Wild Card! Manhattanites split on Midtown East casino proposal

With a fierce bidding war on the horizon for a casino license in New York City — and with a new Midtown proposal on the line — Manhattanites say they’re split on one billionaire’s plan to construct a sprawling casino, towering Ferris Wheel, and more in the shadow of the United Nations.

The bid, first reported by the New York Times, is being led by real estate billionaire Stefan Soloviev and the Mohegan Tribe, which runs Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Soloviev wants to build a casino on 6.7 acres of empty land between 38th and 41st streets and 1st Avenue and the FDR Drive.

Soloviev’s project, formally dubbed “Freedom Plaza,” would also see the erection of a 1,200-room hotel, two residential skyscrapers, a performing arts center, and a new park.

Shortly after news broke, New Yorkers told amNewYork Metro they weren’t sure they wanted to roll the dice on the plan.

“I live in this neighborhood, and I don’t mind the Ferris wheel, but I don’t want a casino,” said local Karen Green. “I feel like it is going to attract different types of people. I’m a little afraid of it.”

The site is currently a padlocked patch of empty swampland that’s surrounded by fencing. Thursday morning, cinderblocks sat by waterlogged bits of dead grass, all the while rusted chains kept the public out.

For residents like Green, New York City is already chock full of bars and hotels. She hopes, instead, to see the vacant area near the East River be revitalized into a green space geared specifically toward children.

The vacant lot where the Midtown East proposed casino would be built. Photo by Dean Moses
Chains and padlocks currently keep the public out of the lot. Photo by Dean Moses

“If they made it a children’s area, I’d be fine but a casino kind of scares me,” Green said. “[The area] needs something. A green space would be better than a casino.”

But not all are opposed to the proposal.

New Yorker Alex Arcadia was taking an afternoon stroll by the site Thursday, during which he told amNewYork Metro that he’s open to the creation of a casino — especially if it can help boost the local economy.

“You can’t stop progress,” he said. “If people want to create items that are going to generate income that’s going to trickle down to everybody else, well then how can that be a bad thing?”

Alex Arcadia isn’t opposed to a new casino in Midtown. Photo by Dean Moses

Arcadia said the project would also create a walkable destination — something, he believes, locals are craving, as opposed to trips that require long drives.

“Now you can just work, come out here, go onto a nice Ferris Wheel, and gamble some money if you want,” he said.

​​Kevin O’Keefe, executive director for the St. Vartan Park Conservancy (located just a few blocks shy of the site), said he and his organization ar on the fence when it comes to the idea.

“Right now, we’ve expressed weariness. That’s a word we’ve used multiple times because of many different elements that we need to know more about,” O’Keefe explained, adding that one of the conservancy’s biggest concerns is that the casino would be three blocks away from the River School PS 281.

​​Kevin O’Keefe, executive director for the St. Vartan Park Conservancy ponders the site. Photo by Dean Moses

The St. Vartan Park Conservancy’s main goal, O’Keefe said, is to make the community happy — and the proposal has already come up at the group’s meetings, where he says he’s heard concerns made by parents of local schoolchildren and other groups about a casino’s potential impact on the area.

“The proposal that we did see that was sent out to prospective casino partners, I felt, was not defined enough and was schematic driven. So, I need to know more,” O’Keefe said. “But I want to be explicit that we are not rejecting the plan outright at all. We are just expressing wariness.”

While O’Keefe is certainly still open to the casino, he would ideally like to see the site transformed into a fully green space — something he’s happy the proposal does include in some capacity.

“Our dream is that the city somehow finds some money to work with Mr. Soloviev to purchase this site and turn it into a park, a thousand percent and athletic fields and that’s one thing that was in the plan,” O’Keefe said. “We want a more green New York, and we also recognize the huge need for affordable housing.”

The vacant lot where the Midtown East proposed casino would be built. Photo by Dean Moses