Volume 79, Number 49 | May 12 - 18, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

A Salute to Union Square

Villager photo by J.B. Nicholas

A trio of bag-laden shoppers leaving the Nordstrom Rack store on Union Square on Tuesday.

New stores, eateries heat up already-sizzling area

By Barbara Thau

The retail renaissance of Union Square continues to unfold. A neighborhood that once conjured up images of a drug-infested park and low-rent, outdated stores has become a major retail destination.

And the recent addition of high-profile entrants such as Nordstrom Rack and Best Buy is further cementing the area’s appeal, which includes a newly restored park and the city’s most iconic Greenmarket.

What’s more, new eateries such as gourmet, Mexican fast-food chain Chipotle, and a T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant on the way, are expected to drum up even more traffic to the neighborhood.

The neighborhood’s commercial revival heated up in 2005 with the addition of upscale grocery chain Whole Foods Market. Trader Joe’s followed the next year. At the same time, Filene’s Basement, DSW Designer Shoe Warehouse and Forever 21 set up shop on the square, putting the neighborhood firmly on the radars of foodies and fashionistas; those stores sit on a block that defunct discount chain Bradlees occupied in the 1990s.

As a result, Union Square has taken off as a major commercial corridor.
But the proof is in the numbers.

Between 2003 and 2008, pedestrian traffic in the area “surged” 59 percent, according to Jennifer Falk, executive director of The Union Square Partnership business improvement district.

And 35.5 million subway riders now pass through Union Square’s turnstiles in a year, up 42 percent from 2000.

Daily pedestrian volume on the square is 120,000 people on a non-Greenmarket weekday, and averages 200,000 on a summer Saturday, she said.

And that number could further swell, as the north end of the park has just wrapped up a $20 million makeover.

Roughly 90,000 residents live in the area, which is also trafficked by tourists and office workers.

All things considered, Union Square has proven to be somewhat recession proof.

Although empty storefronts pepper the city, the vacancy rate in Union Square is low, hovering around 2.7 percent, way below the Manhattan average, Falk said.

Indeed, more than 40 new businesses have opened up in and around Union Square within the past year.

Nordstrom Rack, the off-price, spin-off chain of tony department store Nordstrom, made its New York City debut this month, opening Tues., May 11, with a new 32,000-square-foot store on the spot of the former Virgin Megastore.

High-end clothing and accessories from designers such as Chloe, Marc by Marc Jacobs, Dolce & Gabbana and Prada dangle neatly on fixtures in a clutter-free environment atypical of an off-price chain, at 50 to 60 percent discounts, said Nordstrom executives at a press preview of the new store.

In a nod to the demographic mix of the neighborhood, the store opted to exclude kids’ apparel and accessories, as well as plus-size and petite clothing.

Taking a page from the Whole Foods Market next door, the Nordstrom Rack Union Square store features the chain’s first automated, electronic queuing system and an expanded passel of cash registers designed to expedite the checkout process for New Yorkers who don’t like to wait, said Geevy Thomas, president of Nordstrom Rack, during the store tour.

Like Nordstrom Rack, Best Buy, which opened in November in the former Circuit City location, was lured by the “sheer volume” and diversity of people in the area, according to a spokesperson.

“The location — you can’t beat it,” said Sy Paulson, customer solutions manager at the Union Square store.

And Best Buy was on a mission to tailor the 45,000-square-foot Union Square store — one of its biggest locations — to the area.

In a bid to serve the students in the neighborhood, New Yorkers with untraditional work hours and the nightlife crowd, the store is the only one in the Best Buy chain open 24 hours most days. It opens on Mondays at 10 a.m. and doesn’t close until Saturday at 10 p.m. (Sundays the store is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.)

Since, as Paulson notes, “New York City is very music driven and there are a lot of aspiring musicians out there,” the store hosts Live@BestBuy, where local artists can play and get free exposure on the store’s professional stage.

The Union Square store is also one of a handful of Best Buy units that also carries a full selection of musical instruments.

And reflecting the diversity of the customer base and an effort to fill the void that the Virgin Megastore left, the Best Buy outlet offers an expanded mix of Latin CD’s, as well as DVD’s of independent and foreign films, Paulson said.

Union Square has also become a destination for stores that cater to athletes: from yoga buffs to runners.

In addition to longtime neighborhood institution Paragon Sports, yoga retailer lululemon athletica opened a store last year in the area, which also includes Jack Rabbit and a Footlocker store that was just converted into a RUN by Footlocker, a spin-off concept that specializes in running technologies.

New gastronomical venues — from Brother Jimmy’s BBQ restaurant to West Coast Dos Toros Taqueria and upscale mini-cupcake emporium Baked by Melissa — have also landed on the square.

And in the next few months, T.G.I. Friday’s will open at 34 Union Square East.

“Historically, the perception has been that there has been less pedestrian traffic on the east side of the park than the west side of the park,” Falk said. The T.G.I. Friday’s restaurant will change that, according to the BID director, and attract “more business to those businesses on the east side of the square.”

“With the vibrant mix of commercial and residential, this is a real 24/7 community,” Falk said.

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