If the owners of one of Manhattan’s largest vacant lots have their way, they could soon build one of New York’s first Vegas-style casinos — on a rocky, waterlogged field next to the United Nations.
But first, a goodwill gesture: The Soloviev Group, the developer, has commissioned artist Bruce Munro to install an extensive light installation on the 6.7-acre site, which will be free to the public and open for at least a year, starting in the end of September, the company said.
The Field of Light artwork, an arrangement of 17,000 flower-like fiber optic stems, will be staked, installed and illuminated in a kaleidoscope of colors on an empty stretch of First Avenue between East 38th and 41st Streets.
The Soloviev Foundation, the development firm’s charitable arm, will cover the $1.5 million cost of installing and maintaining the display, said Michael Hershman, chief executive of the 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 race to secure one of the New York area’s three lucrative gambling licenses.
At least 10 firms are seeking to build casinos in the city, Westchester County and Long Island, with sites in Times Square, Hudson Yards, next to Citi Field and even atop Saks Fifth Avenue. Key to all these plans will be the involvement of local politicians and residents, who will have significant influence in the approval process.
The art installation showcases the efforts developers will go to to win a coveted casino permit in the New York area, one of the nation’s last untapped gambling markets.
The Soloviev Casino will 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 apartments and rental units, some of which will be below market rate, and a new museum , which will include plaques from the Berlin Wall.
The casino will be mostly below street level, along with about 1,700 parking spaces for residents and guests, Mr. Hershman said. The developer has partnered with Mohegan, the casino and resort operator.
Keen to win the approval of the local community council, which opposes the project, Mr Hershman said his group had already scrapped plans for its most unusual feature – a giant Ferris wheel reminiscent of the London Eye.
The developer received criticism about the original design and “we take that to heart,” Mr. Hershman said.
The gesture can only go so far. Kyle Athayde, chairman of Community Board 6, said the board continues to oppose the project because the benefits to the community would not outweigh the disruption to the casino.
“These are just distractions for the real money maker to pass,” Mr Athayde said. “Finally we get the breadcrumbs.”
The developers have proposed leaving five acres of the site undeveloped. The light show will be installed in this space.
Mr Munro, the artist, said he got inspiration for the project from a visit to Australia’s rugged Northern Territory – far from the hustle and 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 kind of a wasteland right now,” he said.
Site changes are a long time coming. Sheldon H. Solow, former head of what is now the Soloviev Group, and a partner bought the property, a former Con Edison power plant, for $630 million in 2000. After years of litigation, the city approved a multibillion-dollar development plan, but poor market conditions and the pandemic halted the project.
Today, the site — a sloping weedy field with jutting rocks and birds wading in deep puddles — will require major restoration to host the light show. Mr. Hershman said the company plans to spend $500,000 to repair the cracked sidewalks around the lot.
A decision on where casinos will be allowed in the city is at least a few months away, and it could be years before a major project is built. To advance in the selection process, candidates must win the support of four out of six members of a committee that is selected from local and state politicians.
Meanwhile, Mr Munro said he was excited to bring to New York a project that had “become a bit of an obsession” since his trip to the Australian outback in the early 1990s.
“I hope it cheers people up,” he said. “I hope it puts a smile on their faces.”