Spinola, Betts: You Better THINK

The competition for the commission at Ground Zero seemed to be undergoing a late-breaking shift in momentum.

On Feb. 25, when the final two architectural candidates presented modifications of their original designs to a team of rebuilding officials and city and state representatives, the favorite was Berlin-based architect Daniel Libeskind, whose proposed crystalline structures surround the bare-walled “bathtub” that supported the foundations of the Twin Towers.

But on the afternoon of Feb. 25, Steven Spinola, president of the powerful Real Estate Board of New York, sent a letter to rebuilding czar John Whitehead asking him to choose the plan submitted by the rival team, called THINK, which is led by New York–based architect Rafael Viñoly and includes Frederic Schwartz, Ken Smith and Shigeru Ban.

“It’s an accurate symbol of the World Trade towers and an appropriate memorial for the place, the actual space in which we had the tragic deaths of so many people,” Mr. Spinola told The Transom. “And yet, at the same time, it is an uplifting rebuilding of our skyline in lower Manhattan, one that could be built with or without commercial development.”

Commercial development in lower Manhattan, however, is the issue. The relatively quick pace at which the lattice-work towers, resembling a skeleton of the former World Trade Center towers, could be built is thought to be a way to encourage early economic development in the area-and to do something about all the vacant office space downtown.

Those concerns have been the rallying cry for Roland Betts, the Chelsea Piers developer and George W. Bush classmate who is becoming a loud voice for THINK in the redevelopment process.

Mr. Betts’ influence on the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has been growing, according to Ground Zero watchers; and the endorsement from the Real Estate Board is likely to help him make his case.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki have cautiously voiced support for the Libeskind plan, as has the editorial board of The New York Times ; but Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp and the New York Post ‘s equally bellicose Steve Cuozzo have trashed the Libeskind plan as too morbid.

An announcement was expected on Feb. 27, after a panel of eight-representing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the site, as well as the Pataki administration, the Bloomberg administration and the LMDC-completed another round of meetings with the architects and had finished their own deliberations.

-Tom McGeveran

Beneath the Surface

Lower East Siders who like to think that their hipness is as low-to-the-ground as their six-story tenement homes have raised many an eyebrow at the 20-story hotel that is rising in the unlikely location of Rivington Street just west of Essex.

Just wait until they find out that the place is going to be run by an urban-lifestyle magazine.

The hotel, which was built on speculation by local developer Paul Stallings, was expected to sell to a hotel chain, and sources told The Transom that Andre Balazs, owner of the Chateau Marmont and the Standard in Los Angeles and the Raleigh in Miami Beach, was giving the place the eye.

But before Mr. Balazs could make a deal with Mr. Stallings, an ambitious young marketer and Arena writer named Will Candis stepped in with an idea to run the hotel himself along with a partnership that would include Mr. Stallings, former Ian Schrager Hotels vice president Klaus Ortlieb, and the editorial staff of the upmarket and relentlessly hip Surface magazine.

“I was the originator of the concept of cross-branding a hotel with a magazine,” said Mr. Candis. “I have had the idea since the W hotel launched and I thought, ‘That’s really brilliant.'”

Of course, the W hotel chain doesn’t have anything to do with W , the magazine-which made Mr. Candis an unwitting entrepreneur.

He said he first approached Mr. Stallings with the idea.

“He got the idea and really loved it, and had me set everything up. So instead of his giving the building to [a hotel chain], he’s keeping the building himself, and myself and Klaus were brought on to manage and operate it and, most importantly, the magazine as well.”

He said he’s been “friends with the publishers of Surface for over 10 years.”

The idea is for the lobby to become a showcase for ultrahip design that will bleed over into the magazine’s editorial content, and for different parts of the hotel to be used to help market the magazine. Other potential synergies exist as well. If the magazine industry remains in the toilet, for instance , Surface ‘s editorial staff could always supplement their incomes by cleaning the hotel’s latrines.

“Surface (the hotel) is based on the editorial and aesthetic ethos of Surface (the magazine),” the group’s “mission statement” reads. “It is an environment where style-conscious consumers, design enthusiasts and modern travelers can be inspired by, as well as interact with their surroundings.”

Mr. Candis and his team hope to open the hotel in September; by that time, the steel frame will be covered in a cladding of glass and will feature a lobby lounge with changing designs that will also be featured in the magazine.

Mr. Candis said his group was sensitive to complaints that the hotel wouldn’t fit in with the gritty neighborhood. He said they’re planning to offer preferential treatment for dinner reservations at the hotel restaurant to callers with phone-number exchanges in the neighborhood. He also promised that the hotel would use catering services from local businesses like Russ & Daughters on Houston Street, and that the hotel’s owners would become active in the local Business Improvement District.

“I’m very conscious that it’s not going to be about $10 martinis,” Mr. Candis said. He added that there would be price points on the hotel-restaurant menu that were accessible to local residents.

With international conference travel down 12 percent since 9/11 and hotel occupancy rates averaging 60 percent, many industry pundits don’t see the hotel market looking good until at least 2004. That may be good news for Mr. Candis and his team, which is expected to have the hotel ready by the end of this year.

-T.M.

Times Goes Blind

“Blind” gossip items are such a hot topic that even the fashion-resistant New York Times has gotten into the act.

On Feb. 18, just four days before the newspaper of record’s sports department reported on the New York Post ‘s retraction of a blind Page Six item that was linked-via a columnist at a rival newspaper-to former Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax, The Times’ Bold Faced Names column printed what appears to be the first blind item in the broadsheet’s history.

Ironically, the subject of the Times item, though he was not named, was Daily News columnist Michael Gross, who connected the Post ‘s blind item to Mr. Koufax but wrote that he was not gay. As The Times reported on Feb. 22, the item prompted Mr. Koufax to sever his ties to the Dodger organization, which, like the Post , is owned by Rupert Murdoch. On Feb. 21, the tabloid apologized for getting the item wrong.

The Times item about Mr. Gross was benign in comparison. “What local ink-stained columnist had his publicist call around to say copies of his unauthorized biography of a top American fashion designer would be distributed in the street, after the designer’s show on Friday?” wrote Bold Faced Names columnist Joyce Wadler in an item titled “It’s Nice No One Is Anxious.” The item referred to a call made to The Times by Mr. Gross’ publicist, who said that representatives of Ralph Lauren’s company had stopped two women from handing out copies of Mr. Gross’ unauthorized biography of Mr. Lauren outside the location of the designer’s fall fashion show.

Ms. Wadler told The Transom that as far as she knew, this was indeed the first time that The Times had printed a blind item, and that she had done the item “for fun.” Times spokesman Toby Usnik said, “We do not know the history” of blind items in the newspaper, “though obviously blind items are not generally our style. In this case, tongue was in cheek, and we did not regard this item as truly blind,” he added.

“Michael is a gossip columnist and does blind items all the time,” Ms. Wadler said. “I felt it did work as a joke.”

The Times reporter said she didn’t have to check with her superiors before running what she called “clearly the world’s most obvious blind item” because, she explained, her editors were “open to letting me have fun.”

But Times Kremlinologists should not gird themselves for a torrent of blind items rendered in stiff Times ian prose. “I’m not for making a practice of it, because if you’re going blind, it usually says you don’t have the goods to back it up,” Ms. Wadler said.

For his part, Mr. Gross said he “was very amused” by the Times blind item. He even sent Ms. Wadler a congratulatory e-mail.

But just as Ms. Wadler was opening the gate to blind items, Mr. Gross seemed to have closed his. He hasn’t published a blind item since Feb. 9. According to Mr. Gross, “It’s my call. I don’t do them every week because you don’t want the gene pool to get too weak.”

-Alexandra Wolfe

Law & Orbach

At the Drama League’s Feb. 24 benefit at the Pierre Hotel honoring Jerrry Orbach, his Law & Order co-star Jesse Martin told The Transom of one of his first encounters with the actor.

“I was totally naïve, just started the show. I was terrified,” Mr. Martin said “I was like, ‘Jerry, give me some acting advice.’ He turns to me and looks me in the eye and said, ‘Stay out of my light.'” Mr. Martin smiled. “It’s a weird thing to say. Don’t you think it’s a weird thing to say?”

-Ronda Kaysen

Ali, Geez!

Cambridge-educated comedian Sacha Baron Cohen came to the premiere of his alter ego Ali G’s new HBO series in character, which meant he was dressed in his trademark yellow jumpsuit, red cap and dark-rimmed glasses. If you haven’t been reading the papers lately, Mr. Cohen became infamous in England by posing as Ali G, a kind of hip-hop Barbara Walters who asks cheekily subversive questions of self-important pillars of society. Now that Mr. Cohen has pretty much worn out his welcome in the United Kingdom he’s set his sights on the great expanse of America. And after the crowd at Lot 61 watched Ali G ask Newt Gingrich whether the Republican Party thinks their “girlfriends should take it up the butty,” The Transom asked Mr. Cohen why he came to America. But Ali G answered:

“America’s got you know, some of me heroes, Carmen Electra, some of the great thinkers and all that, so that’s why I’s come over.”

As for his HBO show, Mr. G said in his opening speech to the crowd. “Me hope people in Washington enjoy the well clever political satire, me hope people in California enjoy the excellent camera work. And me hope people in Kansas enjoy the two ladies suckin’ off a pig.”

-A.W.

The Transom Also Hears …

… Sean Lennon’s got some ‘splainin’ to do! On Feb. 22 Mr. Lennon stayed at the nightclub Light until 3 a.m., not with his current flame Bijou Phillips, but with his long-term ex-girlfriend Yuka Honda, of the band Cibo Matto. Ms. Phillips can breathe easier knowing that Mr. Lennon and Ms. Honda did not leave the club together.

-A.W.

… Uttered onstage at the Feb. 22 performance of Spider-Man Live! at Radio City Music Hall: “Spider-man’s done as much for the city as Mayor Bloomberg!”

-Frank DiGiacomo