The Woman Behind TurnStyle, NYC’s Upscale Underground Hot Spot

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

DianeClehaneLunch_FeaturedWith nary a celebrity in sight (it is spring break, after all) Michael’s was a sea of suits and socialites today. I was glad to be joined by power gals Susan Fine, president of her own real estate development firm, Oases Development and Lisa Linden, CEO of LAK PR, who counsels many of the city’s top movers and shakers and, it should be said, has the best collection of Hermès handbags in all of New York. (Her latest acquisition, a purple ‘Jige 29’ clutch, is to die for!) When Lisa suggested I meet Susan to hear about her latest project, TurnStyle, the much-anticipated $14.5 million marketplace and food court with over 30 swanky shops, dining options and a performance space (!) located on the concourse level of the Columbus Circle subway station opening next month, I was intrigued. Since my last visit to the subway occurred in 1990 (the less said about it, the better), I thought it might be time for an update.

Dorinda Medley and Diane Clehane
Susan Fine, Diane Clehane and Lisa Linden
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Susan’s CV is full of landmark real estate projects, from the World Financial Center to the retail reinvention at Grand Central, which she shepherded as the head of real estate for the MTA. Now, as Lisa put it, Susan is “glamming up” Columbus Circle. “It’s transformative, flawless design.” Last week, David Dunlap heralded the space as “a new home for underground gourmets” in The New York Times.

The moment Susan began talking about TurnStyle it was quite clear this is a woman who knows how to get things done. “I’m a perfectionist,” said Susan who opened her own firm, Oases Development, five years ago. “I know the stories of each of these businesses. It’s brave to open a shop in New York City because you have to commit to a couple hundred thousand dollars. I’ve gotten to know these people.”

In explaining the art — and science — of creating the right mix of merchants, Susan told me it’s all about creating a “family” that “isn’t expected.” To that end, TurnStyle will be a hub of tastemakers including  “six female-owned businesses, three vegan/organic merchants” and no Dunkin’ Donuts or Subway. Upscale retailers who are going underground include hipster favorites Dylan’s Candy Bar and Project No. 8. The culinary cast is impressively diverse with Casa Toscana, Doughnuttery and Semsom, a Lebanese restaurant run by sisters Carine Assouad and Christine Assouad Sfeir in the mix.

“I also gave a store to Greyston Bakery [whose profits support their community-based non-profit initiatives.]” Food merchants, she explained, “will feature different kinds of food at different times of day” to appeal to commuters, tourists and school kids. “You have to think about what slows people down [in order to eat and shop] and what do they need?” Leases specify that stores need to remain open at least 12 hours a day. The press will get their first look at the 325-foot long passageway on the train platforms at 59th and Columbus on April 19 when the VIP first tours will be conducted before the barricades come down and the public is invited in during the evening commute.

With TurnStyle being the first major privatization of a New York City subway station, Susan is definitely giving 90,000 people who are expected to pass through the space every day options that go beyond dining and shopping. Sixteen “digital columns” will feature original content from partners like Jazz at Lincoln Center. “It’s about changing the experience.”

And speaking of experience, before Susan dashed off to meet with vendors on the project, I wanted to know more about how she had risen to the top of what has historically been a male-dominated field. “When I started, there were zero women [in the business,] I’d go to a meeting and the men asked me if I was the waitress.” What a difference a few decades make. “My lawyer is a woman, my banker is a 32 year-old woman of color, my public relations [firm] is run by a woman, my project manager is a woman, my graphic designer is a woman and my retail broker is a woman. I’m insanely proud that was possible.”

These days, Susan carefully selects “one or two projects” to work on at one time. “I’m a value investor. I do projects where I can make a large return. I work in different asset classes — whatever interests me.” And in her spare time she’s a professor at Barnard, where she teaches urban development. The best advice she can offer her students? “I tell young people to find a part of the industry they care most about and specialize in it… and it’s really important to know math.” Tell that to my 11 year-old daughter.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1.  Jolie Hunt

2. HL Group’s Lynn Tesoro and two gents

3. Dawn Bridges

4. Mark Rosenthal

5. Dakis Joannou

6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Andy Bergman and Michael Kramer

7. The New York Times’ fashion critic Vanessa Friedman and Judy Price

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and an elegant blonde gal we didn’t get to meet

11. Andrew Stein

12. After I said my goodbyes to Lisa and Susan, I spent some time dishing with Judy Licht and Robert Verdi, who introduced me to their friend Liz Aiello, vice president, talk programming, at SiriusXm. I’ve known Judy and Robert forever and loved when they were the indefatigable correspondents of the late, lamented Full Frontal Fashion (I was a guest on the show during fashion week.) These days industrious Robert has his own handbag line, the Great Bag Co. whose signature bag, Model M, was anointed the ‘It Bag’ by none other than Bill Cunningham in his Sunday column in The New York Times. This month, the bag scored a spot on Oprah Winfrey’s O List in her magazine. Impressive. The always effervescent Judy has formed a real estate company, Della Femina, with her daughter Jessie Della Femina. Judy tells me they just flipped their first house in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and bought another one. “We also stage and decorate houses.” Smart move. Too bad Susan left before I could introduce them!

14. Curtis Giesen

15. Nelson Roth

16. Kelly Langberg and friends

17. Sarah Quinlan

18. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Gordon Davis

20. Claudia Lucas

21. Quest’s Chris Meigher

23. Simon Sominsky

24. Angie Adams

25. Justin Dini

26. Bill Bendelow

27. Susan Fine, Lisa Linden (Congrats on being among City & State magazine’s “50 Over 50” Most Influential New Yorkers! You got my vote) and yours truly

Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.

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