With spring-like weather just around the corner, so is groundbreaking for a large-scale renovation of Union Square Park, one of the city’s best-known outdoor spaces. The biggest capital project thus far undertaken by the Union Square Partnership, the renovation marks another stage in the neighborhood’s revitalization, which has gathered momentum over the past year, says Jennifer Falk, USP’s executive director.

“The Union Square neighborhood is experiencing an extraordinary renaissance and continues to be an in-demand location for national retailers and eateries,” says Falk. “There are prime opportunities available, and we would gladly work with any perspective tenants to introduce them to the district.”

Falk says the $20-million Union Square Park North End Redevelopment Project is the third and final phase of the park’s 20-year renovation, and will create “a spectacular northern gateway to our community.” USP is providing $8 million of the funding for the project, which will triple the size of the playground to 15,300 sf; add new restrooms; rehabilitate the historic Pavilion building with space for Parks Department offices and a seasonal concession; and renovate the public plaza, the site of the park’s renowned Greenmarket held four days per week year-round. Last year, Falk says, USP planted thousands of bulbs and ornamental shrubs to help the park look its best. In terms of safety and cleanliness, it’s a far cry from the 1970s, when, as Falk puts it, “Union Square was known as Needle Park and it was considered unsafe to go there.”

But USP’s efforts on behalf of its community, which encompasses the Union Square area along with 14th Street between First and Sixth avenues, have gone beyond the beautification of a public space. The partnership’s two components—the Union Square Local Development Corp. and the city’s oldest BID, which joined forces in 2003—have sought to make the neighborhood inviting to commercial as well as residential tenants. Last year, Nina Shoes established both showroom space and corporate headquarters at 200 Park Ave. South, which overlooks Union Square at 17th Street. Also moving into the district during 2007 were several restaurants, including Irving Mill, Goodburger, Brick Oven Pizza 33, Maoz, the Blind Pig and Thai Me Up; and banking centers for Chase, Bank of America and Amalgamated Bank. They joined a retailer roster that already includes Barnes & Noble, Armani Exchange, Kenneth Cole, Whole Foods Market, ABC Carpet & Home, Circuit City and the city’s only Trader Joe’s, along with a variety of boutiques.

The influx of new businesses, along with a busy cultural scene and a retail façade improvement program launched by USP last February, have helped boost foot traffic: Falk says it’s up to 7.25 million visitors per week, compared to 6.25 million in 2003. “Thirty million people travel through the Union Square-14th Street subway station each year and the area includes many of the most visible, highly trafficked storefronts anywhere in the city,” Falk says.

Ironically, one of the neighborhood’s pioneering large-scale retail tenants, the 57,600-sf Virgin Megastore at 52 E. 14th St., will be closing up shop next February—a result of changes in the way music is distributed and sold. Published reports say Winick Realty is marketing the two-level space to accommodate as many as three different retailers.

It used to be that while Union Square’s restaurants, shops and cultural events drew out-of-towners and visitors from other parts of Manhattan, luxury residential did not figure prominently in the mix. However, the old Odd Jobs lot on the southwest corner of 14th Street and University Place just opened as 8 Union Square, and Brack Capital is converting the one-time Tiffany & Co. headquarters at 15 Union Square West into a 36-unit condominium.

Falk credits the cooperation of the area’s businesses and residents with helping to ensure USP’s success. The partnership’s board of directors—which includes local business leaders, residents and representatives of not-for-profit groups, universities and hospitals—is co-chaired by Danny Meyer, president of Union Square Hospitality Group, and Eric Seiler, partner at Friedman Kaplan Seiler & Adelman LLP. Jim Gabbe, partner of gabbegroup, is president of the BID. Before coming to USP, Falk served as first deputy press secretary to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and spokeswoman for Daniel L. Doctoroff, formerly the deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding.

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