Adam Victor maps out a nightmare scenario: Yes, New York City does get the Olympics, but the swimming pool is slated for such a noxious and toxic site that cleaning it up exhausts the entire Games’ contingency fund and spills into the state’s backup plan.
Fortunately for New York, however, Adam Victor can save us. He would do the clean-up himself-$330 million of it. Just let him build his power plant there. He’d even put it underground so the Olympics could put the swimming pool on top. He’d wrap the smokestack in translucent material that would change colors with the wind. Along the way, he’d provide 1,100 megawatts of power that a Mayoral task force, once upon a time, said we desperately needed.
For the past 14 months, Mr. Victor, a former drilling engineer, has been standing on the sidelines, shouting and waving his hands, trying to get the city’s attention for a proposal to turn natural gas into electricity and steam on the East River. He hired a top consultant to do a study, commissioned Philip Johnson to do the drawings, and begged and pleaded to get a meeting with the Mayor’s office-to no avail. Last week he took a kamikaze dive into the public limelight, offering $700 million for 13 acres of the West Side railyards, where the Jets, at latest count, were going to offer a measly $100 million to build a football stadium that the city would then use for the Olympics.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg swatted Mr. Victor’s offer aside like an aged, lazy fly at the end of summer, and the press had a hard time understanding it, as full as it was of ifs, ands or buts. For a while, Mr. Victor wasn’t even going to fulfill the requirements of the bid package put out by the land’s owner, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Mr. Victor has reversed that course, however, saying the bid requirements, released last week are not as onerous as they first seemed. Come March 21, his company, TransGas Energy Systems, will submit a conforming bid to the M.T.A., along with a nonrefundable application fee for $25,000. What that bid is going to look like is still, he says, up in the air.
“This is a very serious offer,” said Mr. Victor, sprawled out a few days ago on a 20-foot-long custom-made leather sofa that winds around his East Side living room. “I believe that if they view it in the public interest, then our offer will be accepted.”
Mr. Victor, 52, tends to do things his way, no matter how unusual that makes him look. He is a big man-size 4XL, he says-who insists on moleskin pants, wears custom-made shirts with 13-inch sleeves that put them below the elbow, and either a Rolex or nothing on his wrist.
“I know exactly what I want,” he explained. “I only wear cotton stuff. If I do wear pinstripe material, it’s lined in silk. When I was in Saudi Arabia, you develop terrible skin problems because the temperature is between 120 and 160 degrees, and everybody walks around with these bottles of stuff to stop chafing and what have you. I decided that when I got back to the States, I am not going to have a problem with skin irritation. So I found moleskin 30 years ago and have worn it ever since.”
There is something of the trust-fund child in Mr. Victor’s finicky tastes, except that he’s not one. The son of a labor lawyer, Mr. Victor got into just about the most lucrative field one could get into in the 1970’s: drilling for oil in Saudi Arabia. He got an M.B.A. at Wharton and then returned overseas to mine Africa for minerals. His first power plant, a natural-gas plant that provides Syracuse University with electricity and steam, earned him enough to retire. Then he emerged from retirement to take on the Williamsburg-Greenpoint project, and has sunk millions of dollars laying the groundwork.
Just six years ago, he got into harness-racing and is the top earner at the Meadowlands Racetrack. His horse Mr. Muscleman won the top trotter award for its age category the last two years. He now has 100 horses at a stable in New Jersey, which his son, Adam Jr., helps manage. Harness racing isn’t a hobby. “It’s a profit center,” Mr. Victor says.
“He made some big strides in a short amount of time,” said Victor Leonardis, co-owner of D’Elegance Stable in Florham Park, N.J., who has invested in some horses with Mr. Victor. “He and his son and Noel Daley, their trainer, they do a lot of homework and research. They run a good program. They spare no expense. They go after the best horses and the best care and the best driving. That made him excel to the top faster than other people would.”
Mr. Victor’s power plant sounds like something out of Jules Verne: It would turn natural gas into electricity and then use the waste heat to produce steam that is fed into subterranean pipes. Actually, it’s more like something out of Francis Spinola. He’s the one who, in 1878, got a franchise to start laying pipes underground which now stretch for 105 miles under Manhattan and supply heat to 1,800 buildings. By doing so, Mr. Victor says he will produce more energy with less pollution.
It was back in 1997 when the Giuliani administration first pointed Mr. Victor toward Williamsburg and Greenpoint: It was from there that he could build a pipe under the East River and tap into an existing steam pipe at a Consolidated Edison plant at 14th Street. At the same time, Mr. Victor could rely on water-really, effluent-from a nearby sewage treatment plant to cool the turbines.
When Mayor Bloomberg came into office, Mr. Victor’s sales job warmed the coldest of hearts. “The first meeting we had with Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff was in January 2002,” Mr. Victor recalled. “We showed him this wonderful power plant, and he smiled and said, ‘O.K., I was basically going to say no to you. You’ve presented some interesting things, and now we have to see about this.'”
Later that year, the 14th Street Consolidated Edison plant caught fire, half of lower Manhattan went dark, and Mr. Victor gained some points. A Mayoral spokesman, Jordan Barowitz, waved aside activists’ concerns over the generator’s pollution. “We’re sympathetic to community concerns, but the city does need more power to avoid shortages and blackouts,” he told the Daily News.
Just before the city released a plan to rezone that industrial wasteland, including the TransGas site, into residences or a park, Mr. Doctoroff came out opposing the power plant. That December, Mr. Victor met again with the deputy mayor.
“The tone was quite different,” Mr. Victor recalled. “Finally Doctoroff said, ‘We’re not going to do anything stupid. We will kill your plant by not giving you the water.'”
A Mayoral aide said the quote was “a fabrication” and that the city would work with TransGas to find an alternate site.
Last year, state hearing officers recommended rejecting the TransGas proposal, citing the city’s park plans. Then Mr. Victor proposed putting the power plant underground. Around the same time, the Olympics bid committee, which was founded by none other than Deputy Mayor Doctoroff, decided to relocate the aquatics center right where Mr. Victor wanted to locate his $2 billion power plant.
But Mr. Victor said that he could accommodate the Olympics, too. In fact, it would be cheaper for the city if he built the plant, he said, because he would pay for the cleanup, which he estimated at $330 million. The Olympics committee put the bill much lower. Buying the land and developing it would cost $84 million, to be paid by taxpayers. The Olympics committee would pay for building the venues.
Zap! A swimming pool on top of a power plant? Either that or put the swimming pool on top of a former oil-storage facility. Or how about converting one of the 10 giant outdoor swimming pools that Robert Moses built in the Depression-one of which was used for the 1936 Olympic trials-and save some money!
The other point that Mr. Victor has going for his project is the city’s dire need for energy. A task force put together by Mayor Bloomberg after the Con Ed fire-and even before the August 2003 blackout-came out with its report a year ago, calling for 2,600 megawatts of additional energy to be produced within the five boroughs. Power plants that have since been started or have state approval bring that total down to about 1,000 megawatts-a little under the 1,100 megawatts that the TransGas plant would provide. No other power company is proposing to build a major generating plant in New York City.
The report recommended that New York “review pending proposals for changes in zoning to ensure that suitable existing industrial zones remain available for generation plants.”
That is unlikely to happen in Williamsburg-Greenpoint. Nor, says the Bloomberg administration, can park and plant co-exist. “TransGas’ revised proposal would still present significant land-use impacts, thereby jeopardizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reclaim nearly two miles of Brooklyn waterfront, create thousands of new apartments and over 25 acres of new parkland,” Jennifer Falk, a spokeswoman for Deputy Mayor Doctoroff, said in an e-mail.
“We’re making enormous strides,” Ms. Falk said of the energy task force recommendations. “A detailed progress report is scheduled to be issued soon.”
It’s enough to make you hit your adversary where it hurts the most-namely, on the West Side. Mr. Victor wants to buy the railyard and hold onto it while securing state approval for the East River power plant. After that, he’d be willing to lease or build whatever the city and state wanted. Still, Mr. Victor denies his bid is vengeful.
“Everybody’s taking a shot at Dan Doctoroff. If anybody has the right to take a shot at Dan Doctoroff, I think it’s me. I’m not going to take a shot at him,” he said. “I’m not for him, I’m not against him. I believe that Dan Doctoroff has been loyal to his staff, but his staff came up with a design they didn’t understand. I don’t think he has focused on it. I just think he is focusing on something else, and meanwhile relying on others who frankly should have known better.”