Towering Vision by Developer Stirs East Side
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Sheldon H. Solow’s black Mercedes 500 glided across a wind-swept lot near the East River where he is seeking to turn the former site of Con Edison’s Waterside power plants into a luxury development on what is the largest stretch of undeveloped, privately owned land in Manhattan.
The New York Times
After alighting from the sedan, Mr. Solow surveyed the rubble-strewn property along First Avenue, south of 42nd Street, and a smile crossed his face. At 79, he is embarking on the biggest project of his life: a $4 billion development of seven glassy towers, a public pavilion designed by Richard Meier, and 4.8 acres of gardens, lawns and Parisian-style esplanades.
It has not sparked the controversy of Columbia University’s plunge northward or the developer Bruce Ratner’s sprawling Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn. Still, its oversize buildings, which would rise above the United Nations Secretariat tower just two blocks to the north, are upsetting many people in the genteel precincts of the East Side.
Mr. Solow, a tall man with a full head of gray hair who is customarily dressed in a blue blazer and gray slacks, contends that his new towers will be as iconic as the swooping, 50-story tower he built 34 years ago at 9 West 57th Street, one of the most sought-after office spaces in Manhattan.
“Anyone driving down the F.D.R. or taking the ferry up the East River will have a new sense of the city,” he said.
Right or wrong, his absolute conviction in his own vision of the world has made him a billionaire with a half-dozen hugely successful commercial and residential buildings in Manhattan. It is also the reason that many politicians and his real estate brethren regard him as impossible to deal with and their absolute last choice for a partner. He has a reputation for being litigious, having sued blue-chip tenants, rival moguls, a neighbor in the Hamptons and even a friend. That reputation infuriates him.
“He isn’t the easiest guy to deal with,” said Irving Fisher, a retired construction industry executive who is advising Mr. Solow, “because he knows a lot. He is a very hands-on person. He doesn’t skimp. He spends money to get what he wants.”
His 6.1 million-square-foot East River project is now wending its way through the public approval process, 10 years this month after he signed a $630 million contract to buy nine acres at three sites between 35th and 41st Streets. Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, will hold a public hearing on the project today. The project requires approval by the City Planning Commission, but the real battle will probably come in the City Council, which is generally more sensitive to community outcry and to a coalition of elected officials seeking substantive changes in the plan.
“The community is very nervous about the height and the number of the buildings the developer has shown us,” said Liz Krueger, a state senator who represents the area. “This is a negotiation between the people of the city of New York and one developer’s dreams of maximizing his profits.”
Mr. Solow, the son of a bricklayer, made his name in real estate in the late 1960s, buying 17 parcels on 57th Street and ultimately building 9 West 57th Street. The tower, which was designed by Gordon Bunshaft with, Mr. Solow says, his help, commands some of the highest rents in the city and offers breathtaking views.
In an interview at his office, Mr. Solow called his son Stefan, 32, his “heir apparent,” a notion that caused Stefan to roll his eyes and squirm uncomfortably in his chair, while his father sat seemingly oblivious. Although Stefan Solow now oversees the family’s residential properties, he also runs a grain farm in Kansas.
Self-taught in art appreciation, Sheldon Solow has amassed what Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, calls a vast, eclectic and “distinguished collection,” with works by Balthus, Picasso, Matisse, Botticelli, Morris Louis and Rothko, as well as Egyptian antiquities and African art.
“He’s one of these people who is curious,” Mr. de Montebello said. “This is somebody who buys things he reacts very strongly to, not in an academic way.”
Mr. Solow also has a finely tuned sense of injustice when it comes to himself. He is credited with having filed more than 200 lawsuits. He is currently suing Conseco, the insurance company, over what he claimed was a fraudulent bidding process in its $1.4 billion sale of the General Motors Building in 2003 to Harry Macklowe. Mr. Solow, who covets the tower as a matching bookend to 9 West 57th Street, routinely describes himself as the “owner” of the G.M. Building.
Mr. Solow, whose friend and litigator of choice is David Boies, a former lawyer for President Clinton, has chalked up a couple of hard-fought victories, including a $30 million judgment against W. R. Grace. But he has lost more cases. He and his lawyers have been chastised and sanctioned for bringing “frivolous” cases.
Since buying the Con Ed land, Mr. Solow has spent another $125 million cleaning the site of toxic soil, shed a partner and dumped the original architect, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners. Mr. Solow’s quest for control ruptured relations with his original partner, the Fisher real estate family, and after a series of unrelated family tragedies, the Fishers quit the project, according to several real estate executives.
On the southernmost Con Ed parcel, between 35th and 36th Streets, Mr. Solow has proposed building a 32-story and a 47-story tower, with what will probably be a five-story school. Trees would line the walkways leading from First Avenue to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and the river.
The tallest building, a 69-story residential tower, would rise on the west side of First Avenue, between 39th and 40th Streets.
The largest parcel, which stretches from 38th to 41st Streets, on the east side of First Avenue, would be lushly landscaped, with walkways lined by four rows of trees. A semicircular public pavilion was designed, like the residential buildings, by Mr. Meier. It was inspired by Mr. Meier’s Jubilee Church in Rome, a well-regarded example of contemporary architecture, with white concrete sails, and a favorite of Mr. Solow’s.
It is on this parcel that Mr. Solow plans to build a 47-story, 688-foot-tall office tower, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, as well as three residential towers of 57 to 66 stories.
In all, there would be about 4,166 apartments and more than 6,000 new residents.
Community Board 6, which is by no means anti-development, strongly opposes rezoning the property for Mr. Solow’s project unless he makes a series of modifications. It opposes putting a commercial tower in what it describes as a residential neighborhood and allowing 50- and 60-story towers in an area where 40-story buildings are the norm.
Edward Rubin, an architect and longtime member of the board, said that the parklike spaces would be overwhelmed and shadowed by the towers. He also said that 39th and 40th Streets, east of First Avenue, should be reopened to traffic, while the proposed 1,500 parking spaces should be sharply reduced in keeping with the mayor’s plan to reduce congestion.
“This doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Rubin said. “The buildings, from the first 10 stories, look very handsome. But are 70-story buildings suddenly the new thing? It’s out of character.”
Daniel R. Garodnick, who represents the area in the City Council, agreed. “The buildings are too big,” he said. “This is a community that very much wants development, but it wants it done in a reasonable way.”
Mr. Solow recently agreed to provide two other things sought by the community and a coalition of elected officials: a public school for 650 students and an agreement that as many as 600 apartments would be permanently set aside for low- and moderate-income families.
Months ago, he also cut the height of his proposed towers. His critics, however, contended that Mr. Solow had, in the time-honored tradition of New York developers, requested more than he wanted knowing that he could later shave their size to appear to be willing to compromise. Under the current proposal, three of his seven towers would rise well above the 505-foot United Nations Secretariat building.
As the project awaits review by the City Planning Commission and the City Council, where elected officials are already lobbying for changes, Mr. Solow has hired an army of lobbyists, publicists and planners for the battle.
Executives who work with Mr. Solow say that he is unlikely to eliminate the office tower, which in his mind is “sacrosanct, a deal buster,” though he may whittle it down some.
Mr. Solow is interested in a separate proposal that is backed by both the community board and the Municipal Art Society, which would involve rebuilding a section of the F.D.R. Drive and providing access to the waterfront and a newly built park. But city officials are not as enthusiastic, perhaps fearing that it would slow progress on Mr. Solow’s project.
“It’s going to be exactly the way he wants it to happen,” said the developer’s son Stefan. “I don’t ever see him taking anyone else’s advice, or letting anyone stop what his overall vision is.”