PROGRESS REPORT: Union Square: Tech Hub, hospital, new shops


BY JENNIFER FALK | Union Square-14th St. is a destination like none other in New York City or anywhere in the world. Here the city’s most vibrant and historic site of activism and protest sits shoulder to shoulder alongside one of its most peaceful public refuges. The Union Square Partnership (USP) is proud to serve as the organization that advocates for, beautifies and catalyzes change in ways that make this great neighborhood a true success story.

Jennifer Falk, executive director of the Union Square Partnership. (Courtesy Union Square Partnership)

Here in Union Square, significant development projects are well underway that together represent investments valued at more than $450 million. These projects will bring hundreds of jobs, leading-edge tech, expanded healthcare services, and distinctive mixed-use commercial and residential developments to our ever-evolving community.

With all this activity, USP always sets our sights on the district’s future. We’re working with community stakeholders and design experts to examine ways to meet the area’s evolving needs in the short term, while making smart capital investments to positively transform our community for decades to come.

To map out a plan, we have engaged Marvel Architects — a noted architecture and design firm based in New York and San Juan, Puerto Rico — and immersed ourselves in a unique visioning process. This initiative has included unprecedented engagement with 1,000 Union Square residents, businesspeople, local politicians, visitors and others at more than a dozen outreach events and two large-scale community forums.

Community members shared their desire for more outdoor seating, additional healthy eateries, and new amenities that would activate underutilized spaces throughout the district. Stay tuned for news about the results of this effort later this year, when we will present a final report that spells out the community’s core vision for the future — and the steps we’ll need to take to realize it.

Very much in the present, one of the district’s most anticipated projects is a world-class tech-training center at 124 E. 14th St., at Irving Place. This exciting new asset is well on its way to being realized, with demolition of the former on-site building almost complete. The new 22-story structure will house a large-scale digital training facility run by the nonprofit Civic Hall. It will offer a full slate of community events and workshops, and lease flexible-term office space designed to meet the changing needs of early-stage tech startups. With the vigorous backing of City Hall, this $250-million, public-private project promises to add 600 good-paying jobs to New York’s innovation economy.

Union Square Park, the beating heart at the center of our district, is all about bringing people together. We’re particularly excited about work focused on sustainability this past year. We conducted our first-ever waste-characterization study in partnership with Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Sustainability Management program. USP also hosted our inaugural “Getting to Zero Waste” forum to help local small businesses and organizations reduce waste and improve recycling. We also issued a “Zero Waste Resource Guide” for businesses — and we recruited five area businesses to undergo waste audits. We’ll be presenting the results of those audits at our follow-up event, called “Waste Warrior Training,” later this year.

Union Square Park has been abuzz over the past year with more than 200 high-profile community events — a record-setting number — that together drew many thousands of participants. This spring, our “It’s My Park! Day” celebration on Sat., June 1, kicked off our summer programming and highlighted ways to reduce waste, eat local, appreciate nature and live sustainably.

“Citi Summer in the Square” — which began June 13 and runs through Aug. 8 — includes more than 135 free events with 30 community partners, including heart-pumping cardio classes from some of the neighborhood’s hottest instructors, and tai chi led by instructors from the 14th Street Y, to lunchtime jazz and dance performances. We hope you’ll join us on Aug. 8 for summer’s grand finale — a spectacular movie night on the North Plaza, and then on Thurs., Sept. 19, for our fall fundraiser, Harvest in the Square, which funds our beautification work and community programming throughout the year.

One of USP’s many functions is to drive foot traffic and interest to the area by creating and highlighting Union Square’s unique attributes and sense of place. This work pays off in many critical ways, including showcasing the area’s thriving retail scene — a flourishing sector boasting a 6.5 percent storefront vacancy rate as of the beginning of the third quarter of 2019, one of the city’s lowest. Our incredible transportation options, the tireless work of our Clean Team, the unmatched amenity of the park, and the sheer number of visitors — nearly 344,000 a day on a busy summer Friday — all helped attract more than 40 new businesses last year.

Among the newcomers are several chocolate and treats purveyors providing yet another reason to visit our area. They include Blue Stripes Cacao Shop, Venchi and the Nutella Cafe, the brand’s first stand-alone restaurant in New York City. Milk Bar, the nostalgic dessert chain, opened inside CAMP, a new experiential store with a summer camp theme that offers many free and paid family-friendly activities. CAMP is one of several new concepts that are thinking about the retail experience in fresh new ways — and infusing life back into previously vacant spaces. Another great example is the tech startup Spacious, a co-working company that took occupancy at 34 Union Square East, while brokers continue to market the space for sale.

Our area is also a place where more and more New Yorkers want to live. Two large-scale residential and retail projects that will together bring close to 100 more residences to the district are transforming the intersection of 14th St. and Sixth Ave. At the northeast corner, DNA Development and Landsea are leading a 63,400-square-foot project slated to include 50 residential units, along with retail space. Directly across the street at 101 W. 14th St., developer Gemini Rosemont has started work on a 13-floor, 45-unit condo project, with plans to include 21 duplexes. Featuring a facade of glass boxes, the mixed-use project was designed by ODA New York.

Amid all this activity, on the district’s east side, our healthcare hub is growing. On Second Ave. at 14th St., adjacent to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, Mount Sinai Downtown is set to build a 70-bed mini-hospital that will feature a state-of-the-art emergency room.

Working strategically — and often in tandem — with a long list of neighborhood partners, the USP team raised more than $1.5 million in 2018. This funding, along with our assessment of $2.6 million, supports our “clean and safe” programs, as well as our beautification and capital work.

It’s our honor and pleasure to serve this vibrant, dynamic community. With its amazing history, location, character and amenities, Union Square is one of New York’s most sought-after neighborhoods.

We want you to be a part of this remarkable district’s continued success and growth. Please reach out to us at any time via e-mail or through our social media channels @UnionSquareNY. The USP team and I Iook forward to welcoming you to the Square.

Falk is executive director, Union Square Partnership.