East Side Casino Plan Draws Heat From Locals, But Biz & Unions Offer Support

An $18 billion casino complex–which would be located in Midtown East, just south of the United Nations–must be voted on by a supermajority of a “Community Advisory Committee” before moving forward. Some town hall participants called the project, which would be spearheaded by Soloviev Group and Mohegan Sun, a form of ”blood money.” Conversely, small businesses and unions have signaled their support.

| 15 Jan 2024 | 01:46

Freedom Plaza, an $18 billion casino proposal that intends to bring everything from affordable housing to a “Museum of Freedom and Democracy” to Midtown East, is the brainchild of the developer Soloviev Group and the casino operator Mohegan Sun. They’ve teamed up with the hope of emerging as one of three winners of a casino license in downstate New York, and are competing against nine other casino proposals currently being considered in the NYC metro area.

The proposed casino site was once a steam-powered Con Edison substation. Situated between E. 38th St. & E. 41st St.–as well as between 1st Ave. and the FDR Drive–it has sat as a barren pit for 24 years. More specifically, it’s been that way since the late Sheldon Solow paid $630 million to buy the plot in 2000.

Solow’s company spent $100 million dismantling the coal-powered steam plant and decontaminating the site. At one point, Solow had an ambitious $4 billion plan to erect seven luxury towers on the site, throwing in a new public school as a sweetener. Community opposition and the 2008 recession derailed that project. Solow also passed leadership of the company off to his son, Stefan Soloviev. Now, the mixed-use residential & commercial gambling project is on the drawing board. It would feature an underground casino, not to mention lots of land donated for a proposed public greenway. In the meantime, Soloviev Group unveiled an 18,000 LED light display called the Field of Lights in December, which is going to prettify the pit while they vie for a license.

At a Jan. 11 “Casino Town Hall”–hosted by State Senator Kristen Gonzalez–at the NYU College of Dentistry made clear, hundreds of local residents appear to want absolutely nothing to do with Freedom Plaza and a casino in their midst.

In her opening remarks, Gonzalez explained why she believed convening such a forum was important. “As someone who is a born-and-raised New Yorker, I oftentimes saw my community being left out of every big decision that was made about us,” she said. She added that “a good democracy is one where we all get to participate.”

Jerry Skurnik, one of the six members of the NYS Gaming Commission, then strode to the podium to outline what the process for approving the casino (or derailing it) would look like.

First, he explained that a two-thirds supermajority of a special Community Advisory Committee (CAC) would have to approve an application from the Freedom Plaza group (or any of the other parties). The CAC would be made up of representatives from the mayor, the governor, the local City Councilmember, relevant state legislators, and the Manhattan Borough President. Their recommendations would then move to the NYS Gaming Facility Location Board.

The “applicable zoning approval process” would also have to be completed. Additional requirements include approving proposing tax rates and conducting independent revenue & market studies.

Skurnik was subjected to loud cries of disapproval from the audience when he brought up a text amendment being considered by the Department of City Planning. A Community Board 6 resolution passed on Jan. 10 denounced the amendment, which it described as helping “introduce gaming facilities as of right within specified zoning districts across the city, potentially bypassing the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) process.”

A PowerPoint slide by Kurnik rather similarly described the amendment as allowing “gaming facilities as a permitted use in certain districts.”

“It’s the Department of City Planning that made that proposal, not me!” Skurnik protested, to nervous laughter.

Other politicians had a turn at the mic, and they elicited varying reactions. “I don’t like gambling,” said State Senator Liz Krueger. She nearly received a standing ovation.

U.S. Representative Jerry Nadler’s district director, Robert Gottheim, got the opposite response. When he admitted that casinos would inevitably be making their way to Manhattan because “this is where the money is,” audience members angrily seethed that it would be “blood money.” Gottheim didn’t back down, noting that “casinos prey on the most vulnerable people spending their paychecks,” but that such a future was “reality.”

Many members of the public that spoke echoed another Community Board 6 resolution from last March, which noted that “there are significant concerns about a proposed casino’s negative effect on public safety, noise, sanitation, transportation issues, daily over–congestion of people at all hours, and its proximity to schools, green spaces, and hospitals.”

Indeed, CB6 Chair Sandra McKee was a featured speaker. While she noted that the board supports the development of affordable housing, calling it the neighborhood’s “most pressing need,” she emphasized blanket “opposition to any casino” within the boundaries of CB6’s purview. She was met with uproarious applause. Later, she added the caveat that board resolutions were merely “advisory,” and that the CAC would have the final say.

In a memorable instance of the democratic process that Gonzalez had promised, a variety of Soloviev and Mohegan reps dutifully trudged onstage to defend their project, after a PowerPoint presentation of their own. Much of the corporations’ emphasis was on the affordable housing units that would be included in the final product, 513 to be exact. Safety, new green spaces, and job creation figured prominently as well.

In an interview with Straus News, Soloviev Group CEO Michael Hershman said that a petition in support of the project has gathered thousands of signatures, including from hundreds of small businesses. He claimed that unions have also signaled their support, and that they believe that it would create a wealth of jobs for their members.

Hershman was blunt about the nature of the pushback Freedom Plaza would face: “There’s nowhere on God’s green earth that you’re not gonna have opposition to a casino. I understand that. A lot of it is what I call the ‘fear of the unknown.’”

He also added that “there’s a lot of people that think that one day they’re gonna wake up, and overnight the sky opened....and poured down affordable housing and green space while they were sleeping.” Developers are not “non-for-profit organizations,” Hershman said, and claimed that Soloviev Group would lose $100 million building affordable housing without casino revenues to fill the gap.

As for now, another town hall is slated to held in February, and may be just as contentious.