Plots & Plans logo

Where's Humpty-Dumpty?
The New Coliseum Fiasco

By Carter B. Horsley

A new chapter in the continuing saga of the woe-begone New York Coliseum began early in 1997 with the public showing, first by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and then by the Municipal Art Society, of the designs submitted by 9 development teams to redevelop the site at the southwest entrance to Central Park.

It is a dreary tale.

While its listeners - all New Yorkers and all visitors and lovers of New York - may have heard it before, it is a sad story worth telling again.

On the first go-round, almost a decade ago, some rather flamboyant projects were bandied about and after much brouhaha and community angst about shadows invading Central Park a revised, scaled-down, Post-Modern scheme by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for publisher and developer Mortimer Zuckerman, came close to going into construction save for such minor details as its major office tenant bowing out and a nasty legal suit.

While anyone who read the shadow studies knew that such objections were hogwash and silly, since no one suggested cutting off the tops of the San Remo, Century, Beresford, Majestic and Eldorado towers, which all cast shadows, the guts of the law suits successfully challenged the MTA for trying to sell the site to the highest bidder rather than trying to establish design guidelines.


As a result, the M.T.A. deal to sell the site, finally, to Mortimer B. Zuckerman was abandoned in 1994, the nadir of the recent real estate depression.

The real estate markets have rebounded strongly and the new crop of developer proposals for the M.T.A. site at Columbus Circle is, woefully, not as good as the first one. The potential development has been scaled down a bit, in deference new M.T.A. guidelines meant to assuage community opposition, but the designs are generally wretched. Surprisingly, Herbert Muschamps, the architecture critic of The New York Times, singled out one for very lavish praise, that of Murphy/Jahn for Tishman Speyer Properties, Mirage Corp., and Morgan Stanley Partners.

The design is one of Jahn's least inspired and least flamboyant. Jahn set the architectural world on edge with his great State of Illinois Center in Chicago, a dazzling, curved building with a spectacular, large cylindrical atrium, and he is generally recognized as one of the master architects in the world. In New York, he is not well represented, but each of his three major office buildings here show his inventive and unusual designs: the International Plaza office building across from Bloomingdale's at 750 Lexington Avenue has a very handsome retail frontage of curved bays and a fine stepped, curved pyramid top; Park Avenue Tower between Madison and Park Avenues and 54th and 55th Streets, has slanted sides and bulbous courses and an impressive, highly visible through-block lobby; and 425 Lexington Avenue has an abstracted cornice. All these buildings, however, have strange palettes and a lack of grace.

Jahn's design for the Coliseum site retains the existing tower and adds two more, set at angles with each other, on the south side of the site. The renderings and the model indicate that the angled towers would be dark with corner windows, but do not convey enough information to determine the true color of the glass facades. The notion of twin towers, of course, is the great characteristic of Central Park West, but these towers run east to west along 58th Street and therefore are out of line with Central Park West.

The Jahn design may be nice, possibly, but certainly is not exciting and actually is not the handsomest in the new group. Indeed, its raised skylight at the center of the base fronting on the circle is harsh and awkward and relates to nothing.

The best-looking design is by Robert A. M. Stern and Costas Kondylis for the Trump Organization and Colony Capital. Its 750-foot-high tower, shown at the left, is angled to face the park and its main facade is modulated nicely near the top in a style reminiscent of early Lower Manhattan skyscrapers. Seen from other angles, however, the tower is asymmetrical with a large, ungainly wing that extends to the west.

The design of Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo & Associates for Silverstein Properties is particularly odd. It calls for two 670-foot-high towers on the 60th Street side of the site and adds a few floors to the existing smaller office tower at 10 Columbus Circle. The tall towers are very attractive with horizontal banding and setbacks and are at angles with each other, but the smaller south tower is horrid, a new glass top over the existing grayish lump of brick. Roche's cool modern touch on the tall towers is no where apparent on the rest of the site. It must have been a rush job. If the tall towers' facade treatment were fully applied to the south tower and the base, this would be a tempting, but not great design.

The best recycled design is for the Related Companies and Himmel & Company by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Elkus/Manfredi. This multi-towered scheme is modeled closely on David Childs' final design for Mortimer Zuckerman that died an ignoble death in the first go-round. When Childs moved to S.O.M.'s New York office, he changed its sleek modernism to a more Classical, Post-Modern bent and his Zuckerman designs were very fine of this kind. This watered-down version appears to have slightly better massing but much inferior tower tops. It is one of the few submissions, however, to recognize that the site straddles Central Park South and is its terminus and therefore worthy of some gesture, here a very large globe atop the low-rise base.

The only adventurous design is HLW International's slanted tower for H. J. Kalikow & Company. The slant here seems a little gratuitous and its steep angle is not picked up elsewhere in the design and its proportions border on the grotesque. It's not too tall, just too edgy and not rakish enough.

Slickness is more evident in the boxy tower designed for the Simon Property Group, Hines Interests and David Plattner by Gensler/Los Angeles; Freeman-Ionescu; and Schuman Lichtenstein Claman Efron. This would be quite a fine building for downtown Los Angeles, conventionally crisp and impressive, but not inspired.

Schuman Lichtenstein Claman Efron also worked with Cesar Pelli & Associates for the design of the submission from Bruce C. Ratner, Daniel Brodsky and Peter M. Lehrer. This is low-key, Post-Modern Pelli, totally at odds with his true spirit but definitely in context with Central Park West, a disappointment, but not a disaster. Why did he do the Blue Whale for Los Angeles and not New York?

Kohn Pederson Fox Associates, perhaps the nation's finest high-rise architects of the past two decades, teamed with Gruzen Samton, perhaps the city's most intelligent designer of public buildings, for the Lefrak Organization, Edward J. Minskoff Equities and DLJ Equity Partners. Who woulda thunk this design would emerge, a pedestrian scheme better suited for New Jersey than New York?

Lastly, Polshek & Partners and Gary Edward Handel & Associates designed a fairly bold tower for Millenium Partners, but its attempt to mimic the slanted roofline of Citicorp Center is not successful.

What is rather extraordinary about this group is that many of the most sophisticated and artistic developers around and many "big-name" architects are represented and all of these designs would be thrown out in most student design competitions.

What is clear is that most developers are hoping to snare Sotheby's, the auction house, as a major retail tenant, and that a mix of commercial, residential and hotel uses will be built. Given the clout and experience of the development teams, their manifest interest speaks strongly about the city's improved economic climate. What a difference a few years makes!

What is also clear is that all these designs miss the most important point. This is the most important gateway to the Upper West Side, the second most important gateway to Central Park and a grand opportunity to significantly embellish the Central Park South corridor.

Incredibly, none of the designs places a tower in the middle of the site to anchor Central Park South just as the Helmsley Building (originally the New York Central and then the New York General Building) did for Park Avenue. The view is already blocked by a large residential tower erected a few years ago by the Brodskys, but since when have developers ever shied away from intruding on sightlines.

Part of the dilemma here stems from the strong "community" opposition to the former plans for the site. The notion of setting a 750-foot-high cap to building heights is absurd since the nearby Carnegie Hall Tower, Metropolitan Tower and Cityspire all exceed that limit already.

Perhaps the world's tallest building was not necessary here, though certainly there would have been nothing wrong with that, but the city is in desperate need of proving that it can accommodate and encourage great design, which is flourishing in Japan and France and elsewhere.

All these specific designs should be rejected, but three finalists chosen and asked to come up with new designs to be judged by an international panel of distinguished architects.

Perhaps some sense of this disappointment came through to the officials of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority who revealed, in a New York Times story by Clifford J. Levy April 26, 1997, that they need more time to make a decision and that instead of trimming the list of 9 to 3 they will first trim it to 5 or 6.  One developer, Peter Kalikow, who was reported to have offered $180 million for the site, has withdrawn.

The Times' story said that officials involved in the process had given good marks to proposals from the Lefrak Organization, Millenium Partners, Bruce C. Ratner and Daniel Brodsky, the Related Companies and Tishman Speyer Properties with the implication that three other developers, Donald J. Trump,  who had offered the highest bid for the site of $275 million as well as threatening to file a lawsuit if he loses the competition, Silverstein Properties and Simon Property Group were less favored. (4/27)

The announcement that Sotheby's, the auction house, that it may decide not to move from its present location on York Avenue at 72nd Street is sure to complicate matters.  A story by David M. Halbfinger in the June 4, 1997, edition of The New York Times quoted Sotheby's president, Diana D. Brooks as saying that she has informed three of the teams bidding for the Coliseum site that "we felt we had to look at another alternative because of the timing issue."  

Of the five remaining teams in contention, three had previously indicated that Sotheby's had been in discussions with them: Tishman Speyer Properties, Millenium Partners and a partnership of Bruce Ratner and Daniel Brodsky.

The Times story maintained that "Some development experts estimate that the project is still as many as 5 to 10 years from completion," adding that Sotheby's is considering building four to six stories above its existing four-story building on York Avenue.  The auction house had received a zoning change in 1990 to permit it to build a 28-story mixed-use building that would include facilities for itself and apartments.  The plan, designed by Michael Graves, was subsequently abandoned.

The auction house also held discussions about becoming an anchor tenant for a major mixed-use project contemplated for the former Alexander's Department Store site on Lexington Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets, but The Times' article said that "the auction house walked away in frustration in 1995."

Sotheby's clearly would have been a major anchor tenant for any developer at the Coliseum site, not only in terms of the space it would occupy and the rent it would pay, but, perhaps more importantly, also because of the prestige it would bring to such a project.

Its announced plan to simply add a bit more to its existing site rather than redevelop it fully is strange since it could significantly reduce its costs with a mixed-use project and its design by Michael Graves, a controversial architect, was one of his best. (6/7)

In July, 1997, the M.T.A. indicated it was about to select the plan from Millenium Partners for the site, but an article by Clifford J. Levy in the July 27, 1997 edition of The New York Times maintained that Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani criticized the authority for focusing on money rather than design and threatened to use his veto power to "demand extensive revisions."  The article emphasized that Millenium's proposal, which called for a 64-story tower with a convention center, a 1,000-room hotel, an entertainment center, a health club and condominiums, would provide the authority more than $300 million for the site upon signing a contract, rather than waiting until any possible litigation against the project was resolved.

The article quoted the Mayor as saying that "The M.T.A. has really no concern for the future of the city," adding that "All they are concerned about is how much they make." (7/27)

Millenium Partners dropped plans to build a theater for Lincoln Center and a large apartment building at Broadway and West 64th Street, according to a Sept. 30, 1997 New York Post article by Peter Slatin.  His story said that "sources close to Lincoln Center are convinced that officials there would prefer the smaller, 1,000-seat hall envisioned for construction across Broadway at 64th Street to the Mayor's apparent requirement of a 2,000-seat theater in the Coliseum redevelopment several blocks south."  Although Millenium told The Post it had decided not to proceed with a project for the center, the center was said by sources quoted in the article to still hope to get a theater at the proposed location right across from it on Broadway.  

The center is such an integral part of the Upper West Side that it is unlikely that its wishes will be ignored entirely by the Guiliani Administration and thus the Coliseum quagmire deepens as yet more complications evolve. (9/30/97)

After months of delay, negotiations on the project moved forward again in January, 1998, when the Guiliani Administration entered talks with Lincoln Center for the creation of a 1,200-seat theater for its jazz programs at the Coliseum site, which is controlled by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.  

Five development teams are still bidding to develop the 3.4-acre site with up to 2.1-million square feet of development.  A January 28, 1998 article by Charles V. Bagli in The New York Times reported that Donald Trump had bid $275 million for the site, but has recently dropped out, and that Millennium Partners, "which had all but won the bidding, lost two key tenants, Westin Hotels and Resorts and Sony Entertainment," adding that Sony "has opened talks with rival developers."

"In the meantime," the article continued, "Related Properties appears to have strengthened its hand, signing nonbinding agreements with Time Warner for all the office space in its proposed complex and with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group for a 375-room hotel.  The other leading contender, a partnership between the developers Bruce Ratner and Daniel Brodsky, landed tentative deals with Westin Hotels, Sears, and Virgin.  Tishman Speyer, the fifth bidder, has adopted a wait-and-see posture toward the project."

Noting that "an 11-year effort to sell the site to developer Mortimer Zuckerman collapsed during the recession in 1994," Bagli also wrote that "some officials and developers say that unless the project moves forward soon there is a danger that the economy will slow down and the state will miss a chance to benefit from a hot real estate market."  

Millennium Partners had been negotiating early in 1997 with Lincoln Center for the creation of a 600-seat jazz concert hall at another site on Broadway. (1/31/98)

On July 29, 1998, the M. T. A. officially selected the proposal from the Related Companies, which is headed by Stephen Ross, and Apollo Real Estate Advisers, which is headed by William L. Mack.  Their plan calls for $1.3 billion project on which construction is scheduled to start in the summer of 1999.  Their winning bid of $345 million was not the highest, but included a pledge to pay the M.T.A. regardless of any delays or changes in the plan that might result from possible litigation from community groups or residents opposed to the project.

The proposal calls for a 2.1-million sq. ft. building that will house corporate headquarters for Time Warner, now located in Rockefeller Center, a 425-room hotel, 325  apartments, television studio facilities for Cable News network and NYI and a large concert hall for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Some civic groups that opposed former plans for the site have indicated their approval of the new plan, but some civic activists have indicated that they still consider it too big.

The plan  by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is very similar to the illustration above and it was very similar to the final plan proposed by the same architects for Mortimer J. Zuckerman, the developer who had won an earlier bidding competition.  Zuckerman, who is also publisher of the New York News and U. S. News & World Report, had been selected in 1985 when he bid considerably more than the present bid for the site but his plan went through several revisions and a change of architects because of some community concerns above shadows it might cast in Central Park and its environmental impact on the neighborhood.  His main tenant for the proposed project, Salomon Brothers, eventually backed out of the plan, the stock market crashed and then the city's real estate market entered a severed depression and Zuckerman abandoned his plan in 1994.  In 1996, the M.T.A. offered the property once again and in 1997 was on the verge of selecting Millenium Partners, a major developer in the Lincoln Center area, for the project, but Mayor Rudolph Giuliani intervened, calling for the inclusion of a performance space in the project.

In July, 1998, the city also announced that it would experiment with ways to improve traffic at Columbus Circle, but there was no indication that it was considering any of the spectacular and superb proposals recently shown at an exhibition at the Urban Center at the New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue. (7/30/98).


Home Page of The City Review