By Steve Cuozzo
Long before Donald Trump stamped his name in gold on buildings around the world, posted snarky midnight tweets and joined the race for the White House, he was New York’s most important and bravest real-estate developer.
Whatever you think about his political views or crazy campaign, Trump doesn’t get enough credit for being a transformative planner who is in love with the city.
No matter how many times they watch “Taxi Driver,” younger New Yorkers and older ones who arrived recently have no idea of what the city was actually like in the mid-1970s through the mid-’90s. Notwithstanding Studio 54 and a short-lived Wall Street boom, the metropolis was reeling. Rampant street crime, AIDS, corporate flight and physical decay brought confidence to an all-time low.
Trump waded into a landscape of empty Fifth Avenue storefronts, the dust-bowl mugging ground that was Central Park and a Wall Street area seemingly on its last legs as companies moved out.
Except in Battery Park City, which was then as remote as an offshore island, few other developers built anything but plain-vanilla office and apartment buildings. Trump — almost by force of will — rode to the rescue. Expressing rare faith in the future, he was instrumental in kick-starting the regeneration of neighborhoods and landmarks almost given up for dead.
Many of his brainstorms were ahead of their time. Some — like his struggle beginning in the early 1970s to build what’s now called Riverside South — were so far ahead, it can be hard to connect the dots between Trump’s works and the neighborhood transformations they spawned and inspired years later.
His brick-and-mortar milestones are lost on those who know him mainly as a cartoonish TV personality, or are weary of his self-promotion and his omnipresent name on hotels, golf courses and casinos around the world.
Trump himself is largely to blame for being a prophet without honor in his home city. He grew weary of the risky, time-consuming development grind and started selling his name to just about any developer willing to sign a check. The result was horrible projects like the Trump Soho Hotel which he neither built nor owns.
His disastrous foray into Atlantic City casinos — Why, Donald? — his tacky promotion of China-made shirts and ties among other goofy ventures further cheapened his name.
The regrettable result is that Trump’s true legacy is obscured in pointless scrutiny of what he “really owns” and schadenfreude over setbacks such as losing the Plaza Hotel and the Riverside South complex which he brought into being. (Trump was a better developer than he was a dealmaker, his books on the subject to the contrary.)
A more enlightened yardstick would measure what Trump created and how the projects lifted all boats around them. It’s time to commemorate them before he’s lost to the presidency — or to the mercy of late-night TV comedians.
Here’s a look at Trump’s game-changing Manhattan monuments and their legacies.
1. Riverside South, 1997-2004
Trump’s least-appreciated accomplishment, the 16-building complex including a new public park along the Hudson River from West 59th-72nd streets is too often called a Trump failure. He scaled down his original master plan over community opposition; he needed partners to bankroll it; and then, deep in debt, sold out to other developers. But Trump created Riverside South, home to over 10,000 people on a former rail yard site. He acquired land rights in the 1970s; finessed a zoning change from development-averse mayor David Dinkins in 1992; and built the site’s first seven towers. They’re emblazoned with his name for good reason.
2. Trump International Hotel and Tower, Columbus Circle, 1995-97
This was the first project to reclaim Columbus Circle from the vagrants. The hated former Gulf + Western Building needed a new skin and a new image. The owners tapped Trump to figure out how. His gleaming glass facade and all-new interior yielded an Upper West Side gateway edifice. Luxury condos sold out, the hotel was hailed as among the city’s best, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant drew gourmands from around the world. Its success paved the way for Time Warner Center and the Museum of Arts and Design.
3. Wollman Skating Rink, Central Park, 1986
Although the Central Park Conservancy had begun to restore ruined sections of the crime-ridden park, the long-closed ice rink remained a gaping black hole. The city couldn’t finish it after six years of work, and there was no end in sight. Trump rebuilt it in a few months in part to embarrass his nemesis, Mayor Ed Koch. But its impact transcended personality by drawing families and kids to the heart of the park’s “postcard” southern end.
4. 40 Wall Street, purchased by Trump in 1995
The landmark Art Deco masterpiece was a vacant, ruined hulk when Trump bought it for a token $1 million. Companies were fleeing the financial district’s obsolete old towers at the time. Trump’s restoration and marketing savvy swiftly drew tenants and stabilized the area — an inspiration that helped put the area back on its feet in the years before 9/11.
5. Trump Plaza, 167 E. 61st St., completed 1984
Third Avenue north of Bloomingdale’s was a lost highway of tenements and boxy, bland apartment buildings after the el was torn down in the 1950s. Trump’s 39-story, trefoil-shaped co-op tower of limestone, glass and shimmering bronze boasted a welcoming retail base which respected the classic Manhattan “street wall” — repudiating pedestrian-hostile setback design which was then in vogue. It inspired four more similarly configured towers on the avenue and lent some badly needed class to uptown east of Lexington Avenue.
6. Trump World Tower, 845 United Nations Plaza, opened 2001
The condo spire rising 90 stories on First Avenue near the UN was at first detested for its height (and for blocking neighbors’ views). But the bronze glass monolith earned praise from architectural critics. Its impact went beyond looks. Its creative merger of property lots zoned for different uses was unprecedented at the time. Its appeal to the globetrotting rich presaged era-defining later projects like 15 Central Park West and 432 Park Ave.
7. Trump Tower, Fifth Avenue at 56th Street, opened 1983
As the city descended into an abyss of crime and corporate flight, nobody thought of erecting a new skyscraper on Fifth Avenue — except Trump. It perfected the three-way, mixed-use model: condo apartments, office floors and a shopping atrium. An immediate hit with the public, it shone as a beacon of hope for “the world’s greatest shopping street,” which was increasingly full of phony antique dealers and empty storefronts. Trump’s vision would be vindicated years later when the avenue recaptured its old glory.
8. Grand Hyatt Hotel, 109 E. 42nd St., 1979-80
An X-rated “massage parlor” stood in the lobby of the gloomy Commodore Hotel — symptomatic of East 42nd Street’s decline. Trump, the hotel project’s prime mover, replaced the brick facade with curtain-wall glass, designed a modern high-end hotel inside and made it attractive for tourism and business. It arrested the street’s tailspin and set the stage for Grand Central Terminal’s restoration in the 1990s.