After more than two decades, a developer’s megaproject could finally take root at the sprawling, fallow site near the United Nations headquarters in Midtown. Its latest bid: a proposal for Manhattan’s first Vegas-style casino.
Soloviev Group, the longtime owner of the 6.7-acre plot, said on Tuesday that it will partner with Mohegan, the casino and resort operator, to compete for one of three casino licenses expected to be granted by state gambling regulators in the greater New York City area.
Soloviev joins a crowded field of developers that have already announced partnerships with casino operators in bids that span Coney Island in Brooklyn, Hudson Yards and Times Square in Manhattan, Willets Point in Queens and Nassau County on Long Island, among others.
The mixed-use project, anchored by a mostly underground casino, could have a 1,200-room hotel, two residential towers, a museum dedicated to democracy and four acres of green space with a massive Ferris wheel, said Michael Hershman, the chief executive of Soloviev Group.
The new museum, which the company has said will showcase giant slabs of the Berlin Wall, will draw on the developer’s extensive private art collection.
The Race for a New York City Casino
The competition for three casino licenses in the New York City region begins in earnest this year.
- A High-Stakes Contest: When will the casino locations be announced? Who gets to decide where they will be located? Here’s what to know.
- The Proposals: Developers are crafting bids heavy on amenities and less focused on gambling. These are the most likely sites and their proposals.
- An Upscale Pitch: The owner of Saks Fifth Avenue said it would bid to convert the top three floors of its Midtown Manhattan store into a Monte Carlo-style casino.
- Times Square: A commercial developer and a gambling giant want to give the neighborhood one of the few spectacles it lacks: a glittering vertical casino at its core.
“There really is a lack of hotel rooms, retail and restaurants” in this stretch of Midtown East, Mr. Hershman said, adding that the plan, called Freedom Plaza, would bring a number of amenities. “This is beyond a casino,” he said.
The reason for putting most of the gambling operation below grade, Mr. Hershman said, is to reserve about four acres of open space for public sports fields, walking paths and other amenities, he said, in an area that has little greenery. The residential towers, depicted in renderings with swooping carve-outs for trees and green space, could have 1,400 to 1,500 new rental and condo apartments, an undecided portion of which would be offered below market rent.
This is not the first ambitious plan for the site, which was part of a former Con Edison power plant that bordered the East River, from East 38th to 41st Streets on First Avenue.
Sheldon H. Solow, the patriarch of what is now the Soloviev Group, and a partner bought the 9.2-acre site in 2000 for $630 million. After shedding a development partner, selling off a portion of the property and making changes to the site plan, Mr. Solow received approval for a multibillion-dollar project that included three residential towers and an office building.
One obstacle after another — community opposition to earlier iterations of the project, a downturn in the condo market, the flattening of the office market during the pandemic — delayed plans for years. Mr. Solow died in 2020 at the age of 92, and his son, Stefan Soloviev, took over the business, which now operates as the Soloviev Group — the family’s pre-Ellis Island surname.
Soloviev Group has been relatively slow to announce its partnership. Ray Pineault, the president and chief executive of Mohegan, said that discussions about the site only began a few weeks ago and that his firm had been approached by other casino bidders.
The bid will face stiff competition. SL Green Realty Corp is working with Caesars Entertainment to convert 1515 Broadway, an office tower in Times Square, into a hotel-and-casino hub. Related Companies, the developer of Hudson Yards, and Wynn Resorts are planning a mixed-use complex with a casino on the western half of the rail yards. Steven A. Cohen, the owner of the Mets, is considering a casino on the parking lot beside Citi Field in Queens.
Other bidders include Thor Equities, which is working with casino partners to transform a stretch of Coney Island. Las Vegas Sands is pushing for a casino license at the site of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Long Island. Hudson’s Bay Company, the owner of Saks Fifth Avenue, is proposing to convert the top floors of its flagship store into a high-roller casino.
There are also two existing operations, so-called racinos in Queens and Yonkers with horse racetracks and digital gambling, that are vying for full-fledged casino licenses with table games and live dealers.
The earliest that the state’s Gaming Facility Location Board is expected to make a decision on the winning bids is late 2023, but the process could stretch on for much longer, because of complicated land-use questions and a lengthy community feedback process. Qualifying bids require a minimum $500 million capital investment, and the winners will each pay at least an additional $500 million gambling license fee.
As with the others, the Soloviev bid is already facing pushback. Kyle Athayde, the chair of Community Board 6 in Manhattan, said his group is “very opposed” to a plan that includes a casino and entertainment and remains suspicious of the net benefits, including the housing component and green space.
“These are really Trojan horses to get the casino through,” Mr. Athayde said, noting that the opening of a major commercial complex in a largely residential area would be too disruptive.
Mr. Hershman said that the site’s proximity to major roads, ferry access and a 10-minute walk to Grand Central Station make the location ideal for the project.
Mr. Athayde is skeptical. Case in point, he said: when the General Assembly of the United Nations, and its cavalcade of diplomats, snarls traffic along First Avenue.