares, Bloomingdale Road and The Bowery Road, intact. Where the two roads crossed would become Union Square, one of New York’s foremost gathering spots.
Union Square has since become a wellspring for innovation in the arts, activism, urban planning and real estate development, said New York Historical Tours co-founder and historian Kevin Draper, who recently gave Bisnow a tour of Union Square with Eastern Consolidated senior managing director and principal Adelaide Polsinelli.
It is home to the city’s first business improvement district and its second farmers market. The area is a major transportation hub and the original home of some of the most iconic retailers in the world, including Tiffany & Co., Macy’s and Lord & Taylor.
When developers and city planners need creative solutions, they head to Union Square for inspiration. Already a mecca for experiential retail and home to many of the city’s academic institutions, Union Square has seen a flurry of new development while an anticipated tech center has set the stage for its future as New York's next tech hub.
Creating ‘A World Class City’ Through Placemaking
Towering above park visitors, a statue of George Washington gestures toward Lower Manhattan. The statue commemorates Evacuation Day, when American troops drove the British out of the city and ended the American Revolution.
Washington’s presence in the square underscores the area’s importance in American history. Union Square is a nationally landmarked park, and it has long been a gathering place for activists, from protesters to labor unions.
The statue also marks one of the city’s first forays into public art, drawing visitors to the park — and to the stores along its borders.
“The one thing New York didn’t have were these statues,” Draper said. “That helps give you some public art and culture, and that made us a world-class city. Only in London and Paris could you see incredible statues like this.”
The addition of statues is one of many ways Union Square has set the standard for improving public life in the city. In the 1970s and 1980s, when New York’s parks were overrun with crime, the city partnered with New York state to bring a farmers market to Union Square. The market was among the first to promote the "Farm to Table" movement, bringing local produce from upstate New York directly to city residents, Draper said.
The increased pedestrian traffic brought more people into the park, leading to its rejuvenation, and boosted shopping activity for the surrounding retail tenants.
“This also led to a boom in the nearby restaurants, because now restaurateurs did not have to go far to buy their produce,” Polsinelli said. “Everything was outside their doors. Owning and running restaurants in the neighborhood became convenient.”
Breakfast At Tiffany’s
Union Square was home to a collection of upscale retailers and marked the start of Ladies’ Mile. At 15 Union Square West, a cast-iron frame is visible behind the building’s glass curtain wall. The property, now a collection of luxury apartment condos, was the third location of Tiffany & Co.
“It was known as the ‘Palace of Jewels,’” Draper said. “It was where Charles Tiffany first decided to move from selling high-end furniture and merchandise to exclusively selling jewelry.”
Tiffany & Co.’s flagship later headed north to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, where it remains today, but other notable retailers would take up residence along the park’s perimeter. Department stores like Mays, Macy’s and Lord & Taylor offered multiple floors of retail. But in the 1980s, when a familiar "retail apocalypse" led to changes in shopping behaviors and multiple store closures, tenants realized the properties were more valuable than the businesses themselves.
“Many long-term tenants were astute enough to purchase the buildings their businesses were in,” Polsinelli said. “In the earlier days when merchants were buying their buildings, they not only owned the business, they also owned the real estate. When the business went under, these owner-occupiers still had viable assets.”
Along the east side of the park, at 34 Union Square East, a former TGI Friday’s offers untapped redevelopment potential. Polsinelli is the exclusive agent for the property, which offers 26K buildable SF on a corner property with unobstructed views of the park. Potential uses include high-end tech offices, luxury residential condos, a corporate HQ or an entertainment or food and beverage venue with a rooftop restaurant overlooking the park, which is currently nonexistent, Polsinelli said.
A Blending Of Old And New
Union Square developers are pioneers in the creative reuse of the historic buildings surrounding the park, Draper said. While many of the properties are landmarked, the designation does not apply to interior spaces. Developers can have the best of both worlds: a historic exterior and a modern, Class-A interior offering the latest in office comfort and digital connectivity.
At Tammany Hall, once the final stronghold of the powerful, eponymous New York political group, only the facade remains. The inside will become three levels of office space, with the ground floor reserved for retail. At the top floor, a glass dome will bring in natural light and offer 360-degree views of Union Square.
Tammany Hall is not the first historic building in Union Square to be redeveloped. Across the street, the former Germania Life Insurance Building has become W New York, an upscale hotel.
Take A Walk On The Wild Side
When Studio 54’s celebrity guests could not be found at the infamous nightclub, they were likely taking in Andy Warhol’s experimental films at his 33 Union Square West studio. A hub for New York’s art scene, the almost-daily “happenings” at the studio inspired the Lou Reed song “Take A Walk On The Wild Side.”
The Factory, what Warhol called the place where he staged his countercultural artworks, was on the sixth floor of what is now known as the Decker Building. The landmarked property, now an assortment of apartments and a Dylan’s Candy Bar on the ground floor, is a nod to Union Square’s artistic past, present and future.
Artists continue to leave their mark on Union Square through public art initiatives like the Art in the Parks program. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program, world-renowned sculptor Dale Chihuly’s 31-foot Rose Crystal Tower will be on display until October.
“Here you have work from a world-famous artist available to the public,” Draper said. “You can come down to Union Square [and] see one of the top glass sculptors in the world.”
Directly across from the tower, Metronome, a controversial art piece, gives harried New Yorkers a chance to reimagine the flow of time.
New York’s Next Tech Hub
Last month, P.C. Richard & Son ended its 20-year lease at 120 East 14th St. Replacing the computer and appliance store will be a $250M, 240K SF tech hub.
Six floors in the facility will be reserved for Civic Hall, a collaboration space for civic-based tech innovation. An additional five floors will be available for flexible office space, eight for larger office space, and the ground floor for retail and market space. Twenty-five percent of the ground-floor retail space will be reserved for first-time entrepreneurs and new local businesses.
The new hub will add to the existing co-working spaces, complementing an influx of tech, advertising, media and information companies into Union Square. Midtown South, which encompasses Union Square, captured more than 50% of Manhattan tech leasing last year.
Major players like Dropbox, Hulu and Mashable have already moved into the area, drawn to the nearby transportation options and broad mix of retail. Facebook recently moved into its 200K SF office at 225 Park Ave. South, the same building as Buzzfeed.
Facebook and Buzzfeed combined bring more than 1,200 employees to Union Square daily.
“Bloomberg had a vision: that New York City would be the next Silicon Valley,” Polsinelli said. “So is Roosevelt Island, so is 14th Street. These are the tech hubs of the world, and we are getting world-class students, workers and scholars to come here. This is the beginning of this area turning an entirely different corner.”
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