Getting It Right
October 12, 2003
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
WHAT would Christopher Columbus have made of the messy circle New York has named after him? Surely he would not have been pleased. Though Columbus Circle has been the major gateway to the Upper West Side for a century, it has never been elegant, lively or efficient - despite multiple, costly government interventions.
This sorry history should be eclipsed at the end of the month when the twin 80-story towers of the $1.8 billion Time Warner Center start opening.
Jazz at Lincoln Center will house both its headquarters and performance space there. Of the 201 condominium units, 10 will be penthouses with extraordinary views.
The commercial tenant roster is spectacular - a Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a 14,000-square-foot Cartier store, CNN's studios, a new Jean-Georges Vongerichten steakhouse, an Equinox gym, and dozens of upscale retailers, such as Williams-Sonoma. Over 90 percent of the retail space has been rented. Columbus Circle itself is being re-landscaped under a $21 million project designed by landscape architect Laurie D. Olin, who rightly calls the current circle "malformed."
But this posh development almost didn't happen. By the time the towers are fully operational in 2004, Columbus Circle will be celebrating its 20-year anniversary of the calamitous 1984 attempt by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and city government to redevelop the circle while ignoring market forces. It's worth reflecting on good government intentions gone so disastrously - and recently - awry.
The Time Warner Center will rise on the site once occupied by Robert Moses' Coliseum, built in the 1950s and made obsolete by the construction of the Jacob Javits Convention Center in the 1970s.
The MTA, which owns the underlying property and the development rights, issued a Request for Proposals, asking developers and architects to respond. But the RFP had a very unusual provision. It announced that "the amount of the purchase price offered will be the primary consideration" in selecting the developer.
Further, developers were required to apply for the full 20 percent zoning bonus, thereby making the purchase price as large as possible. But this also mandated that the development itself be as large as possible - with no regard for either the market or for the development's impact on the neighborhood, particularly Central Park, directly across the circle.
Brendan Sexton, then president of the Municipal Art Society and today a consultant to real-estate developers, says, "Inviting proposals from developers should mean inviting market-based work. You ask them to propose a project they believe they can build profitably. But here the MTA mandated what the market would be. Which doesn't work."
Of the 14 responses, 3 proposed putting up the world's tallest building. The winner was Boston Properties, a real-estate firm owned by Mortimer Zuckerman, a Canadian who also owns the Daily News. Bidding a stunning $455 million, Boston Properties proposed a massive 925-foot-high tower, designed by architect Moises Safdie, to fill most of the site.
Led by the Municipal Art Society and galvanized by patrons of Central Park, West Siders sprang into action. Commissioned studies showed that the tower's shadow would sometimes stretch the width of Central Park, reaching Fifth Avenue. Thousands of opponents lined up in Central Park carrying black umbrellas to illustrate the alleged mile-long shadow that would be thrown by Zuckerman's project.
These tactics might or might not have been unfair, but the real problem was that the developer had miscalculated his market: After the stock market crash of 1987, his proposed tenants absconded, and he was forced to scale back his plans repeatedly.
Finally Zuckerman just quit in 1994, leaving the MTA holding the bag.
In 1998, Related and Apollo Real Estate paid the MTA a little over $400 million for the site - $55 million less than Zuckerman had originally bid. But they had correctly calculated their market and quickly secured Time Warner as their major tenant.
What are the lessons from this near-debacle? One useful message was offered by musician Wynton Marsalis at February's topping-out ceremony: "The art of jazz is the graceful art of negotiation. A project of this magnitude requires much give and take."
And, indeed, the project got built because market forces defeated the first, non-market-oriented scheme, opening up an opportunity for the MTA and city government to reconsider their requirements.
On second chance, they learned from their past history, says Sexton, and "allowed for market variations. They encouraged but didn't mandate that developers build to the maximum bulk. At the same time, they established some guidelines to protect light, air, viewscapes and, most important, Central Park."
Soon Christopher Columbus will stand in the center of a circle worthy of his name.
Julia Vitullo-Martin is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2003 New York Post
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