Since Con Edison decommissioned its Waterside Power Plant in the early 2000s, the expansive swath of land on the East River where it once stood—known colloquially as the “First Avenue Mud Pit”—has beckoned architects to build something as great as its neighbor, the United Nations Headquarters. In 2003, Fumihiko Maki won a competition to design a new tower for the UN between 41st and 42nd Streets on Robert Moses Playground—a project marred by a long series of complications that never broke ground. In 2008, SOM and Richard Meier & Partners (now Meier Partners) prepared a master plan for the contiguous land parcel between 38th and 41st Streets but that project had its plug pulled when the recession hit.
Now, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is next in line to reimagine the skyline between 38th and 41st Streets on 1st Avenue, alongside Soloviev Group, the landowner; and Mohegan, formerly known as Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment. Adamson Associates Architects, OJB Landscape Architecture, The Friedmutter Group, HBA, Thornton Tomasetti, WSP, Langan, Rizzo-Brookbridge, Herrick Feinstein, and Kilograph are all collaborators on the megaproject.
Freedom Plaza is eponymous after the open patch’s current name, as can be seen on Google Maps. There, BIG has envisioned a 4.1 million-square-foot complex just south of the UN replete with residential and hotel towers, a museum, and a casino. Freedom Plaza will be anchored by two residential towers to the south, and two hotels to the north and west, thus transforming the East River’s iconic skyline. The residential towers will be 50 and 60 stories, and contain 1,325 apartments; both hotels will be 51 stories high and fitted with 1,200 rooms. The latter will accommodate New York City’s first five-star Banyan Tree Hotel and a Mohegan Hotel, plus a conference and entertainment center.
The towers by BIG will complement the UN Headquarters with their striped glass and aluminum facades, connected at the base by a podium that will house restaurants, a food market, community spaces, a daycare, and other amenities, the architects said. The towers will be clad in a “warm metal finish,” creating “visual unity” between the buildings. The complex will also feature retail and restaurants, and even a new cultural institution fitting for its location, dubbed the Museum of Freedom and Democracy.
Upon completion, the venture will yield a 4.77-acre, publicly accessible plaza (roughly the same size as Bryant Park) on the East River designed by OJB Landscape Architecture. The plaza by OJB will provide much-needed open space in a part of Manhattan that lacks access to it, offering a children’s play area, a dog run, and an event lawn with a bandshell for hosting al fresco events.
In signature BIG fashion, the Museum of Freedom and Democracy will be shaped like a Möbius strip. Its form will be a spiraling and infinite geometry, a shape that pays homage to the traditional ancient Greek theaters where democracy was created “thousands of years ago,” Soloviev Group CEO Michael Hershman said. Programmatically, the museum will host ephemera that tells the story of democracy since Plato, and even slivers of the original Berlin Wall. “[Soloviev Group’s chairman] Stefan purchased pieces of the Berlin Wall a few years ago,” Hershman told AN. “We will put those pieces of the wall in the museum.”
“The museum is an idea I’ve had for many years now, close to 18 years, actually,” Hershman added. “There is no museum that’s dedicated to freedom and democracy. Today, because of the threat to democracy around the world, and the growth of authoritarianism, it’s become even more important to have something like this; especially in New York, a place people around the world look to for leadership.”
Bjarke Ingels, founder and creative director of BIG, is the visionary behind the Museum of Freedom and Democracy’s architecture. “The Museum of Freedom and Democracy will be designed like an urban agora,” Ingels told AN. “It will provide this journey through different cultural, political, and organizational milestones that have led to the formation and evolution of democracy. Our goal is to allow visitors to immerse themselves in the actual artifacts that are somehow associated with the stepping stones that led to the formation of democracy as it exists today. We’re thinking of using Greek marble, a material synonymous with the cradle of democracy.”
Today, the parcel in question between 38th and 41st Streets on 1st Avenue is the largest undeveloped morsel of real estate in all of Manhattan. For decades, the site was home to the Waterside Power Plant, and owned by Con Ed. That changed when the plant closed, creating a massive dirt hole in the ground the length of three city blocks. In 2000, billionaire developer Sheldon H. Solow—founder of Solow Realty & Development—and the Fisher real estate family won a “hotly contested” auction for all 9.2 acres along 1st Avenue. Solow and the Fishers purchased the tract for $680 million, but that partnership ended in a bitter fallout between the real estate scions.
In 2008, Solow spent $100 million to remove toxic debris from the property left over from its industrial past. That year, New York City approved a $4 billion project for the site designed by SOM and Richard Meier & Partners replete with seven towers, public gardens, a public school, and affordable housing. The deal looked like a sure thing until the recession hit shortly after, which put the project in limbo. Then in 2013, Solow sold off a 2-acre parcel across the street from the site at 685 1st Avenue to Michael Stern, CEO of JDS Development, who later developed the property with SHoP Architects.
Sheldon H. Solow died in 2020. After, Stefan Soloviev took over his father’s real estate company and rebranded it as Soloviev Group. BIG joined the design team for Freedom Plaza this past year. Today, Soloviev Group is currently vying for one of three gaming licenses from Albany lawmakers that would allow it to open a casino at Freedom Plaza. If the license is granted, gaming amenities will be inserted five stories below-grade underneath the hotel towers. And if that happens, the new development will include 510 units of affordable housing.
“We could break ground on the project tomorrow if we wanted to,” Hershman said. “But when we learned that the state of New York was considering issuing downstate casino licenses, we changed our vision. We thought to ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be better for the community, and for the city, and for the state, to turn this site into an entertainment district? With almost five acres of parks, residential towers, hostels, gaming facilities, and a museum?”
To date, Soloviev Group has faced stiff community opposition to Freedom Plaza’s gaming component. State Senator Kristen Gonzalez, who represents the district, recently hosted a town hall meeting about the casino proposal. Over 800 people attended the meeting, many of which voiced their concerns, as reported by The City. There, one constituent called casinos a way of making “blood money.” Robert Gottheim, Representative Jerry Nadler’s district director, added that “casinos prey on the most vulnerable people spending their paychecks.” Last week, Manhattan Community Board 6 also passed a resolution 39-to-1 opposing a proposal by the NYC Department of City Planning that would have allowed the casino to bypass standard zoning approval rules, known as ULURP, that’s backed by Mayor Adams.
Construction at Freedom Plaza could begin in 2025, pending the casino license.