Rockefeller Center East: Fisher Has Big Dreams for His Con Ed Site

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

New York.

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.

“They’re very

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

aspirations.

“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

Art Society.

Mr. Barwick’s

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

advisement.

“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.”