A Very Fine Shopping Experience

Susan Fine (Photograph by Michael Nagle)

Susan Fine (Photograph by Michael Nagle)

Developer and project manager Susan Fine has left her signature mark on some of New York City’s most high-profile landmarks, from the development and redevelopment of mixed-use space at the World Financial Center in Battery Park City to Rockefeller Center and the Gateway Center. More than 20 years ago, as director of real estate for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, she conceived and implemented the entire $250 million redevelopment of Grand Central Terminal, handling the financials and behind-the-scenes negotiations and restoring the historic landmark to its current form. The lessons learned there will serve as a blueprint for her latest project, developing the concourse of the 59th Street-Columbus Circle subway station. The MTA last November selected Ms. Fine and Columbus Development LLC to transform the station into a high-end retail destination. 

Currently under the working name Shop//Stop, the venue will feature 30 retailers ranging from food and beverage to apparel, set across a 27,000-square-foot boulevard-style retail concourse that will feature a market, an array of shops and dining options meant to appeal to New Yorkers of all walks, and a set of central, turnstile kiosks influenced by shopping destinations across the globe. Food, drink, coffee and yogurt will mix with high-end clothing, technology and gift shops. While Ms. Fine isn’t ready to drop names just yet, she told The Commercial Observer on Friday that the final product, slated for 2015, will be anything but typical. 

What’s the goal of this project? 

We believe that we can create an extraordinary urban market that will make the people who ride on trains and transit want to shop and hang out. Drawing from our rents, we will be able to finance improvements that change the way people look at underground retail, here and across the city. 

What’s the layout and look of the space? 

We’re going to put 30 stores in, and we’ll have several areas that change a lot, because retail, by its nature, is theatrical. We can hopefully create a property that we can take other places, because the size and shape of stores has changed. When I was a kid, you went to a department store—that’s not how people shop anymore. 

It’s really like a boulevard, but we have varied the depths of the stores so it’s not monotonous and boring. We are going to have a market. Jim Rouse said when he was trying to get Quincy Market approved in Boston that the one place where everyone can meet is at markets. I really do believe that the essence of Grand Central was something about the heart of New York, and I’m hoping to get that feel and tap into this sort of west side free-think, where there’s going to be a great deal of retail development in the future.

What other types of retailers can people expect? 

We’ll have great coffee and juice and chili and all of that, but the retailers will not be what you would typically see. We want to step it up a notch. We started with a list of literally 500 retailers, and at this point we’re curating. We’re lucky, because we have such a cool design and such a limited resource that the project has been met with a very positive response from the marketplace. 

There are a lot of different demographics we’re catering to, from the very affluent population above ground at Time Warner Center to the kid coming home from school on the subway, and we need to be able to serve all of the different populations. We try to hit a price point that’s both affordable to people but also has a little bit of pizzazz and is creative. 

There will also be the types of things you’d expect to find there, because you’re servicing a customer, and a customer needs a newsstand, and a customer needs a place to buy a USB adapter, and a customer needs a place to buy something if they forget their spouse’s anniversary gift. There will be all of those elements as well. 

Susan Fine (Photograph by Michael Nagle)

Susan Fine (Photograph by Michael Nagle)

And you will also have a series of centralized vending kiosks?

That’s the fun stuff. The kiosks will be in the middle and should change seasonally. They should also change if there’s a great new organic makeup, or if a Web-based company wants to try retail. Those are the types of things that create excitement and give you a reason to come back. But we aren’t focused on that just yet. We’re focused on getting our anchor tenants and getting going. 

But the kiosk system will be designed so that it can be installed in other locations. Our goal really is to create a prototype for transit-oriented retail that can be applied across a host of different transportation centers by using modular elements. There will be something that will be turnstile—for example, a vending machine concept that sells cupcakes like they do in the Seoul subway. The United States has not figured out how to use its underground real estate as well as other countries have, and we’re looking at all of those ideas and having a lot of fun with them right now. 

Which of your past projects will most influence you here? 

Grand Central. What’s really fun for me is I was pregnant with my second child when I was a [Governor Mario] Cuomo appointee, and I was asked to figure out how to get Grand Central done, and now here I am in the second phase of my life, and that kid is going to turn 21. 

But a lot of the lessons I learned at Grand Central, which I learned from very talented people, I’m able to apply here. I understand that having porous storefronts and being able to touch the merchandise makes a great deal of difference. I understand what retail mix the 21 million people who go to this station every year want. 

The success of the Grand Central Terminal redevelopment was based on the combination of best-in-class local and national retailers. We want to make Columbus Circle station an energetic retail destination for subway riders and local residents. 

What are the advantages and disadvantages of taking on a project like this and being responsible for all of the leasing?   

I think that what the MTA and [MTA Director of Real Estate] Jeff Rosen did was very smart. They basically challenged the private sector to invest, which I don’t know that anyone ever did before. I think that my team understands the value of the captive audience in the subway. If we can add the kind of energy that exists in other urban areas across the world, then we will have done a great job. Look at a place like Tokyo or Seoul. You can buy the craziest things in the Tokyo subway. They have vending machines for sushi. People in the public sector are not necessarily looking to do the same things as the private sector. Our team understands what the public requirements are, and that kind of understanding among our team members will go a long way in getting this done. 

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