At Con Ed Site, Solow Takes a Cue From His Peers

It’s been almost 10 years since Consolidated Edison decided to sell off its nine prime waterfront acres in the East 30’s and developer Sheldon Solow emerged as its buyer—for $630 million.

Still, nothing is built there.

The Con Ed site is hardly alone. Ground Zero is crawling upward, and Bruce Ratner’s plan for a 22-acre site in downtown Brooklyn is struggling with vocal neighborhood opposition.

But while the masters of those sites have grappled with, paid off, charmed or waged P.R. campaigns against their critics, Mr. Solow—whose plans for the site include seven high-rises, between 3,000 and 4,000 apartments and about one million square feet of office space—has remained aloof.

That may be ending now.

Mr. Solow recently hired the lobbying and public-relations firm Geto & De Milly—the same firm that is handling Mr. Ratner’s project—to do his community and political liaising.

And he has made a politic concession—however slight, the first one yet in evidence—to his opponents. He has agreed to lower the height of the buildings and increase their footprints to make up for the lost space, and to reorient the buildings so that street lines can run through the site and almost right up to the river’s edge.

The new drawings were shown around to elected officials and the community board this summer, but to little more fanfare than when the original plan was unveiled last fall.

“He took a little bit of the top off of the buildings but did not change the density,” said City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, who represents the area. “They are too tall and too dense; there’s not a single unit of affordable housing; and from a services perspective, the number of people who could be introduced into the neighborhood—it is like dropping the entire population of Kennebunkport between 34th and 41st Street.”

Considering that Kennebunkport only has 3,720 people in it, make that two Kennebunkports—with lots of Republicans, Yalies and generally rich people inhabiting them.

Michael Gross, a spokesman for Mr. Solow’s partnership, East River Realty, told The Observer: “We’ve substantially revised our master plan to respond to community concerns, and we look forward to a continued constructive dialogue with community leaders and elected officials as we continue the planning process.”

He wouldn’t discuss whether the project would include affordable housing. It’s not necessary under the zoning that Mr. Solow has proposed, but elected officials have come to expect some sort of sweetener if asked to rezone large swaths of land for profitable development.

Dan Golub, senior policy advisor to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who has met with Mr. Solow’s advisors, said that they may end up including affordable housing under pressure.

“As of now, they haven’t stepped up on their own to make a serious affordable-housing commitment,” Mr. Golub told The Observer. “But at some point in the process, they know they’re going to be forced to, and they’d be better off doing it sooner rather than later. They can’t make it a golden ghetto.”

The Bloomberg administration has said nothing publicly about the proposal, since it is in the preliminary stages of review, but other officials have been critical. Former State Assemblyman Steve Sanders once predicted “one of the biggest development fights” over what is the largest undeveloped parcel in Manhattan after the World Trade Center, but it has not generated much interest outside the confines of Murray Hill.

The 5.1-million-square-foot development right now sits in limbo as the developer figures out the final specifications and the Department of City Planning moves to the next review phase. Two hearings this spring brought out large crowds that objected to the project.

But Mr. Solow, who developed 9 West 57th Street in the 1970’s and luxury projects on the Upper East Side more recently, hasn’t gone too soft, and it is unclear just what City Hall—and the City Council—will do once he makes his application to rezone the area from manufacturing to commercial.

The one place that Mr. Solow has budged is height. The luxury towers, which are being designed by David Childs and Richard Meier, once reached as high as 864 feet, or 57 stories; the tallest one is now about 700 feet, according to individuals who have seen the latest plan. That’s still taller than the 505-foot United Nations Secretariat building a few blocks north, and Mr. Solow has made up for the lost floors by making the buildings wider and adding an eighth tower.

In addition, in a nod to residents who wanted more access and views of the East River, Mr. Solow’s architects have turned the buildings in an east-west direction and extended the streets almost to the F.D.R. Drive, where he would also add a raised promenade.

“The community board took the position that other buildings that have been built between 34th and 41st Street are all about 400 feet tall,” said John West, the co-chairman of the Board 6 subcommittee on the Con Ed site. “That’s still a substantial apartment building, but 400 feet is enough shorter than 500 feet that we consider them to be deferentially shorter than the Secretariat. We like that word deferentially shorter, because it conveys what we are trying to express.”

Marilyn Taylor, a partner at Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Mr. Childs’ architectural firm, presented the revised site plan earlier this summer to Board 6. Mr. Solow, though he has met board members previously, wasn’t present; Mr. Childs and Mr. Meier were also absent.

“Marilyn Taylor maintains a degree of credibility,” Mr. West told The Observer. “She sticks by the party line but doesn’t over-promise. She said that they had been listening to us and had some changes they thought were in the right direction—and to the extent that they were, great. But there were many points at which they were not.”

Mr. West and others on the community board say they do not substantially disagree with the density that Mr. Solow is proposing. In fact, an alternative rezoning plan that Board 6 has formally proposed calls for just 25 percent less square footage, and none of it would be office space.

The board’s own plan would require affordable housing to reach that density, though, as well as improving the esplanade along the East River.