Friday, June 8, 2012

Cuomo Weighs Convention, Casino Complex on Pier 76

Pier 76 is home to the Police Department's tow pound and horse stables. But in the near future, it could become an extension of the neighboring Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, complete with a grand casino and luxury hotels.

Earlier this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to tear Javits down. Now the center's supporters, and perhaps even the governor, are weighing plans to expand the facility and make it part of a massive development project that will include a Las Vegas-style casino, hotels and retail along the Hudson River. The plan is gaining support from many corners, including individual members of Friends of the Hudson River Park Trust.

It's not an entirely new idea—parts of it first surfaced 20 years ago—but it's gaining renewed interest now that exclusive talks between the governor and casino operator Genting Americas about building such a facility at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens have ceased and an open bidding process for a mega-convention center in the city seems to be in the works.

All proposals suddenly are fair game, from plans to expand Javits to proposals to bring gamblers and conventioneers to sites ranging from Willets Point and Sunnyside, Queens, to the Yonkers Raceway in Westchester County to even Governors Island, which MGM looked at 14 years ago as a possible location for a casino.

Javits is currently undergoing a $463 million expansion and renovation. A further expansion has wide support from trade show and convention industry executives, who had been sidelined from earlier discussions with the governor and are now talking with all the major casino operators.

The Javits plan has one big booster in William Wachtel, a well-connected real estate attorney who also owns a commuter ferry business, BillyBey Ferry Co., at nearby Pier 79 off 12th Avenue, a short walk from Javits.

Six years ago, Mr. Wachtel tried to interest public officials in a design he had commissioned that connects Javits to Pier 76 via a skywalk over the West Side Highway and replaces the tow pound at the pier with more than 1 million square feet of hotel, banquet and retail space, a winter garden, a 2.4-acre public park and an 800-car garage.

It has also been identified by the operators of the London Eye as a possible spot for New York's own Ferris wheel.

The idea also has plenty of competition and could face fierce political opposition. The biggest casino companies in the world are now exploring their options. MGM Resorts International, for one, recently hired New York-based public relations and lobbying firms to represent it here.

Others, such as Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands Corp., have also publicly expressed interest in New York.

According to the Regional Plan Association, an urban development advocacy group, there are at least four viable sites in the city for the mega-project, including Aqueduct. The other locations RPA identified are closer to Manhattan than Aqueduct, which is one hour away by subway.

Willets Point, the 61-acre site in northeast Queens slated for redevelopment by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is seen as the trade show industry's first choice for a huge convention center—in addition to keeping Javits.

The city is close to a deal with the Related Cos. and New York Mets owner Sterling Equities to develop 12 acres at the site, which would include retail and residential units, but many hurdles remain, including a yearlong environmental study and City Council approval.

Sunnyside Yards in Long Island City, Queens, was suggested in 2007 as a possible site for relocating Javits. There is a 167-acre space, much of it used by Amtrak and the Long Island Rail Road. The area is largely zoned for manufacturing. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's East Side Access project, once completed, will make the yards even more desirable for development once trains connect from Long Island City to Grand Central Terminal.

Governors Island is the least likely of the options, because it can be accessed only by ferry. Convention centers require easy access by 18-wheel trucks.

The biggest impediment to a casino and convention hall project, however, is not a dearth of good sites but whether a constitutional amendment allowing full-scale gambling will pass in New York. The Legislature passed a proposed amendment this year to allow up to seven full casinos. A second vote must occur next year to confirm the intention; then New York voters would get their chance to weigh in on changing the state's constitution to legalize casino card games, roulette wheels, craps tables and other types of gaming.

What's more, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has voiced opposition to locating a casino in Manhattan.

Casino operators will most likely lose interest in New York—and their desire to fund a massive convention center—if the law is not enacted.