Viva Hell’s Vegas? As New York State gets ready to grant three gambling licenses to New York City, developers and casino companies across the city are placing their bets on Times Square and Hudson Yards and hoping elected officials and community boards will do the same.
While licenses won’t be announced until “later in 2023 at the earliest”, eager bidders have already plunked down their chips — $2.6 million of them, according to Crain’s — in lobbying city leadership to support their ventures, which could generate an estimated $2 billion in yearly revenue for each casino.
In Hudson Yards, Wynn Resorts (who are partnering with real estate giant Related) have invested a reported $176,000 in lobbying funds in hopes of swaying Manhattan’s Comptroller Brad Lander as well as Manhattan Community Board 4’s Chair Jeffrey LeFrancois to support their plan for a 3-million square-foot casino at the Western Rail Yards. Related and Wynn’s proposal for a $10 billion development would include a 1,700-room resort tower designed to serve casino customers and Javits Center attendees, CEO Jeff Blau told the NY Post. “It will be one of the most incredible tall buildings in New York City,” he added.
While the companies claim the Western Rail Yards plan will retain a 5.5-acre park connected to the High Line, a much-needed public school and a 1-million square-foot rental apartment tower that will include 329 “affordable” units, they will still need to prove the project’s worth to a six-person Community Advisory Committee, which at Hudson Yards will consist of Governor Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams, Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal, City Council Member Erik Bottcher, Assembly Member Tony Simone and Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine.
Governor Hochul has stated that she will stay out of the bidding process, but the governor has been generally supportive of casinos, citing the potential for their revenue to be directed to the struggling MTA. Mayor Adams told reporters he would embrace casinos in the city and is considering changes to the current zoning laws to make developments easier to approve.
Others are less happy about a potential Vegas-strip takeover in the already pricey West Side enclave, citing both corruption concerns — an “absolute petri dish for corruption” according to a Politico report this year — and a lack of community support. City Council Member Bottcher told W42ST: “I remain skeptical about any bids for gaming licenses in Manhattan. The community deserves the opportunity to hear the proposals in full and weigh the pros and cons for themselves, but it’s going to be a tough sell for any applicant.”
“I’m generally predisposed against a casino in Manhattan, full stop,” said Senator Hoylman-Sigal to W42ST. “I haven’t encountered a single constituent in the neighborhood that thinks it’s a good idea,” he added. “But that said, I haven’t seen an official proposal from any developers yet because the process hasn’t truly begun. A lot of what is being discussed is speculation, and there’s a lack of certainty about who is going to apply where. Some developers are more organized than others, but I do think it will be a high barrier to cross in Manhattan — no pun intended, but it’s kind of a crapshoot.”
Assembly Member Simone said: “I have always been against the concept of a casino in Manhattan and I approach each of these proposals skeptically. For any casino to get through the Community Advisory Committee, they will have to demonstrate strong community support — and based on what I have heard from constituents thus far, they have a large hill to climb.”
Chair of MCB4 LeFrancois said the organization would need to see a full application before taking a view either way. “Everybody has a whole lot of ideas and a whole lot of talk, but there’s nothing to respond to until we see a full application,” LeFrancois told W42ST. “It’s my understanding the state is behind on responding to applicants’ first round of questions — and given a required second round of Q&A between applicants and the state, it’s unclear when we’ll see anything right now.” W42ST has reached out to representatives from Related about the proposal and will update if we hear back.
Steps away from Hudson Yards, developers SL Green and Caesars Entertainment are planning their own proposal for a casino in the 54-floor office building at 1515 Broadway — currently home to entertainment giant Viacom and the ground-floor Minskoff Theatre, where Disney’s The Lion King has played since 2006. SL Green and Caesars have sunk $161,000 into lobbying efforts, targeting Borough President Mark Levine as well as entertainment industry leadership.
Some industry vets have even joined the team — like hip hop musician and entrepreneur Jay Z, whose parent company, Roc Nation, made their case for a Caesars Palace in an open letter entitled “It’s Time, Times Square.” The letter argues that “Caesars Palace Times Square will benefit all of New York — the hotel and restaurant workers in the area, retailers and surrounding neighborhoods,” adding, “Our proposal lays out an innovative plan that will not only draw additional tourists to our city but will also enhance the lives of everyday New Yorkers. Gives back to all surrounding businesses and invests money into sanitation and security from the bowtie all the way west into Hell’s Kitchen.” The letter appeared as full-page adverts in New York newspapers as well as on social media.
Many are not convinced. The Broadway League, in partnership with the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association, Hell’s Kitchen Block Association, W47/48th Street Block Association, Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association and CHEKPEDS pedestrian safety group, among others, have opposed the bid, highlighting added congestion, the undermining of Times Square’s small-business recovery and social harm as risks of opening a casino. The group, which has created a website entitled “No Times Square Casino”, hopes to convince the Midtown community to express their opposition as the bids draw nearer.
“The Hell’s Kitchen Block Association (HKBA) is categorically opposed to a casino in Times Square, or anywhere in Manhattan,” said Julia Campanelli, Association president. “We demand our elected officials in Albany stop selling our city to the highest commercial development builders and instead create desperately needed affordable housing for residents.”
“The streets bringing vehicular traffic to Times Square from the West Side are excessively congested. With its limos and buses, a casino would make it much more unsafe for residents, tourists and commuters who walk,” argued Christine Berthet, co-founder of CHEKPEDS.
“After a decades-long turnaround that revitalized the neighborhood and turned it into a pre-eminent destination for locals, businesses and tourists, Times Square is one of the most vibrant areas in the country. We don’t want to see that progress jeopardized by a casino,” added Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. “We hope to be joined by more members of the community as the casino siting process moves forward.”
The Times Square Alliance, the organization that oversees the business improvement district at the Midtown crossroads, is remaining neutral. A representative from the group said: “The Times Square Alliance represents all businesses within our district and understands that they have differing viewpoints and opinions on this issue; therefore, to effectively represent all of our constituents, we will not be taking a position on a casino in Times Square at this time.”
And in addition to potential casinos at Hudson Yards and Times Square, there could be a third proposal brewing in Midtown, at the site of the demolished Hotel Pennsylvania. According to Crain’s, Penn Station area realty conglomerate Vornado has flagged the property as a possible location for a casino, though no lobbying funds have been reported. A representative from Vornado told W42ST: “We are studying the possibility of applying for a casino license, but we have no deal in place.”
All of the Midtown West proposals will have to contend with competing casino bids in other areas — including a plan from Hudson Bay for a Saks Fifth Avenue casino. Thor Equities, Saratoga Casino Holdings, Chickasaw Nation and Legends hope to install a facility at Coney Island, Bally’s plan to install a 10-acre casino on the Trump Golf Links in the Bronx, and Mets owner Steve Cohen’s million-dollar bid for a Seminole Hard Rock in Queens next to Citi Field.
But until the bids are finalized and licenses are awarded, there’s only one guaranteed winner in the feeding frenzy — lobbying firms. “It seems like every lobbyist in town is eventually going to have a casino client,” Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine told Politico. “Even one of these bids will probably be amongst the hardest-fought public campaigns, and to have 10 happening at the same time in New York City is just unprecedented. I don’t think New York City has ever seen anything like what we’re about to witness as the bids heat up.”