Will This Light Show Help a Bid for a Coveted New York Casino License?
If the owners of one of the largest undeveloped sites in Manhattan get their way, they could soon be building one of New York’s first Vegas-style casinos — on a craggy, waterlogged field next to the United Nations.
But first, a gesture of good will: Soloviev Group, the developer, is commissioning the artist Bruce Munro to install a sprawling light installation on the 6.7-acre site that will be free to the public and open for at least a year, starting in late September, the firm said.
The art piece, “Field of Light,” an arrangement of 17,000 flowerlike fiber optic stems, will be staked, mounted and lit up in a kaleidoscope of colors on a vacant stretch of First Avenue between East 38th and 41st Streets.
The Soloviev Foundation, a charitable arm of the development firm, will cover the $1.5 million cost of installing and maintaining the display, said Michael Hershman, the chief executive of Soloviev Group. “It’s a gift to New York,” he said.
So begins the next stage of the campaign to win over a wary public, in a competition to secure one of three lucrative gambling licenses in the New York City area.
At least 10 firms are seeking to build casinos in the city, Westchester County and Long Island, with pitches for sites in Times Square, Hudson Yards, next to Citi Field and even on top of Saks Fifth Avenue. Key to all those plans will be buy-in from local politicians and residents, who will have substantial sway in the approval process.
The art installation demonstrates the lengths that developers are going to in order to win a coveted casino permit in the New York City area, one of the last untapped gambling markets in the country.
The Soloviev casino would be the centerpiece of a mixed-use development called Freedom Plaza, which could include a 1,200-room hotel, two residential towers with about 1,500 condo and rental units, a portion of which would be offered below market rate, and a new museum that would include slabs of the Berlin Wall.
The casino would be mostly below street level, along with about 1,700 parking spaces for residents and guests, Mr. Hershman said. The developer is partnering with Mohegan, the casino and resort operator.
Keen to win the approval of the local community board, which opposes the project, Mr. Hershman said his group had already abandoned plans for its most outlandish feature — a giant Ferris wheel, reminiscent of the London Eye.
The developer had received criticism about the original design, and “we’re taking it to heart,” Mr. Hershman said.
The gesture may only go so far. Kyle Athayde, the chair of Community Board 6, said the board remained opposed to the project, because the community benefits would not outweigh the disruption of a casino.
“These are just distractions to get the real moneymaker through,” Mr. Athayde said. “In the end, we get the bread crumbs.”
The developers have proposed leaving five acres of the site unobstructed by buildings. The light show will be installed in that space.
Mr. Munro, the artist, said he drew inspiration for the project from visiting the rugged Northern Territory of Australia — a far cry from the bustle of Midtown.
“It’s a very gentle installation,” he said, adding that he was drawn to the “undeveloped” nature of the New York site. “It’s sort of a wasteland at the moment,” he said.
Changes at the site are a long time coming. Sheldon H. Solow, the former head of what is now the Soloviev Group, and a partner bought the property, a onetime Con Edison power plant, for $630 million in 2000. After years of legal wrangling, the city approved a multibillion-dollar development plan, but poor market conditions and the pandemic stalled the project.
Today, the site — a sloping, weedy field with rock outcroppings and birds wading in deep puddles — will require major remediation to host the light show. Mr. Hershman said the company planned to spend $500,000 to fix the cracked sidewalks around the lot.
A decision on where casinos will be permitted in the city is at least several months away, and it could be years before a ground-up project is built. To advance in the selection process, bidders must win the support of four out of six members of a committee to be selected by local and state politicians.
In the meantime, Mr. Munro said he was excited to bring to New York a project that has “become a bit of an obsession” since his trip to the Australian desert in the early 1990s.
“I hope it cheers people up,” he said. “I hope it brings a smile to their faces.”
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