Published: November 23, 2022

Billionaire intends to apply for a license to operate a casino just south of the United Nations in New York

Stefan Soloviev has been an apartment landlord, farmer and railroad operator, with an empire stretching from the unforgiving croplands of the American West to the gladiatorial arenas of global finance. 

Now, he wants to add gaming mogul to his dizzying resume.

Soloviev, 47, intends to apply for a license to operate a casino just south of the United Nations in New York, on a massive site that’s been lying fallow since his father, the late Sheldon Solow, agreed to acquire it more than 20 years ago. The current plan includes a 1,000-room hotel, 4-acre (1.6-hectare) park, Ferris wheel and museum dedicated to the subject of democracy.

“It’s really exciting to take that site and look at what it can become,” he said in an interview.

For Soloviev, it’s the latest effort to remake a real estate business assembled by his ornery father, whose prowess as a builder was at times overshadowed by his litigious nature.

Solow, who died in 2020 at the age of 92, was a college dropout whose career was defined when he assembled a parcel of land south of Central Park and erected an office tower at 9 West 57th St. that has a distinctive sloping facade. 

The property, known in real estate circles as 9 West, was a hit with banks, hedge funds and private equity firms, with companies including Apollo Global Management Inc. and Dan Sundheim’s D1 Capital Partners taking space in the tower. But Solow’s stubbornness made it hard to keep the building full, and occupancy was often below 50%, his son said. 

Out West Soloviev, who took an ancestral version of his family name, clashed with his father and struck out on his own. Over more than two decades, he acquired more than 200,000 acres in Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico, growing milo, wheat and other crops. He raises cattle on more than 300,000 acres of ranch land, and operates a smaller-scale agricultural operation on the North Fork of Long Island.

Solow’s death in late 2020 left Soloviev in charge of the family enterprise, as Covid was stretching real estate markets to extremes. He soon cashed in on the red-hot apartment market, agreeing to sell a portfolio of rental buildings for $1.75 billion. The remaining New York properties, coupled with agricultural land and other assets, combine to make a vast enterprise that leaves Soloviev valued at about $3.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

While the apartment market was booming, offices weren’t, as remote working took hold and skyscrapers emptied out.

“My sense on NYC office leasing, both now and going forward, is that there is going to be less overall demand for space, and that space is going to consolidate in the newer and more recently renovated buildings that offer better amenities,” said Jeff Langbaum, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

At 9 West, Soloviev sought to upgrade the building’s amenities. On a recent tour, construction workers were toiling away on a tenant-only fitness center in the basement. The 27th floor had recently been gutted, with plans to install private dining rooms and meeting spaces, enabling tenants on lower floors to take advantage of the building’s sweeping Central Park vistas.

Soloviev said the building is now 89% leased and he expects it to remain competitive. In October, the Real Deal reported that he was finalizing a deal to sell the building. Soloviev pushed back, saying he wasn’t looking for offers and that the building wasn’t for sale.

Casino Pitch The casino bid traces its roots to one of Solow’s outsized bets.

Solow and his partners agreed to acquire the property in 2000, paying about $600 million to buy the 9-acre site from Consolidated Edison Inc., including a plot that included a century-old steam electric plant. The developers remediated the land and crafted plans for a $4 billion project, including more than 4,000 apartments and a nearly 700-foot (213-meter) office tower.

The financial crisis put the brakes on the project. Solow developed one parcel and sold another, leaving an additional 6 acres for the potential casino project.

Soloviev Group Chief Executive Officer Michael Hershman said the company would partner with a gaming company and was in discussions with several Las Vegas-based firms. He envisions the development as an entertainment district that activates a sleepy part of Manhattan, extending out over the FDR Drive to the East River. 

Securing one of the three potentially lucrative licenses for the downstate part of New York will be a challenge. Real estate and finance-industry giants — including SL Green Realty Corp., Stephen Ross’s Related Cos. and Point72 Asset Management’s Steve Cohen — are lining up for a chance at the prize when the state puts out a formal request for proposals. 

“We expect it to be a very competitive process,” Vornado Realty Trust Chairman Steven Roth said on a recent earnings call. “We continue to be interested, very interested.”

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