L Train Shutdown: The Captive Audience Opportunity in 20 Minutes of Inconvenience

Early this year the news surfaced that the MTA needed to do major repairs on the catastrophic damage the 2012 superstorm Sandy wrought on the Canarsie Tubes that run beneath the East River. On Monday, they announced that they would be shutting down the tube completely for 18 months, with no L train subway cars entering Brooklyn from Manhattan.

It’s the kind of news that strikes fear into every New Yorker’s heart: After all, the L train was the catalyst for the rise of Williamsburg, East Williamsburg and Bushwick. But a Brexit of Brooklyn it’s not, despite what some alarmed community members might have us believe. It’s a temporary problem, that–with some effort put into planning alternatives and some creativity on the part of all affected–will, at the end of the day, be a bearable inconvenience.

And with the adversity comes opportunity for both the short and long term. Below, I’ve outlined the challenges and potential solutions, as well as opportunities for investors.

The Commuting Problem – The biggest problem to solve of course, is the daily commute bottleneck. According to MTA data, L ridership has tripled since 1990. Currently, over 225,000 riders travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan daily. So, yeah, that’s going to suck, but there are several viable alternatives, including:

Nothin but a G Thang. Snoop and Dr. Dre called it. While I don’t think I ever would have thought the G train would save the day, it’s the superhero in this scenario. If the MTA sticks with its promise to increase service–and it would have to add a whole lot of trains–it will minimize the impact for most commuters to a 15 minute inconvenience by zipping up to Long Island City and taking the 7 train across (or heading south for the A, C or F).

OPPORTUNITY: Better service to Greenpoint, Bed Stuy and Clinton Hill means an increase in investment activity in those neighborhoods.

The JMZ.  Yet another hip-hop legend backs this one up, as many of the neighborhoods serviced by the L are pretty close to the J, Z and M stops too–a little bit more walking to be sure, but if transfers turn you off, it’s a pretty solid alternative.

OPPORTUNITY: Neighborhoods off the JMZ have seen a lot of increased activity over the past few years. Landlords of residential and retail off the JMZ should be pretty happy about the increased traffic, helping solidify those neighborhoods.

Advice to landlords, give in a bit & get creative: Are tenants going to try to renegotiate their leases? Of course they are. Should you give them some concessions? Of course you should.  Maybe even chip in for a shuttle with the lovely folks over at Douglaston who have offered to have staff at the 41-story 1N4TH in North Williamsburg drive tenants from the building’s front entrance to the subways once the repair efforts begin…or have venture capitalists subsidize part of the ride and strike a deal with @Uber for a discount for tenants.

Retail will need to do more to compete and stay awesome

Plenty has been said about retail’s potential woes from the upcoming shutdown (actually, about the slowdown in retail in general):

The theory is that since it will be more difficult for people to get to the L train neighborhoods, the retail in those neighborhoods will suffer. But let’s break this down:

  1. Local retail. Drug stores, dry cleaners, banks, bodegas and other retail serving the local community should not be affected.
  2. Restaurants, bars and nightlife. Well, this depends; if you fall into the local retail category–i.e. mostly servicing the neighborhood, there’s not much need to worry. If your clientele is all bridge and tunnel, I think that during the 18 months of repair, you’ll see a slowdown from the absence of those who simply don’t want to be inconvenienced at all. But I really don’t believe that this is an overwhelming majority of people. If New Yorkers want to go somewhere, we’ll figure out a way to get there.

Brooklyn’s hottest destinations first drew crowds for reasons other than convenience. And they–not the existence of the subway–put the borough’s neighborhoods on the map. Techno DJ lovers’ nightclub Output, for example, fills its dancefloor from the tri-state area and beyond; the multiple offerings of Brooklyn Bowl simply don’t exist anywhere else (least of all Manhattan); the bars and restaurants of Red Hook (including Hometown Bar-B-Que, considered by many to be the city’s best BBQ spot) obviously aren’t packed each weekend due to transit convenience. In the bigger picture, though it’s no secret that development spread like wildfire around the L train, nearby subway service to Manhattan was clearly not necessary for a neighborhood like Greenpoint to prosper.

The Captive Audience – And there’s the opportunity that nobody is talking about. Anyone who has moved to an L train neighborhood, myself included (I live in North Williamsburg), loves the convenience of getting to Manhattan, but there are just as many great reasons to stay local–the reasons that brought us here in the first place. I believe that most folks will easily find ways to stay in Brooklyn to shop, dine, drink, and most other things they might head across the river for.

There is plenty for folks who live along the L to experience, and get to know their neighborhood.  My prediction is that people will just stay local more.  Where we already see more people living and working in Brooklyn along the L train, we’ll start seeing the office folks staying along the L for lunch more often, residents along the L from the Myrtle-Wyckoff stop to Bedford will stay along the L – perhaps leading to even more business than before from the captive L train crowd.

Point is, there is a silver lining – there are positive ways that we can’t entirely predict yet that the Canarsie shutdown will affect us.  Investors that can think outside the box on this one and take advantage of the different and new traffic patterns that are going to emerge will do very well.

Conclusion – With some solid planning, hard work and creativity, we’ll be OK and even stronger. The MTA says they have complete confidence in the timeline they’ve provided–they even hope to exceed the predicted time estimate. They’re putting real solutions in place, deploying buses, expanding service on other lines, and maybe even working with the ferry for increased service.  They have to use every tool in their arsenal to ensure that the impact is minimized.

Landlords, tenants, shopkeepers and the rest of us – we should study what’s happening closely to not just minimize the impact, but spot the opportunities that are lining this change and seize them.