Today’s New York, the thriving, safe city that attracts the best and brightest from all over the world, is a far cry from the New York of the early 1980s, when William Zeckendorf had the audacity to put up a 35-story residential condo on Broadway and 96th Street. His colleagues thought he was nuts; the neighborhood was sketchy at best, and in any case, the city’s fortunes remained very much in flux.
But Mr. Zeckendorf took the risk, and it paid off. He did it again, reviving the mess that was Union Square, and again, setting off a building boom on the Far West Side. His death on Feb. 12, at the age of 84, reminds us that today’s New York owes much to visionaries and risk-takers like William Zeckendorf.
Few would have predicted Mr. Zeckendorf’s success three decades ago. He ventured where other developers feared to go and not without reason. Most people saw the neighborhood around Union Square circa 1985 as hopelessly derelict, another sad casualty of the city’s decline and fall during the 1970s. But Mr. Zeckendorf saw opportunity, and the result was Zeckendorf Towers, named for his father. That block-long development did more than halt the neighborhood’s decline. It was the first step in the remarkable comeback of one of the city’s jewels, Union Square.
Similarly, Mr. Zeckendorf’s venture into the Far West Side, 1 Worldwide Plaza on Eighth Avenue and 49th Street, was well ahead of its time. This, of course, was well before Hell’s Kitchen was rechristened as Clinton and well before other developers saw possibilities in the tired blocks north of Port Authority bus terminal. After Mr. Zeckendorf showed the way, the rush was on—and it continues.
New York’s renaissance owes much to strong-willing politicians and shrewd government policy. But it also owes a great deal to people like William Zeckendorf, who took repeated risks, made a fortune and, in the process, benefited the city as a whole.
People like that deserve the city’s thanks—something that many of today’s civic leaders ought to keep in mind.