Midtown Underground Market Makes Changes to Attract Subway Riders



Turnstyle Underground Market at Columbus Circle subway station. Photo by Lai Jiang

As New York City regains the vitality it lost while battling the pandemic, its transportation system is still facing a harsh reality.

According to data published by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, subway usage in Midtown is 66% of what it was in 2019 before COVID-19 struck. Although current ridership is up compared to what it was when the city shut down in March 2020, foot traffic is still lower than what nearby retail stores had hoped for by this time. Now one subterranean food market, Turnstyle Market at the Columbus Circle 59th Street subway station, is applying different strategies to keep its underground businesses open amid the sluggish recovery. 

“I don’t remember how many stores went out of business during the pandemic,” said Susan Fine, who founded Turnstyle in 2016. 

Fine, who was responsible for the creation of a retail marketplace at Grand Central Terminal, said she knew Columbus Circle, where people can enter the subway station from seven different ground-level entries accessing six train lines, would be a great location for small businesses.

But since reopening in August 2020 after a months-long shutdown, Turnstyle still hasn’t bounced back, said Fine.

“Everything slowed down when we first came back here. It was like a ghost town,” said Ed Noren, a worker at Kit’s Underground Wines & Spirits at Turnstyle. “We thought it would turn out better, but it didn’t.” 

Noren, who started working at Turnstyle before the pandemic, said he’s seen a few businesses move out since the reopening, like Russian Dumplings, which closed in September.

His store has noticed changes too. Before the pandemic, Kit’s main customers were office workers who usually came in on Friday evenings to buy alcohol at the end of the work week, said Noren. 

“Schools are back, but they aren’t,” he said, about office employees. “A large number of them are still working from home. Previously, every Monday was the day with the fewest orders, but now every day is like Monday.” 

According to an MTA survey published over the summer, about half of subway riders said they use public transit less frequently because they mostly work from home.

Now Kit’s Underground has shifted the focus of its operations to online and local delivery services to accommodate remote workers, said Noren.

Fine agrees with the strategy. 

“Merchants are making deliveries and that’s adding to their sales numbers, since fewer people are physically present,” she said.

And Turnstyle itself has made adjustments too. Because of decreased foot traffic, it changed from being a half-food and half-retail market into a majority food court, said Fine. “We have established brands. People love Lisa’s Dumplings. They wait in line.”

More food establishments are set to open next quarter to cater to busy commuters, including Lisa’s Noodles, China Tasty House and Pop’s Pizza, but Turnstyle is also targeting student passengers of all ages as a strategy to increase business, said Fine. 

There are several schools around Columbus Circle, such as the Speyer Legacy School, the High School for Environmental Studies and the New York Institute of Technology. And the addition of a K-pop store in 2021 has attracted younger customers, said Fine.“Those high school kids, when they get out of school, will stop there for a cup of Panda bubble tea and trendy albums and magazines.”

Leasing flexibility is another strategy to revitalize Turnstyle, said Fine. Beginning in May 2021, the subterranean market introduced short-term rental contracts—with a minimum two-month lease— starting at $1,500 per month, attracting a number of small business owners.

“We are doing something that we thought we were never going to do before, and we did it as a short-term trial,” said Michael Clarkston, a manager and co-founder of Broadway Makers Market, a theater-specialty store in Turnstyle.

Last fall, Clarkston and his business partners expanded their online retail store and opened a pop-up location in the underground market. 

“It was supposed to be a Halloween type of thing, and we didn’t expect to stay here for so long,” he said. “But we had such a great response that we were still here, and kept going and going.”

The pop-up store sells Broadway-themed merchandise made by fans and artisans, including hats, masks, hoodies, jewelry and nail decor, said Clarkston.

Fine said that Turnstyle will promote holiday-themed stores for Thanksgiving and Christmas to attract more customers and is confident about the changes the underground market is making. “I believe in what we are doing.”