Developer Promises Affordable Housing if Granted N.Y.C. Casino License

A developer vying to build a casino near the United Nations in Manhattan has tried to sway skeptics with a Ferris wheel, a museum and a glowing field of lights on the 6.7-acre site.

Now Soloviev Group, the longtime owner of the lot, is trying a different tack: the inclusion of 1,325 apartments, nearly 40 percent of which would be offered permanently below market-rate rent, according to the firm. It would represent the largest number of such apartments to be built in the neighborhood in at least a decade.

But it’s a package deal: no casino, no affordable housing.

“We’re not required to do it,” said Michael Hershman, the firm’s chief executive, referring to plans approved by the city several years ago that would allow the developer to build mixed-use towers on the site without affordable housing. But the addition of a casino, which requires the support of local politicians and community members, would make the lower-cost housing “economically viable,” he said.

That is the challenge for a growing number of developers competing for three state gambling licenses in and around New York City. Casino projects have met a frosty reception citywide, but the Soloviev Group plan, called Freedom Plaza, is tying the proposal to two of the local community’s greatest needs: housing and green space.

The new proposal includes two residential towers that share a podium, the taller of which would rise about 600 feet and include 513 income-restricted units ranging from studio to three-bedroom apartments. Prices have not been determined, but the units would be offered to renters making an average of 80 percent of the area median income, or less than $102,000 for a family of three. The rest of the apartments would be a mix of market-rate rentals and condos. If the company is granted a gambling license and zoning approval is prompt, construction could begin in 2025, Mr. Hershman said.

A rendering of Freedom Plaza, including two connected residential towers, center left, a 1,200-room hotel, a museum and 4.7 acres of green space. A casino, most of which would be built underground, is central to the project, the developer said.Credit…Negativ

Many in the neighborhood have been left unconvinced by the previous proposals from the Soloviev Group. Manhattan’s Community Board 6, which includes the site, voted last year to reject any plans that would include a casino, because of concerns about traffic and general skepticism about its benefits.

But the latest iteration could sway some members, said Reshma Patel, the chair of the board’s budget and governmental affairs committee.

“I can’t speak for everybody, but there will be people now who will reconsider,” she said, although she still opposes the plan. “Why can’t we do all these things without a casino?”

The project, on a long vacant stretch of First Avenue between East 38th and East 41st Streets, would create more affordable housing than has been built in Midtown East from 2010 to 2020 — just 356 apartments, according to the New York University Furman Center.

The plans also include a 1,200-room, champagne-colored hotel with a sky bridge; new retail and dining establishments on the street level; a museum dedicated to democracy, with slabs of the Berlin Wall on display; and 4.7 acres of waterfront green space that would be open to the public. The firm canceled plans for a huge Ferris wheel after residents balked.

The casino, expected to be built mostly below street level, with about 1,500 parking spaces for residents, visitors and hotel guests, is comparatively discreet. The developer is working with Mohegan, the casino and resort operator that is an extension of the Mohegan Tribe of Indians of Connecticut. Bjarke Ingels Group, the star architecture firm, is designing the project.

“Without a doubt, we’d have to reimagine the project as a whole” if the casino license is not granted, said Mr. Ingels, the founder of the architecture firm — because of both the casino’s location on the site and its financial benefits to the development.

No casino bid can proceed in the state-mandated licensing process without support from local elected officials, and bidders have gone to great lengths to appease critics.

At least 11 bids for a downstate New York casino license are expected to be submitted to the state, including proposals in Times Square and Hudson Yards in Manhattan, near Citi Field in Queens and at the soon-to-be renamed Trump Links golf course in the Bronx. Nearly all of the proposals have emphasized economic benefits while downplaying gambling.

No decision on where casinos might be approved is expected for several months, if not longer, while the New York State Gaming Commission responds to questions from developers.

As part of its campaign to gather support, Soloviev Group has commissioned a light installation on its sprawling site, created by Bruce Munro, with over 17,000 fiber optic stems that change color. (The opening has been pushed to December because of permitting, Mr. Hershman said.)

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