Safety Cited as Factor In Westfield's Plan to Pull Out of Fulton Center

Private security as well as NYPD transit officers are a visible presence in the Fulton Center. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 22, 2024

Citing safety and security concerns among other reasons, Westfield Corp. says it intends to pull out of its lease as retail operator of the Fulton Center at Broadway and Fulton Street. The move could potentially leave the sprawling transit complex, owned by the New York City Transit Authority, an MTA affiliate, with some 65,000 square feet of vacant commercial space.

The authority is going to court to block the move.

In a complaint filed on Feb. 14 in Manhattan federal court, first reported by Bloomberg, the NYCTA is seeking an order to prevent Westfield from breaking its 20-year lease, which has about 10 years remaining.

The authority said it would face “irreparable injury if Westfield abandons the Fulton Center in derogation of its lease obligations by advancing its own self-serving business interests over the interests of NYCTA, retail establishments in the Fulton Center, and members of the public.” 

Two days before the filing, Hyura Choi, a Westfield lawyer, had told the authority in a letter that due to the loss of tenants, and desire of others to leave, the “current situation is financially unsustainable” and “not rectifiable.”

“For years, Westfield has repeatedly notified the MTA about the unsafe conditions and the very slow and difficult permitting process at Fulton Center,” he wrote. “Such conditions coupled with the unprecedented global pandemic and macro political and economic environment continue to directly impact the significant financial and operational difficulties Westfield faces.”

The letter, its details reported here for the first time, cited Wetzles Pretzels, Pressed Juicery, Matto, and Häagen-Dazs among those that have closed at the Fulton Center “after reporting multiple incidents of break-ins, theft and vandalism, assault and harassment.”

Of 17 businesses listed on the center’s store directory, the Trib found that five had closed, with one, a coffee shop, replaced by another. 

In its complaint, the authority did not mention Westfield’s safety concerns, but said that the company “has not identified—and cannot identify—any Lease provision that would allow Westfield to prematurely terminate its Lease obligations.”

Some store employees interviewed by the Trib at the Fulton Center said they had experienced minor theft but nothing more serious. Still, working there could be unnerving at times, said Nia Moore, who started at Birch Coffee three weeks ago. 

“I’ve seen people lingering, watching me as I set up, which makes me a little shaky because I am by myself for the first 15 minutes of the day,” Moore said of her 6 a.m. start at the store. One man, she recalled, would come in daily to squirt honey on his hands and rub them as though it was hand sanitizer. The previous day, she said, “a lady came in here because a guy was following her and cursing her out. She was just a regular person trying to get to her train.” 

Luka Bluashvili, who emigrated from the Republic of Georgia a year ago and co-owns Freedom Wine Cellar with a friend, called the center “a safe place. Just the homeless. They don’t bother anyone.”

Occasionally someone has taken one of the miniature bottles of liquor near the door, he said, “but nothing like big things.” Besides, he said, “You know how many police guys are here? Yesterday I saw like eight.”

Indeed, on a recent visit to the center, NYPD transit officers and MTA police had a presence inside and just outside the Fulton Center, plus private security patrolled the area. One transit officer, standing with two others overlooking the level below, said there’s been crime in the subways but “not a big problem” in the retail areas. 

“There’s a lot of people loitering around,” the officer said. “But it’s a public space. There’s nothing you can do.” 

Along with the Fulton Center, Westfield also holds the master lease on retail at the World Trade Center Oculus across the street. The Commercial Observer reported in April 2022 that the Paris-based parent company, Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield, announced its intentions to sell off the mall in the Oculus as well as Westfield Century City in Los Angeles as part of a plan to focus on the European market. Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield manages 72 malls in 12 countries. 

Westfield did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit or its future plans at the Oculus.

Following years of delays and huge cost overruns, the $1.4 billion Fulton Center, a transit hub that connects to nine subway lines and the PATH train, opened in November 2014 as one of the major revitalization projects for Lower Manhattan after 9/11. Despite its grand debut that year, the center never became a popular retail destination, and was only made worse by the post-pandemic impact on local foot traffic.

Business at Birch Coffee has been improving “but I can’t say the same for the other places,” said Nia Moore as she looked out from behind the counter at the Fulton Center’s impressive, dome-topped atrium. “You can see that there’s not that much business happening,” she said. “People just automatically want to go downstairs to their train.”