On the far East Side site of the former Con Edison plant, patience appears to be a virtue for Sheldon Solow, the billionaire developer and owner of the land. For the seven-plus years since he agreed to buy the 9.2-acre site, Mr. Solow has slowly planned for a mostly residential development defined by seven modernist, skinny, Skidmore Owings & Merrill-designed towers to rise along the East River, just south of the United Nations, on the border of Turtle Bay and Murray Hill.
Now, five months into the city’s review and approval process, the clash over Manhattan’s largest privately owned development site is finally reaching a crescendo, as Mr. Solow’s plans for the $4 billion project will soon fall into the hands of the City Council, a body that seems poised to greet the proposal coolly, at least as currently presented.
Pivotal at the Council level will be Daniel Garodnick, the ambitious first-term local councilman who could throw a wrench in Mr. Solow’s plans, as he wants substantial drops in height and density, as well as the exclusion of a commercial office building that Mr. Solow is said to hold close. Mr. Garodnick, 35, is perhaps best-known for spearheading the failed tenants’ effort in late 2006 to buy Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the apartment complex where he grew up and now lives.
In the final stage of the city’s approval process, the Council must vote by mid-March on Mr. Solow’s proposed zoning changes, and legislators tend to yield to the local council member on such votes. Given his public statements backing major modifications and the strong level of local opposition in his district, Mr. Garodnick must either buckle before Mr. Solow or deliver significant changes to the current plans.
Mr. Solow’s position on major revisions is unclear, though he has invested substantially in seeing the planned 6.1 million-square-foot project move forward thus far. Since 2004, he has spent more than $1.8 million on lobbyists and land-use-related legal expenses between at least six firms, according to state lobbying records.
The enigmatic 79-year-old Mr. Solow is said to be insistent upon details and intimately involved in the design process of the site, as he was with his prior developments. Real estate professionals regard him as one of the more difficult landlords to work with in the city, as he is known to be extraordinarily litigious, investing hoards of attorneys and years in court battles over unpaid rent, among a long list of other issues. He also is known to not be in the same rush as many in the industry, exhibited by the Con Ed project’s slow pace to date, and seems as though he could wait until a more forgiving City Council comes along if he fails to reach any agreements.
Thus far he has granted some concessions to the community, first dropping the heights of his buildings before the approval process began, and in November, he agreed to leave space for a public school and set aside as many as 600 of the apartments as affordable units.
A spokesman for Mr. Solow’s firm, Michael Gross, seemed to suggest in a statement that the door was open for still more compromise: “We continue to be responsive to community and citywide needs and look forward to the remaining public review process. Our common goal is to create an open and inviting development that will be a valuable addition to the neighborhood and significantly enhance the city’s waterfront.”
The plan has galvanized the community along the East Side, as Mr. Garodnick and other local elected officials, including State Senator Liz Krueger and Borough President Scott Stringer, have made repeated public appeals for changes to the proposal, and Manhattan’s Community Board 6 went so far as to make a complete rezoning proposal of their own for the site, normally a very costly and time-consuming venture.
Their criticisms are numerous, but mostly center around the treatment of open space, and the heights and mix of buildings. As currently planned, five of the seven buildings are taller than the 505-foot U.N. Secretariat building three blocks to the north, a point considered unacceptable by the community, as is the existence of a 1.37 million-square-foot commercial building at the northern end of the land.
Later this month, the City Planning Commission is likely to impose changes of its own to the project; the Department of City Planning recommended lowering the height of the tallest residential building from 721 feet to 600, and decreasing the density of the commercial tower by about 27 percent, among other modifications.
Mr. Gross, the spokesman, said in his statement that Mr. Solow’s firm, East River Realty Company, is reviewing the impact of the changes on the project’s feasibility.