June 24, 2009
M.T.A. Sells Naming Rights to Subway Station
By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM
Selling the name of a subway station has been a goal of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for nearly five years. But interest has been low, even for a piece of real estate so recognizable to the public.
So it was with surprisingly little fanfare that the authority announced on Monday that it had finally found a buyer.
If a $4 million deal is approved on Wednesday, the nexus of subway stops at Atlantic Avenue, Pacific Street and Flatbush Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn will add an additional name to its already lengthy title: Barclays.
This may seem odd, since Barclays is a bank based in London with offices in Manhattan, and the only Barclay Street on the city map is not even in Brooklyn. (It’s in Manhattan, in the financial district.)
There will, however, soon be a Barclays Center, the sports arena planned as the focal point of the Atlantic Yards project, and the developer, Forest City Ratner, has agreed to pay the transportation authority $200,000 a year for the next 20 years to rename one of the oldest and busiest stations in the borough.
This raises a few questions. An academic might talk of the intersection between public and private space. A straphanger may ask how all those names can fit into one announcement.
And if a company can pay to get its name on any station, a New Yorker might wonder what’s next: Coca-Cola Presents 59th Street-Columbus Circle?
The answer is maybe. Once upon a time, geographic relevance determined a station’s name, but now, the authority says it is open to any naming agreements that can raise revenue for its transit system, including ones not directly tied to location.
“It’s always a question of balancing our need for revenue and our stewardship of public space,” said Jeremy Soffin, a spokesman for the agency. Advertising may make the most sense for a company associated with a station, he said, “but we’re not closing anything out.”
And the Barclays deal has defenders on the authority’s governing board.
“It’s not like Taco Bell saying it wants Grand Army Plaza or something like that,” said John H. Banks III, a board member since 2004.
Would Mr. Banks oppose that idea?
“A year and a half ago? Yeah,” he said. “Tomorrow? No.”
Still, while selling station names could bring the authority revenue it needs, advertising experts say companies may not be as well-served.
“To be effective, the viewer needs to understand the relevance of the ad,” said Allen Adamson of Landor, a branding firm. “To rename the 59th and Lex stop the McDonald’s stop — it ain’t going to work. I don’t think it will stick.”
Indeed, other cities have tried this with little success. Boston, for example, tried auctioning off four historic stations a few years ago and received no bids. Though Citigroup paid $400 million to sponsor the new Mets stadium in Queens, the company refused to pay the authority to rename the stop nearby, which is now known as Mets/Willets Point.
To determine its asking price for the Brooklyn station, the authority studied a few successful efforts, like a monorail in Las Vegas named for Nextel, the communications company, and streetcars in Tampa, Fla., named for a local electric utility. And the popularity of the station — the second-busiest in Brooklyn last year — was taken into account.
“It’s grounded in reasonable business practices,” Mr. Banks said. “Obviously Van Siclen on a No. 2 is not going to be as valuable to a corporate entity as Atlantic Avenue.”
The station name change is scheduled for the opening of the arena, timed for 2012. The exact punctuation of the new station name has yet to be determined, the authority said, although hyphens or slashes are likely to be used. New signage would be paid for by Forest City Ratner, and the authority plans to introduce the revised name gradually in maps and timetables after the arena opens.
A few New York businesses contacted on Tuesday said they were not interested in a piece of the underground. Zabar’s, the Upper West Side food emporium, said it was not interested in the 79th Street station. Macy’s said a sponsorship deal at 34th Street was not in the cards.
And straphangers at the Atlantic Avenue station like Nick Desio, 53, a Citigroup employee who commutes from Long Island, said names were beside the point.
“They can call it anything they want, as long as my train’s on time,” he said.
Ethan Wilensky-Lanford contributed reporting.