Larry’s Revenge: Silverstein Digs A Hole At Javits

Real-estate developer Larry Silverstein has laid the groundwork for a 53-story residential tower at 42nd Street and 11th Avenue—right on the spot where a $1.4 billion plan by the state to expand the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center calls for a hotel.

Over the past six months, Mr. Silverstein’s company has been doing remediation work for what his spokesman says will be a residential tower, with no hotel rooms—the sequel to River Place I, a 40-story steeple of luxury rentals that Mr. Silverstein built four years ago right next-door.

More than a year ago, convention-center planners sketched a new hotel on a vacant plot of land along West 42nd Street without bothering to tell the man who owned it: Larry Silverstein.

Nor has the state approached Mr. Silverstein about buying the lot since then. And either because the price is too high, or because officials have had second thoughts, the new leader in charge of convention-center planning told The Observer that the site is now just one of several possible locations for the hotel. Of course, with each passing day, it will get harder—and more expensive—to wrest the property from Mr. Silverstein’s hands. Instead of the state driving the plan, it’s looking more like the market is.

“It’s his property,” said Charles Gargano, chairman of the New York City Convention Center Development Corporation. “He can do what he wants with it. This in no way affects our decision about where to put the hotel.”

Bid-’Em-Up Larry?

So far, behind tall walls of blue plywood at the southeast corner of 42nd Street and 11th Avenue, Mr. Silverstein’s contractors have dug a pit about 30 feet deep. According to Bud Perrone, the spokesman for Mr. Silverstein’s company, the developer expects to start construction sometime next year. And while the state could still exert its power of eminent domain in order to buy the property away from him, each day of progress makes that effort harder.

But some observers see a gambit in this remediation work.

Mr. Silverstein has been roiled by delays and a lack of tenants downtown, and he recently endured a drubbing by the Mayor, who told the Daily News editorial board earlier this fall that the best thing to do at Ground Zero might be to pay Mr. Silverstein to abandon his interests in the site.

Here, too, Mr. Silverstein’s interests clash with powerful government figures. Beginning work on a residential tower could raise the stakes for the state if it were to buy him off the site. It could also raise the prices he could expect if he’s able to sell the land unbuilt and for residential use, if it looked as though the state were eager to buy from the new owner.

A confidential offering brochure, obtained by The Observer, calls the lot “Midtown West’s Premier Development Site” and boasts that it comes with already “approved plans for a 53-story building of approximately 854,000 square feet.” An additional 150,000 square feet could be added if affordable housing were included. “Buildings such as the Orion, Lumiere, and Central Park Place provide compelling evidence that condominium units at 600 West 42nd, with the appropriate design, will easily achieve prices of $1,100-$1,500 per square foot,” the brochure states.

Two real-estate sources said that Mr. Silverstein was asking between $300 and $325 a square foot, or up to $278 million for the property—which would put it well out of range for the New York City Convention Center Development Corporation, which projected that only $350 million would be needed to buy the land and construct the hotel.

Mr. Silverstein’s company spokesman wouldn’t comment on pricing or whether any offers were made. “Larry did put out feelers, but he said he had a change of heart and decided to build it himself,” Mr. Perrone said. Plans for the tower, including the number of floors, are in development, he added. The excavation permit on file at the city Department of Buildings says the tower will rise 53 stories.

Mr. Gargano said that the price Mr. Silverstein was asking was indeed one reason to look for alternative sites, though the two never negotiated with each other.

Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said it wasn’t so much Mr. Silverstein’s asking price that prompted the look-around as the fact that 42nd Street has become an expensive location, dominated by luxury condos..

“We have a fixed amount of money, and I think the appropriate thing to do is to really assess where we can best afford to put a hotel,” he told The Observer.

Either way, Mr. Silverstein’s below-ground work and offering plan demonstrate the precariousness of the Javits expansion project a year after the state legislature and the Governor consigned $1.4 billion to a plan that included a hotel on Mr. Silverstein’s property.

In addition to the location of the hotel, officials are uncertain whether they will ever be able to relocate a city bus garage, which is needed for the second phase of the expansion. At the same time, the local community board and a university research institute are pushing for a radical redesign that would use the M.T.A. rail yards once intended as the site of a new stadium for the Jets football team.

That switch seems unlikely, but the lack of a final schematic plan is annoying one of the chief legislators who saw the financing through the State Assembly last fall.

“It’s almost a dereliction of duty that they haven’t presented the operating corporation with a plan by this point,” said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat running for State Attorney General. “We aren’t saying that plans don’t change, but if that’s what they want to do, they better tell us. All we are hearing are rumors of lack of resources.”

Mr. Gargano told The Observer that the expansion project is still on track, and that the outlines of Phase 1 are clear except for the location of the planned hotel component.

Conventional Planning

The expansion of the Javits Center already rates as one of the state’s most massive development projects, requiring $800 million in state bonding and a new $1.50-a-room hotel tax. It’s a big job. The first phase of the expansion calls for enlarging the exhibition space by 44 percent, from 760,000 to 1.1 million square feet. But the architects will have to do that by adding just one extra block onto the center: Instead of stretching from 34th to 39th streets, as it does now, the center will extend up to 40th Street.

The larger Javits Center will be able to accommodate more and larger shows, but it will still be a midget compared to the three-million-square-footers that other cities are now constructing,.

In addition, the first phase of the expansion calls for about $150 million in public funds to go toward the hotel, which the final environmental-impact statement (as well as the preliminary sketches) stipulates will be located on Mr. Silverstein’s property.

But both of those documents were drawn up under the direction of the agency running—rather than expanding—the convention center. Once Mr. Gargano, a close aide to Governor George Pataki and also chairman of the Empire State Development Corporation, took charge of the expansion about a year ago, he essentially tore up the old plans, which had been drafted by Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum.

“We looked at what they had done and determined it was very minimal,” Mr. Gargano said.

He has spent much of the previous year staffing the development corporation, which is headed by Mike Petralia, a former Port Authority administrator. The agency conducted a two-stage selection process for architects and awarded the contract to three: Richard Rogers, the British lord who is expected to bring some flash to the project; FXFowle, a New York boutique firm that will contribute local knowledge and environmental savvy; and A. Epstein & Sons International, a Chicago firm specializing in convention-center design. Members from the three outfits have been in New York since mid-October conducting a charette.

Mr. Gargano’s agency chose the three firms in September, and a preliminary design scheme is expected by the end of the year.

But along the way, Mr. Gargano began to consider locating the hotel elsewhere, especially along 11th Avenue. While he wouldn’t discuss specific parcels, one possibility, between 36th and 37th streets, is owned by Steve Witkoff; another, at 34th Street, was recently purchased by Joseph Moinian.

The original planning team chose 42nd Street because it’s a better place to hail a cab—and feels more central. “We are kind of isolated where we are. When you come out of Javits Center, you have to walk five or six blocks before you find anything,” said Bob Boyle, the chairman of the New York City Convention Center Operating Corporation.

The 42nd Street location has its own shortcomings, however—chiefly the fact that the hotel would be separated from the expanded center by a block-long city bus garage, between 40th and 41st streets, and no one seems confident of being able to persuade the M.T.A. to move it.

“The city is desperate for bus garages,” said Mike Davies, an architect on the project, at a community meeting on Nov. 14. “It is not something we are counting on.”

Another reason to move the hotel from 42nd Street has to do with neighborhood character: The locals aren’t eager to see a hotel along the old Deuce.

“The stretch of 42nd Street west of Eighth Avenue has become solidly residential—everything that has been built and those that are in the pipeline,” said Anthony Borelli, district manager for Community Board 4. “We believe that 34th Street is the future of the expanded corridor. That corridor is going to have a lot more density than is already there.”

The new designers are talking about greatly improving one of the numerous architectural mistakes dotting the city’s landscape—although when it was built in 1986, its architect, I.M. Pei, was quite a star. But they’re hampered by the fact that, instead of starting anew, they’ll be adding another 340,000 square feet to a long shed that blocks off the water for five blocks and is a half-mile from the subway. At the Nov. 14 public meeting, Christopher Harrison, the founder of a dance troupe with a studio nearby, told of how, every day at 4 p.m., hundreds of dazed and confused conventioneers pour west, dragging suitcases of documents, arms flailing, from 11th to 10th and finally to Ninth Avenue, hoping to find a cab somewhere.

Chuck Lauster, an architect who worked on a plan by the Newman Real Estate Institute, housed at Baruch College, was also at the meeting. He argued that the Newman plan—which would turn Javits horizontally between 30th and 34th streets, where the stadium was supposed to go—would open up the Hudson River waterfront and connect the center to the city. (The Newman plan has been dismissed as too costly.)

“Architect to architect, do you really think it is better from an urban-planning perspective not to do east-west, but to build north-south and block more waterfront?” he asked.

The assembled architects laughed, but wouldn’t answer the question. Larry’s Revenge: Silverstein Digs A Hole At Javits