MTA Struggles to Fill Retail Space in Transit System

Only 60 of 190 retail spaces in subway are operating, agency ramps up marketing.

Luxury brands may be tripping over each other in their rush to buy up pricey Fifth Avenue retail venues, but a retail recovery has yet to materialize in some of the most heavily traveled places in New York City’s ailing transit system.

There are 190 retail spaces in NYC’s subway system, but just 60 of them are currently operating. At the Turnstile Underground Market inside the 59th Street-Columbus Circle station, the seventh-busiest station, only six of the 40 shops and kiosks are open, according to a report in The City.

Shops inside the Long Island Rail Road hub at Grand Central are likely to remain vacant until 2025, the report said. While 72 of the 92 retail spaces inside the historic terminal are filled, the new Grand Central Madison terminal underground has a 25K retail corridor that remains empty, except for a few coffee carts.

The problem isn’t limited to retail outlets at busy underground rail transit points: The Staten Island Ferry’s Whitehall and St. George terminals, with 20 retail spaces that were filled to capacity before the pandemic, is looking for four new tenants.

Last year, revenue from retail in the subway shrank to less than $3M, down from nearly $10M prior to the pandemic. Across the entire transportation system, the MTA reaped $50M from retail space last year, down from $72M in 2019 but much better than the nadir of about $36M in 2022, according to a report in Crain’s.

But as subway, rail and ferry ridership slowly ticks up, Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials told the city they’re optimistic that 2024 will produce a retail recovery at transportation hubs.

Weekday subway and commuter rail usage is now about 80% of pre-pandemic levels, according to MTA data. While the Staten Island Ferry’s ridership hit nearly 16M last year, that is still about 7M people less than the 2019 total.

The Port Authority Bus Terminal which has about two dozen retailers, is seeing about 98K people come through the terminal on weekdays, down from 125K before the pandemic.

An MTA spokesperson told The City that 17 subway retail outlets not currently operating have tenants with plans under review or construction. The remaining 113 subway retail spaces will be marketed over the next nine to 12 months.

As it tries to attract more retailers, the MTA began soliciting ideas to fill the emptiness by offering rent-free space to artists and non-profit groups.