At 9.2 acres, it’s one of Manhattan’s biggest mysteries: a
cluster of four properties along the East River near the United Nations, now
occupied by a steam plant, fuel tanks and gravel parking lots.
For more than a year, since developer Richard L. Fisher and
his partners struck a deal to buy the properties from Consolidated Edison for
as much as $680 million, residents could only speculate about what might be
built on one of the city’s choicest development sites. Characteristically, Mr.
Fisher said nothing.
Now an architectural-design competition, expected to be
completed within days, and a recent flurry of meetings with public officials
are offering the first glimpses of Mr. Fisher’s intentions.
Galvanized by the sudden availability of a huge piece of
Manhattan real estate, local resident groups and civic organizations are trying
to influence the development process. “Once a decade, you get a Battery Park
City, you get a Riverside South,” said civic activist Richard Kahan, who was
once head of the Battery Park City Authority. “This decade is going to be about
the Con Edison site.”
The first visions of the site already have been sketched,
under conditions of tight secrecy. Since March, some of the world’s most
prominent architects, including three winners of the prestigious Pritzker
Architecture Prize, have filled 50-page sketchbooks with their plans. Mr.
Fisher and his partners will judge the submissions and pick one of the five
competing architectural teams to draw up a master plan. A spokeswoman for the
developers said a decision is “imminent.”
By all indications, Mr. Fisher’s ambitions are grand: The
architecture competition’s coordinator, Bill Lacy, said the developer hopes to
model his project, both in size and in architectural daring, on two landmarks:
Rockefeller Center and the United Nations complex.
More mundane details about Mr. Fisher’s plans have emerged
from public filings and a series of open meetings, as the developers and Con
Edison begin the public-review process necessary for a public utility to sell
land to a private developer. The developers envision a complex as large as 5
million square feet-roughly the size of five skyscrapers. That has some East
Side residents worried that their neighborhood will be overwhelmed. At the
public meetings, Susan Fine, an executive working for the developers, has
promised river vistas, public parks and an esplanade along the East River, and
has talked of setting “a standard of design excellence for the 21st century.”
“It’s almost unprecedented for owners to say [to
architects], ‘Go away and think,’” Ms. Fine said in an interview. “This is very
much a competition of ideas.”
Mr. Fisher is hardly the first builder to attempt to woo
residents with promises of acclaimed architecture. But he is one of a growing
number of New York developers who seem willing to spend the extra millions it
costs to actually deliver it. The New
York Times picked Renzo Piano to design its new Eighth Avenue headquarters;
the Hearst Corporation has hired Lord Norman Foster to build a tower atop its
landmarked six-story headquarters; the Guggenheim Museum is raising money to
build a Frank Gehry–designed gallery along the East River; and Rem Koolhaas has
designed an eccentric-looking hotel for Ian Schrager on Astor Place-Pritzker
Prize winners all.
There is more than mere
altruism at work in such commissions. In New York City, where opposition from
community groups can tie up projects for years, developers have discovered that
attaching an eminent architectural name to a project can change the public
debate from an argument about a building to one about a piece of art. “Large
elements of the civic community care about design,” said Mr. Kahan, who serves
on the board of the Municipal Art Society and has advised East Side community
groups about the project.
Mr. Fisher and his partners, developer Sheldon Solow and the
investment bank of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company, won the rights to
develop the site in a bidding contest completed in January 2000. They signed a
contract last November to buy the site-actually four separate parcels of land
along First Avenue between 35th and 41st streets-from Con Edison for between
$576 million and $680 million, depending on a variety of factors.
The project must wend its way through a maze of regulatory
and zoning approvals before a shovel is ever put into the ground. For instance,
Con Edison already is fighting Lower East Side residents over its plan to consolidate
its steam-generating at a plant on 14th Street.
First of a Kind
The first real step in the process of development, however,
is the design competition, which the developers say is the first of its kind in
Mr. Lacy, president of the Purchase College, State
University of New York, and the executive director of the organization that
awards the Pritzker Prize, said Mr. Fisher first approached him last December
about coordinating the design competition. Mr. Lacy said that Mr. Fisher told
him he wanted to build “another Rockefeller Center.”
Mr. Lacy had run similar competitions in other cities,
mostly for museums and other public buildings, but to this one he added a
twist: He asked the 40 architects invited to participate to pair off in teams.
The site is so large, Mr. Lacy said, that the developers will be looking for
buildings in a variety of styles.
“Architects have strong egos, and I thought I wanted them to
make the decision about whether they wanted to work together,” Mr. Lacy said.
From the 40, the developers picked five finalist teams. Most
featured a mixture of high aspiration and nuts-and-bolts development
experience: Pritzker-winner Richard Meier, the designer of the Getty Center in
Los Angeles, teamed with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the giant firm that
designed the new AOL Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle; Mr. Koolhaas joined
with Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, the international outfit that designed Ernst
& Young’s new Times Square headquarters. Other teams featured Henry Cobb,
from I.M. Pei’s firm, and French Pritzker-winner Christian de Portzamparc.
Each team was issued a blank 50-page sketchbook and a
booklet of programmatic guidelines. They were encouraged to design their
complexes with an even split between residential and commercial development.
Their buildings were to be roughly the same height as the surrounding buildings
(with the exception, presumably, of the nearby Trump World Tower, which caused
so much consternation in the neighborhood). They were asked to use the waterfront
creatively while “respecting the grid of Manhattan,” Mr. Lacy said.
Other than that, there
were few restrictions.
“The land is big enough that they can do something that’s a
kind of architectural statement,” Mr. Lacy said.
Those statements, for
now, remain a closely guarded secret. The designs have yet to be made public,
and the architects involved have signed confidentiality agreements that
prohibit them from discussing their work.
imaginative,” Mr. Lacy said.
Other clues as to what might be built emerge from public
documents. In May, the developers filed a document with the state Public
Service Commission, which oversees public utilities, outlining the parameters
of what they might build, for the purpose of conducting an environmental study
of the site. One scenario, in which the property is not rezoned, calls for a
pair of low office buildings and a shopping mall. At the other end of the
spectrum, other scenarios envision a giant, 6,300-unit apartment complex or,
alternately, 2.3 million square feet of office space (about two skyscrapers’
worth) and 3,000 residential units. All of the scenarios call for space devoted
to stores, “medical community facility uses” and open space.
Joseph B. Rose, head of the city’s Planning Department, had
said the city would allow towers of up to 45 or 50 stories on the site.
The biggest scenarios have spooked many community residents,
who in public meetings have been openly skeptical of Mr. Fisher’s architectural
“The message [from the developers] is, they’re not the Trump
Towers of the world,” said City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz. “While I don’t have
any reason to doubt those intentions, the bottom line is they’re trying to make
billions of dollars in profits, and to do that they will have to put a lot of
usage on a small amount of land.”
“They could build the Taj Mahal, as far as we’re concerned,”
said Philip Craft, an aide to U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney, who
represents the Upper East Side. “If it’s a monstrosity that overshadows the neighborhood,
we’ll oppose it.”
Yet Mr. Kahan and others see cause for optimism in the way
Mr. Fisher has conducted himself so far.
“We’ve been famous far too long as the place where it’s
impossible to get things done,” said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal
organization will be releasing its own development principles for the site next
week, including suggestions for better public transportation and riverfront
access. The developers have said they will take the society’s suggestions under
“I think this is the most valuable and important development
site in the city,” Mr. Barwick said. “The area south of the U.N. has been a
gloomy gashouse district for a long, long time …. This could be a great eastern
gateway to New York.”