Soloviev Group Envisions an Entertainment District by the UN — With Gambling

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New York’s great downstate casino race has some of real estate’s highest rollers competing for one of three licenses set to be given to downstate operators by the state legislature.

Soloviev Group chairman Stefan Soloviev and CEO Michael Hershman are playing for these big stakes, with 6.7 acres south of the United Nations purchased by Soloviev’s late father, Sheldon Solow, from Consolidated Edison in 2000 for $600 million that they hope will be the big winner.

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It will include a park with sports fields, a hotel, a performance space and at its centerpiece will be a Ferris wheel. The gaming floor will be underground, and if they don’t get the permit they will simply revert to their original plan for a 1.2 million-square-foot office building, according to the developers.

As the owners of one of the largest pieces of undeveloped property in Manhattan, the two heads of the firm gave Commercial Observer the broad outline of their vision for what they’re calling Freedom Plaza.

The New York State Gaming Commission is putting together the parameters for a request for applications, which is expected to be released Jan. 6. CO will be sitting down with several of the real estate figures vying for the licenses in the coming days. 

This interview had been edited for length and clarity.

Commercial Observer: When did you first see this as a potential site for a casino, and what were some of the other uses that you considered for it?

Stefan Soloviev:  So originally, we went through the [Uniform Land Use Review Procedure] where we were approved for a 1.2 million-square-foot office tower. We’ve had a lot of interest in bioscience for that property.  There were some economic conditions that came into play between the time Solow owned the property and now, and he wisely chose not to develop the property. The casino idea, I would say, came up a little more than a year ago.

How is the concept shaping up?

Michael Hershman: It shouldn’t be any surprise to you that the community wanted something that would be green, that would be able to be used by not only locals but visitors. So we incorporated the casino into a larger picture of an entertainment district where we have not only a casino and hotel, but also a 4-acre park with sports fields, with walking paths. Also, from a cultural standpoint, it would have a museum dedicated to the promotion of human rights, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, in essence of democracy.

But also the fact that it goes with the entire concept of doing a Freedom Plaza so people can come not only to visit a casino and use the hotel — and by the way, we have plans to build two residential buildings on the property as well, which goes toward satisfying the critical shortage of housing in Manhattan.

Tell me a little bit more about this community outreach that your firm performed, because that can sometimes be a little bit contentious. What was that experience like?

MH: It’s very difficult to build anything without some degree of community opposition. We own a residential building right across the street from this property, so we’ve been in touch with the community associations in the area for some years now, even before we began to develop [685 First Avenue] and getting feedback from them as to what it is the committee would like to see happen. Obviously, you get mixed responses from a number of different businesses, folks that reside in the area, but, almost universally, they all want to have a substantial green area on the property for the community.

What other kinds of entertainment features will it have apart from a gaming area, and what will the gaming area look like?

MH:  It will have an auditorium to bring in live entertainment, much like you see in other casinos, whether they be in Connecticut or whether they be in Las Vegas. 

The auditorium would be connected to the hotel. Obviously it’s too early, we don’t have finalized architectural drawings yet. But the casino would indeed be a major casino that would have the same gaming that you’d find in casinos in Las Vegas.

Do you have any gaming operators lined up as partners?

MH: We know that others who are looking to build a casino, whether it’s in Times Square or whether it’s Citi Field, have aligned themselves with some very well-known names. From the very beginning, Stefan’s vision was that it’s nice to have a name but we want to have an entity, an institutional casino partner that has the same sort of view of social responsibility, giving back to humanity, working with the local community to make this something more than just a place to go and gamble. And I think it’s fair to say that we’re down to the final evaluation of several major casinos that we’ve been in touch with, and we’ll make that announcement after Jan. 6.

Mark Hallum can be reached at mhallum@commercialobserver.com.