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The Market Line at Essex Crossing: Developers Envision the World’s Next Great Public Market

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There is a burst of publicity each time the developers of Essex Crossing announce a major new commercial tenant. A 14-screen theater from Regal Cinemas, a 17,000 sq. ft. bowling alley/entertainment venue called Splitsville Lanes and a low-cost Planet Fitness gym will all play major roles in shaping the large mixed-use project. But there’s another feature of Essex Crossing that has barely been discussed. It’s the Market Line, a 700 foot-long public market envisioned as the centerpiece of the entire 6 acre development.

As the pace of construction picks up on the sites in the former Seward Park Urban Renewal Area, it seems like a good time to take a closer look at plans for the large shopping promenade. Recently, we were briefed on the Market Line vision by Rohan Mehra and Andrew Katz of the Prusik Group. They’re spearheading commercial leasing for Delancey Street Associates, which is led by Taconic Investment Partners, L+M Development Partners and BFC Partners.

Developers bidding on the Seward Park project in 2013 were required to build a new Essex Street Market. It was to be moved from the north to the south side of Delancey Street and expanded. The historic market would be doubled in size to 30,000 sq. ft. As the team started brainstorming their ultimately winning proposal, Mehra explained, they asked a question: “What if we did something bigger?”

Fancy food halls are all the rage in New York City these days. Places like Hudson Eats in Battery Park City and Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen have created lots of buzz. Chelsea Market becomes more popular with each passing year. But New York still lacks a true public market on the scale of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia or Pike Place Market in Seattle. So the developers felt there was an opportunity “We don’t have something like the great public markets you see in Europe,” said Mehra, “a place where all New Yorkers would come to shop, an amazing environment, a destination for the community, a place where they could get everything.”

They concluded that the Lower East Side site had some important advantages, including a central location at the vortex of the city’s hottest neighborhoods, an unrivaled history and a population that’s still one of New York’s most diverse by almost any measurement.

Since the Seward Park project included multiple adjacent sites along Broome Street, there was a unique chance to connect several buildings, creating a grand concourse. The city had already designated Site 2, located at Essex and Broome streets, as the new home for the Essex Street Market. The developers then added sites 3 and 4 to the mix. But there was a dilemma: Norfolk and Suffolk streets needed to stay intact because they’re crucial routes to and from the Williamsburg Bridge. How could a continuous promenade be created? “Ultimately what we came up with,” Mehra said,  “was connecting the sites sub-grade with tunnels under the streets.” And that’s how the Market Line was born.

Together with the Essex Street Market, the space will cover 150,000 sq. ft., making it one of the top five largest public markets in the whole country. There is, of course, more to creating a great, vibrant urban shopping mecca than carving out a big space. It’s got to look and feel authentic to the neighborhood, not like a suburban shopping mall.

“New Yorkers love to shop on the street,” Mehra explained. “We don’t want to see malls. You don’t want to feel like you’re in a basement, and if we’re really doing a public market, how do you bring architecture in that will feel like a grand space?” What their design firm, SHoP Architects, came up with, was a two-level promenade with a 40-foot wall of glass (they call it the light scoop) woven through the Market Line. The first floor is below ground, while the second floor is at street level. So the entire space will be exposed to natural light, as will the Broome Street Gardens, a 9,000 sq. ft. quasi-public indoor space that will float above the market.  On the western end of the promenade, near Essex Street, there will be a 60-foot high, cathedral-like ceiling.

While there will be a lot of food-related businesses, the market will be more than a food hall. The developers are aiming for a diverse retail mix, including clothing boutiques, artisans, galleries and service providers like watch repair and beauty shops. They’re also trying to attract food, art and technology incubators as part of a structured entrepreneurship program.

Delancey Street Associates is not planning on signing any leases with big national retailers for the Market Line. “They are not going to be names you will see anywhere else,” said Mehra. “They will be guys that, if you know them, you know them from other New York City neighborhoods because they’re the best at what they do.”

A main goal of the project is to foster creativity and entrepreneurship on the Lower East Side. The market will be focused on micro-retail. You’ll see a small number of larger operators, including a 3,000 sq. ft. beer hall on the lower level. But spaces in the Market Line will be on average 150-350 sq. ft. Some will be as small as 40 sq. ft. The idea is to create opportunities for startups and other independent businesses by offering them smaller and, therefore, more affordable spaces. “Not every tenant can pay the same,” Mehra explained. “Our rent will be adjusted so we can bring all of those diverse users in. The guys who have high margin businesses (like restaurants) can pay more and the (other) guys… they’ll pay much less.”

The first part of the Market Line (on Site 2) is scheduled for completion in 2018. The developers aren’t expected to break ground on the second phase of construction (including sites 3 and 4) until the year 2017, meaning it will be a long while before the full vision is realized. But three years from now, we’ll start to get a good feel for the project. At that time, the New Essex Street Market is set to open for business along with another 40 or so retailers in the lower level promenade.

To complement the Essex Market, those first shops will be more heavily focused on food than the other sites. Mehra said, “I think it’s going to be an extension of what they (already) have there. We’ll have vendors across all spectrums.” You’ll find, for example, a lower cost butcher as well as one selling organic and specialty meats. Shoppers will still be able to purchase affordable produce, but there will likely be an exotic fruit stand.  “It should be a microcosm of the Lower East Side,” Mehra said, “and it should address the local population. That’s really our focus. We want the locals to be there because that’s what makes it a public market. Otherwise it could be anywhere — It becomes like a shopping mall. It needs to feel like the Lower East Side.”

On paper, the plan sounds great. For people in the community, there’s likely to be at least some skepticism about the ambitious proposal to create a world-class market that feels like an integral part of the neighborhood. Will the design live up to expectations? Will Delancey Street Associates be able to bring together a truly diverse and distinctive collection of vendors? We probably won’t have those answers until the day the Market Line opens.

Given the large-scale of the retail project, you also have to wonder whether it’s sustainable. Right now, local businesses complain about a lack of daytime foot traffic. Restaurants and shops struggle, especially when they are fully dependent on the local community, as opposed to destination customers coming from elsewhere. Essex Crossing includes 250,000 sq. ft. of office space, meaning more daytime activity in the future. One-thousand new apartments as part of the Seward Park development will also help. Even so, creating a huge market dependent on the local community seems like a risky proposition.

Andrew Katz, however, said he’s convinced it’s a winning strategy:

(The Market Line is) big, but it’s not that big. At 150,000 sq. ft., it’s no bigger than your typical Target, and you wouldn’t say a Target can’t work in a town. We’re going to be the market for the locals. You’ll hit the Essex Street Market and you’ll have a price point there. You’ll come to the Market Line and there will be multiple price points. You’ll be able to get whatever you want, whether it’s your meat, your fish, your cheese, your jeans, your hats; you’ll get your watch fixed. You’re going to get a haircut. You want to grab a sandwich. All those things will be in this market. I would argue that it could sustain itself with just the Lower East Side population. When you then (think about) what this will be — that we’re on the (historic) Lower East Side and the world comes to see the Tenement Museum, to walk over the Williamsburg Bridge — then it gets super, super exciting… All of these things make it that much better. But our whole focus is to make it sustainable because it feeds the community. Everything else will handle itself.

One other concern within the community is the current sorry state of the Essex Street Market. As we have been reporting, the vendor association is pushing for a non-profit entity to take over management of the historic facility from the city’s Economic Development Corp. As foot traffic has dwindled in the past couple of years, several vendors have closed and there are ongoing concerns about operations and a lack of marketing muscle. In the new complex, the city might not run it directly but will still oversee the Essex Market — while the Market Line will be overseen by Delancey Street Associates.

The development team intends to work with city officials to make sure the two facilities are seamless to shoppers even though they’ll be separately operated. While the developers have no role in running the current market, Mehra observed that everyone involved is trying to make the best of a less than ideal situation. The 75-year-old building, he noted, has many limitations. But, Mehra added, the new building will solve many of the current problems. “Three years from now,” he said, “you’ll all of a sudden have the best public market in the country, something New York doesn’t have and should have.”

As for the bigger picture, Katz said they’re drawing inspiration from the world’s great markets, including the Boqueria Market in Barcelona and London’s Borough Market. “Our vision has never been to replicate other New York City food markets,” said Katz. “There’s nothing on this scale and that’s exciting. We’re on the Lower East Side. There’s great public transportation, incredible history, a large urban population. There is nothing like what we’re doing.”

Editor’s note: Almost all of the renderings used in this story were created in 2013 when Delancey Street Associates prepared its proposal for the city. The images were simply concept drawings. Architectural firms are now finishing up the actual designs for The Market Line. They expect to unveil them during the first part of next year. 

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