In the early 1990s, Manhattan’s Union Square was nicknamed “Needle Park.” “It was really dangerous back then,” said Robert K. Futterman, chairman and CEO of Robert K. Futterman & Associates, a top retail brokerage that has worked with Related on numerous projects. “Though it was a great transportation hub, it didn’t have great retail.”
The district’s historic buildings had begun giving way to newcomers, starting with Zeckendorf Towers, built in 1987 after the demolition of the Union Square Hotel. But Mr. Ross first focused on old buildings, partnering with Starwood Hotels and Resorts to convert a historic Beaux Arts building on the northeastern side of the park into the W Hotel. Related also owns the historic building on the north side now occupied by the massive Barnes & Noble, one of the bookseller’s top outlets.
Related’s biggest mark was 1 Union Square South, completed in 1999, which sits at the terminus of Park Avenue South and looms over the park. “It was a very important site as a focal point,” Mr. Ross said. Related has been lauded for the aesthetics of some of its projects, but not this one. A blank wall spans an entire city block, and it isn’t helped by the swirling digital clock Related commissioned to liven up the façade.
“The south side of Union Square has been trashed, from an architectural point of view,” said Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council.
Aesthetic questions aside, the building has been a financial coup. Monthly apartment rents now go as high as $17,000, and dozens of condos have sprung up around the park in the past decade as a result. “It was really one of the first urban power centers,” said Mr. Futterman.
As 1 Union Square South was rising, Related was bidding for what would become the Time Warner Center.
For two decades, Mort Zuckerman’s Boston Properties had tried and failed to make something of Robert Moses’s unloved old Coliseum. When his deal fell apart, the Giuliani administration put it out to bid. Mr. Ross quickly mobilized. He would give Jazz at Lincoln Center a prime view overlooking Central Park and rope in Richard Parsons, the Time Warner CEO, as the anchor tenant in the office portion of the tower.
“He’d been in 75 Rock for 35 years with no issues,” Mr. Ross recalled, referring to Time Warner’s old headquarters at Rockefeller Center. “I told him, ‘This isn’t about space, this is about showcasing your company. Nobody knows who you are; they think you’re a part of NBC.’ That struck a nerve.”
He also lured the Mandarin Oriental hotel chain and a clutch of Fifth Avenue brands, like Hugo Boss and Cole Haan, for a “vertical mall” in the base of the tower. A popular model in Chicago, such retail spaces have always struggled in New York, where storefronts are believed to be king.
In the end, Related beat out the likes of Tishman Speyer, Bruce Ratner and Donald Trump. Though the development seemed expensive at the time, costing $410 million for the site and $1.7 billion to build, it has paid off handsomely. “We stole it,” said Mr. Ross.
“It’s become a destination point.” said Rosemary Scanlon, dean of New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. “There’s a lot of vision there, as well as courage.”
Paul Goldberger initially panned the structure in The New Yorker, calling the towers “banal.” Nevertheless, he commends the developer for the architectural diversity of its portfolio. “I think Related has been very good at bringing a range of serious architecture ideas into the mainstream,” he said. “They know that the market today won’t accept junk.”