Revitalizing 14th Street: An Interview with Union Square Partnership’s Executive Director, Jennifer Falk

JENNIFER REYES

Jennifer Falk, credit: Malcolm Pinckney, courtesy of the Union Square Partnership, reprinted with permission.

March 2020 began a transformative period in how cities, states, and countries could assist, protect, and recover from a pandemic in the modern age. Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) have played a role in recovery efforts for their communities, revitalizing their neighborhoods and catalyzing economic development. BIDs are community-based organizations that work to create vibrant, clean, and safe districts while delivering services and improvements above and beyond those typically provided by the city. Such services can include street cleaning, public safety enhancements, marketing and events, capital improvements, beautification, and business development. BIDs are authorized by local law and primarily funded by a special assessment billed to property owners within a district. NYC is home to 76 BIDs, serving 93,000 businesses and providing services and opportunities to better promote their districts. During the pandemic, many sought refuge from their makeshift home offices to their local parks and open spaces. One BID in particular that fosters a vibrant business district and park space is the 14th Street – Union Square Partnership (USP).

Union Square, credit: Liz Ligon, courtesy of the Union Square Partnership, reprinted with permission..

Established in 1976, the Union Square Partnership comprises over 9,400 businesses, including over 1,800 retailers, and 73,000 residents within a 1/2-mile radius. According to the 2021 Union Square 14th Street District Vision Plan, below ground, more than 32 million visitors pass through the Union Square subway station annually, making it the fourth busiest station in the entire system. Since its designation as a public park in 1835, Union Square Park has been a place where all realms of life converge and has become a significant gathering place in uniting activists, civic leaders, and compassionate community members. As early as 1861, thousands rallied in Union Square to support the Union cause in the Civil War. Most recently, Union Square has been a central meeting place for peaceful protest and demonstration for the Black Lives Matter movement, calling for racial justice, equity, and inclusion for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, as the Union Square 14th Street District Vision Plan highlights. BIDs throughout the boroughs partnered with the city to provide lifelines to NYC businesses and neighborhoods during the oscillating phases of business shutdown and reopening caused by the pandemic, including loan and grant assistance. USP participated in various initiatives such as the “Take Out Tuesday” campaign to encourage people to order takeout from their favorite Union Square-area restaurant once a week, and assisted in coordinating and promoting a series of blood drives in their district during a time of dangerously low blood supply in NYC. In March 2020, GrowNYC’s Union Square Greenmarket remained open as an essential business during the pandemic while operating with added safety rules in place. USP’s Clean Team continued to ensure that the park and public plazas remained safe, by scrubbing and disinfecting high-touch surfaces including benches, trash receptacles, and transit kiosks. After outdoor dining began in June 2020, Union Square’s restaurants innovated to take over sidewalks and parking spots with a slew of safe dining set-ups.

Union Square, credit: Marvel, courtesy of the Union Square Partnership, reprinted with permission.

Efforts to support the Union Square area have now shifted from emergency assistance to a just district recovery. USP has released multiple publications detailing recovery and rebuilding efforts after the height of the pandemic such as their #USQNEXT: USP’s Plan For District Recovery and 2021 USP Commercial Market Report. In January 2021, USP released their long-term Vision Plan for Union Square-14th Street aimed at emphasizing open space, equity, safety, and accessibility. The Vision Plan proposes to increase public open space 33 percent by expanding Union Square Park to the surrounding building edges; implement green, pedestrian-friendly streetscape elements; and address park infrastructures. Today, USP’s top priorities for distinct recovery include: emphasizing core services, boosting local economic growth, expanding hospitality marketing efforts, and planning for the future with projects covered in the Vision Plan. I had the opportunity to speak with Jennifer Falk, Executive Director of Union Square Partnership, to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the district and effective community engagement in recovery efforts.

JR: To visualize, what did the first few weeks of the pandemic look like for the Union Square- 14th Street district? What were the first immediate challenges that needed to be addressed? 

JF: The first few weeks of the pandemic, in a word, were surreal. There was a healthy amount of disbelief that the world was going to have to shut down. Like most organizations, our first few days were focused on making sure that everybody on the Union Square Partnership team was safe and if they had to perform their job duties out in the field, that they had the protections that they needed to do their jobs. Once we had successfully transitioned to remote work, former Governor Cuomo announced that Business Improvement Districts were essential services. This provided the Union Square Partnership with the clarity that it needed to continue to provide our vital services to the Union Square – 14th Street District.

We have 25 men and women who are a part of our operations team, primarily doing cleaning of the district. Most businesses were closed so the Union Square Partnership started with catering lunch for the entire team every day for about six months straight because there was nowhere within the district that they could just buy a sandwich or get a slice of pizza during their workday. We also had to bring in some Portosans because many of the businesses were closed, so there was nowhere to utilize the bathrooms. There were just a lot of crisis management operational things going on. Then there was the emotional piece; we are very close to our member businesses with many of them freaked out about, not only their businesses being closed, but the loss of their livelihoods. 

The big transition came over the summer [of 2020], after the initial impact of the shutdown. As a team, we decided that if this is the way it’s going to be for the foreseeable future, how are we as an organization going to continue to provide a high level of service to the community? From that, we had multiple strategy meetings about creating what ended up being the Union Square Partnership’s District Recovery Plan, USQNEXT. It’s a robust document with several dozen committed action items. We used it as a marketing tool to communicate what we’re doing for our community, during the absence of the ability to do public programming and networking events. We also used it as a tool to hold ourselves accountable. We were always asking ourselves: were we fulfilling the mandates of our Recovery Task Force plan in everything that we were deciding to do? The Recovery Plan has held up well over the last two years and has really been the guiding document that we’ve used to decide how we’re going to get through this crisis. 

JR: That’s extremely vital and segues into my next few questions: How was Union Square Partnership able to support the businesses and residents in the district during the first few months of the pandemic and how involved were other city agencies and community stakeholders during this time? 

JF: Once Business Improvement Districts were designated as an essential service, the city relied heavily on us as an extension of government to get services and support to member businesses. It was everything from making sure that we were communicating to our partners about what resources were available to them and what funding was available to help them bridge the gap in their loss of revenue during the crisis. In some cases, it was at the level of becoming a distribution point; we distributed over 100,000 pieces of PPE in the form of masks during the pandemic. One of the great things that we were able to do was to partner with our local business, Paragon Sports, to have them receive the shipment while we handled taking orders from the other businesses in the community. They were able to help us facilitate giving away those masks, which was a great foot traffic driver for them as a business during a time that otherwise they weren’t seeing a lot of foot traffic come through the store. 

At one point, the city was running out of PPE for medical services. City Hall called and asked where they could possibly find a business that might have disposable rain ponchos because many hospitals were using them as surgical gowns. I was able to connect them to NYU because not many people realize that NYU hosts their graduation at Yankee Stadium every year. In anticipation that there might be rain during the event, they purchased upwards of 30,000 pieces of rain gear that they had stored that year because there was no graduation. NYU was incredibly gracious and immediately stepped up to give the PPE to our medical partners. It might seem like a small anecdote, but it’s really part of knowing our communities on such an intimate level that facilitating these kinds of connections is very easy for us to do and something that we love doing as part of our jobs. 

JR: Amazing. You had alluded to earlier that the essential workers at Union Square Partnership continued to report to work, but I would like to know specifically how their work was impacted throughout the pandemic. Were there things that they had to learn how to do or change within their day-to-day dynamics? 

JF: Our board was incredibly supportive. One of the things that I’m proud of is that even though we reduced hours of service because we weren’t having the levels of foot traffic that we were having pre-pandemic, we did not lay off any of our staff, nor did we not pay them a 40-hour workweek. In addition, making sure that they had access to restroom facilities and that they had a meal every day. I think what most people didn’t anticipate happening, in addition to the impacts of the pandemic, was that in the spring of 2020, New York City, particularly Union Square, was a focal point for the demonstrations that took place in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. For the early few weeks of the pandemic, it didn’t appear as if our essential services, landscaping program, and our sanitation program were as necessary as it had been pre-pandemic, but then those services became very important again, as we were dealing with the impact of the demonstrations and the fact that we had tens of thousands of people coming through the district as part of those events. They performed at an incredibly high level during the entire pandemic and we’re proud of the fact that we were able to continue to service the neighborhood and continue to keep it clean and welcoming during that time. 

JR: You’ve been very specific on the initiatives and programs that the Partnership offered throughout 2020 and into 2021. Are there others you’d like to discuss further that really assisted the neighborhood and the businesses? 

JF: There was a huge void in our programming because we were no longer able to host programming or networking events in person. Our typical programming pre-pandemic included over 150 distinct events over the course of the year. Since all of that disappeared during the pandemic, we strongly wanted to think about what it is that we could be offering our community. First and foremost was our USQNext Recovery Plan which we used as a guide for how we were going to deal with the pandemic. The second thing was that we had been working for several years on a visioning plan for the district. Pre-pandemic, it had been our most robust community outreach effort that we had ever made in the history of the organization. We had over a dozen events and interacted with over a thousand residents in the neighborhood. We had done both in person events and  online surveys. Truth be told, the pandemic provided us with an incredible opportunity (and I hate to say it that way) to spend the time that we needed to get the Vision Plan to the place that we wanted it to get to for release. 

The nice thing about moving online was that it increased our attendance in a way that we had not seen before. It was hard to get people to show up to our community engagement events, but we had an amazing turnout at all our virtual community conversations after the release of our Vision Plan. We had an incredible launch event with the Urban Design Forum in January 2021. We’re very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to keep engagement high during this period. 

The only other new program that we launched during the pandemic was a digital marketing campaign. The Union Square Partnership had never done paid digital advertising prior to the pandemic. 2021 was a different reality and we wanted to be able to communicate to the greater public that Union Square not only is a safe place to visit but that there’s an incredible amount to do here so we launched a digital marketing campaign with the branding of REUNION SQUARE. The idea is that when you are ready to reunite with your friends and loved ones, you should think about doing it in Union Square.

We’ve invested a lot of time and effort to make sure that the campaign was aimed at both New Yorkers and potential visitors who might be interested in driving in for the day. For example, communicating the message that our Greenmarket never shut down during the pandemic and was allowed to remain in operation throughout the pandemic. They have been an incredible partner as well as a driver of foot traffic to the district. As more and more businesses, whether it’s our off-Broadway theaters, movie theaters, or eateries and bars opened, we wanted to communicate the message that Union Square is open for business and the digital marketing campaign has been an incredible asset in getting that word out. 

JR: Shifting gears a bit, community engagement seems to be the root of each project and the Vision Plan. Can you just speak a little bit more on this theme of collaboration for the neighborhood visioning and planning initiatives? Did any of these initiatives align in recovery efforts for the district? In the plan, it states that this was a vision that started before the pandemic so I’m curious to hear more specifically if they ended up aligning with the recovery efforts. 

JF: No one could have predicted what the outcomes of the pandemic were going to be. One of the things that we have been comforted by, as we have gone through the process of releasing a major vision document that is meant to carry the district over the next 30 years, is that many of the themes that we put forth are ultimately reinforced by the impact of the pandemic itself. The report puts forth this idea that we want to increase public space within the district by 33% and extend the greening of Union Square Park to the outer arteries of the district through additional greening along 14th Street, and the major thoroughfares that lead into the square. 

These are themes that were extremely prominent throughout the pandemic. Access to public space outdoors became not only an issue of mental health and accessibility to these spaces, but also an issue of equity. To have an equitable neighborhood, we need to ensure that these places are as vibrant as possible and welcoming to all. Much of that is also being underscored by the work that we’re doing with the consultants at James Lima Planning + Development firm. We’ve been working very heavily with Starr Whitehouse on the Streetscape Master Plan, which includes taking the toolkits of parts that Marvel Architects put forth within the Vision Plan and creating an implementation plan for that piece. Also, our efforts in 2022 will be going toward our elected officials to get funding for one of our five major projects, in the hopes that we can move the project we proposed for as well.

JR: You had mentioned equitable recovery in the district so just to bring everything together, continuing with the projects in the Vision Plan, recovery efforts, and working with partnering firms, what is the overall mission for USP in fostering equitable recovery? 

JF: I would answer that in a couple of ways, ensuring that we bring to the forefront the work that we’re doing with James Lima’s firm and making the case for investment. We’ve spent a lot of time digging down into the numbers to better understand who is benefiting from Union Square, and what we’ve learned from this work is that New Yorkers benefit from both working and visiting Union Square, and the jobs that are created within the Union Square community service a broad spectrum of New Yorkers. With the Vision Plan, we want to continue to make sure that Union Square is the most accessible place from an ADA perspective. By pushing our city and state partners to make more investments in making our transportation system more ADA accessible, we will ensure that any capital projects that we implement will not leave any New Yorkers behind. 

The last piece is we’ve really focused in 2021, on all our public programming, on messages of equity and community. We had an incredible experience this summer implementing our first ever street mural. We worked very closely with the street artists GERALUZ and WERC to create a mural, “Collective Vision,” with the messaging that underscores many of the themes that we had been experiencing during the demonstrations that took place in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd. When we made the decision about what the art would be as part of our street mural effort, we wanted to take the spaces that had been allocated to the community for greater pedestrian use, and we wanted to indicate to the community that these spaces were available to them in a bright and vibrant way through these murals. 

We worked very closely with the team at Confront Art to bring their installation “SEEINJUSTICE.” Hosting this exhibition allowed people to foster an environment where there was an incredible amount of dialogue going on on the South Plaza. People were talking to each other in a deep and meaningful way and sharing not only their own experiences, but people were also listening. My favorite moment was learning that a father, who lives in Virginia, loaded up his family in their car one weekend and he drove up to see the installation. I thought that it was very special that we could create something in Union Square that would inspire people to make the trip to New York during these really tough times. 

We are a small nonprofit organization, but we are mighty in the ambitious agenda that we’ve set out for ourselves during this really difficult time. We’ve been able to achieve an enormous amount for the community. We are seeing in the numbers that our foot traffic is returning. We’ve seen a considerable amount of retail spaces leased in the last year. I don’t think any other district can claim that they’ve had over 60 new ground-floor businesses open in the last 18 to 24 months. Real office leasing has started to return, especially with the announcement of Microsoft taking 150,000 square feet at 122 5th Avenue, as well as the first lease signed at Zero Irving at the intersection of 14th Street and Irving Place. Hopefully, we’ll look back on this period in a couple of years and see that all these efforts have paid off but right now, I’m very confident that Union Square’s future is extremely bright.


Jennifer Reyes is a Queens native and graduate student in the Master of Urban Planning program at Hunter College. She has experience working in the public and non-profit sector developing skills in renewable energy planning, environmental education, and community engagement. She holds a B.A. in Urban Studies from Queens College.

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