Dug In, Trump Battles Walter Cronkite Group Over His Big, Big Tower

Donald Trump rarely has trouble getting media attention. So, naturally, he attracted several television camera crews recently when he threw a “bottoming-out” party in the gigantic pit from which his 90-story Trump World Tower is slowing rising across from the United Nations building on First Avenue.

There was one problem.Thenewshounds were familiar with the “topping-out” celebrations usually thrown when buildings are finished. But the notion of a “bottoming-out” party had the press befuddled. “Apparently,” a WABC-TV reporter earnestly informed his viewers, “that means the foundation has been completed.”

Actually, the reason for the media event ought to have been obvious. Mr. Trump was sending a message that he is proceeding with the world’s largest residential tower in the face of mounting opposition from suchEastSideresidentsasWalter Cron-kite, Katharine Hepburn, James Ivory and Kurt Vonnegut.

Mr. Trump’s need for a show of force was understandable. In yet another attempt to force him to scale down the 900-foot building, his opponents are contending that the people who can afford to pay millions to live on the uppermost floors of Trump World Tower may get more than just drop-dead views. They may also be exposed to dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide.

According to an air quality study commissioned by the Municipal Art Society and other detractors of Trump World Tower, the building’s top 121 feet stand directly in the path of “air pollution plumes” drifting through the sky from the Con Edison Waterside power plant, on First Avenue and 39th Street, and the Ravenswood plant in Astoria, Queens. “The height and location of this proposed building place residents in the traffic lanes of these pollutant highways,” the art society argues in legal papers, “and thereby imperils … the health and safety of occupants.”

The building’s alleged health hazards are detailed in documents the art society has filed with the City Board of Standards and Appeals seeking to overturn the Trump World Tower’s building permit. A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 11.

Mr. Trump dismissed the challenge. “Total nonsense,” he told The Observer . “It’s just total nonsense. It’s ridiculous and, frankly, if that’s the case, Con Edison has the liability. I don’t.”

Moveover, he said the “bottoming-out” party was intended to be a belated groundbreaking ceremony and had nothing to do with growing opposition to the project. Never mind that the developer’s foes were scheduled to hold a press conferencelambasting Trump World Tower two days later.

Yet the air quality study might disturb future residents of Trump World Tower, many of whom are paying astronomical prices for their apartments. Mr. Trump boasted he recently sold the tower’s four penthouse apartments for the record price of $38 million to a wealthy European buyer who intends to combine them into a single unit.

Michael Gerrard, the art society’s attorney, said such residents may find themselves breathing dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide several times a year because the city building code requires natural ventilation in residential buildings. “It could be a significant problem for asthmatics and the very young and the very old,” Mr. Gerrard warned. “It could cause significant respiratory distress.”

The attorney said that the only way for Mr. Trump to avoid the plumes is to reduce the tower’s size.

The art society’s appeal is yet another reminder that the battle over Trump World Tower isn’t the familiar developer-versus-neighborhood melee. A growing number of famous East Side residents and their political leaders are assailing the project as an architectural Godzilla that will loom 300 feet over the United Nations, interfere with air traffic and make a mockery of the city’s zoning code.

Their protests haven’t been lost on City Hall, either. After Mr. Cronkite and company went public with their objections, City Planning Commission chairman Joseph Rose proposed a sweeping overhaul of the municipal zoning code that would institute height restrictions in most parts of town.

The controversy hasn’t thrilled the city’s real estate elite, either. “A lot of people are unhappy about it,” said a top developer. “This is not the first time Donald has caused the real estate community a lot of problems, creating a mess and leaving it for the rest of us to clean up.”

“They are jealous,” Mr Trump responded. “They alway have been and they always will be.”

Meanwhile,theCoalitionforResponsible Development, the umbrella group for the project’s opponents, has filed another appeal arguing that Mr. Trump’s building permit was unlawfully issued because he is using development rights transferred from a different zoning district.

The Board of Standards and Appeals heard arguments in the zoning district case during a standing-room-only hearing on June 23. A decision on both appeals is expected in September. No matter what the board’s decision, Mr. Trump and his opponents agree their dispute is likely to wind up in court.

The project’s opponents continue to search for new ammunition. Most recently, Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of the East Side, wrote Mayor Rudolph Giuliani inquiring if the Trump World Tower violated the city’s 1947 commitment to the United Nations restricting the height and bulk of buildings adjacent to the organization’s headquarters.

“I’m sure the [anti-Trump World Tower] lawyers will bring it up,” Ms. Maloney said. “If it’s legally binding, they will take it to court.”

A spokesman for the United Nations said its attorneys were looking into the matter. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, has already criticized Mr. Trump’s building, saying he couldn’t understand how he ever got a building permit. The Mayor’s press office referred calls to the City Planning Department. Mr. Rose, who heads the department, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Mr. Trump, for his part, was aware of the supposed commitment Ms. Maloney mentioned. But he said it couldn’t be used to block his project: “This site is not in the confines of that agreement-if there was an agreement. Because most people think the agreement was never consummated.”

That’s pretty much the way Mr. Trump and his land use attorney, Samuel Lindenbaum, seem to feel about all of the legal assaults on Trump World Tower. Mr. Trump described his opponents as a handful of disgruntled Beekman Hill residents, led by former Diners Club chief executive Seymour Flug, who are upset because his building will block their views of the East River. But the developer insisted they were doing him a favor.

“The funny part is, as this guy Sy Flug and some other folks try and save their views they are saying, ‘Isn’t Trump a terrible person? He’s kept all the great views for himself,’” Mr. Trump said. “What that does is it gets reported in The New York Times . It gets reported all over the place and everybody comes running to buy our apartments because they are saying, ‘Wow, they have … great views. I guess that’s where I want to live.’ So they’ve actually promoted this job better than I ever could.”

“What do you expect him to say?” Mr. Flug replied. “He’s a great salesman. No question about it.”

Dolly Lenz, senior vice president of Sotheby’s International Realty, agreed that the battle wasn’t hurting Trump World Tower. “It’s not affecting sales,” Ms. Lenz said. “They increased prices seven times.”

But clearly some of this is getting to Mr. Trump. The developer said that if he was forced to build his tower according to his opposition’s reading of the zoning code, he could actually go 13 stories higher. Not surprisingly, he said he was tempted to do so simply to teach his foes a lesson. “I seriously contemplated doing that,” Mr. Trump ruminated, “and perhaps I still will.”

Mr. Flug was undaunted. He said the coalition had raised $300,000 and was ready to spend it on a lengthy legal battle. “I don’t know how many apartments he’s sold. I don’t care how many apartments he sold,” he said. “The only issue we have is that the building he’s building is illegal.”

With Rebecca Gardyn.