The Ferris wheel may be a steam-age invention, but it is back in vogue in New York, which this week joined a long list of cities where urban planners or developers have bet that massive, modern versions of the old ride can serve as economic engines.
After the towering London Eye debuted in early 2000, it seemed as if there was no end to the number of cities dreaming about stimulating tourism by building their own giant observation wheel, modeled after the one drawing 3.5 million riders per year in Britain.
Re-creating London's success has proved to be daunting, with failed or postponed projects in a number of world-class cities. But the concept still has luster. Work is being done on two new massive wheels in Las Vegas. Seattle saw a smaller version open on its waterfront last spring.
Now, the biggest test yet will come in New York, where city officials announced Thursday that a private development group had been given approval to build the world's tallest Ferris wheel, at 625 feet, on the waterfront in Staten Island.
The proposal, with a $230 million price tag, is audacious. Its success would rely on people being willing to travel by miles by ferry across New York Harbor to a remote, mostly suburban part of the city that has always been an afterthought to visitors.
Yet the people behind the project, led by a newly formed company, New York Wheel, include some heavy hitters.
The primary financial backers include Lloyd Goldman, a real estate baron who is part of the partnership redeveloping the World Trade Center site, and Joseph Nakash, a co-founder of the Jordache apparel company who now chairs an investment group that also owns airlines and real estate. The third primary investor is The Feil Organization, a real estate powerhouse that owns or manages commercial and residential properties across the country.
New York Wheel CEO Richard Marin spent decades as an executive at Bankers Trust Company, then led a subsidiary at Bear Stearns until some black eyes related to bad bets on mortgage securities led to his departure in 2007. After that, he had a job turning around a distressed real estate portfolio as CEO of Africa Israel Investments.
Now, though those real estate connections, he's found himself in the carnival business — or at least the venture capital version of it.
"It's a short trip from Wall Street to P.T. Barnum," Marin joked in a phone interview Friday.
Marin said the heft in the investment group shows it isn't just blindly following a trendy tourism gimmick.
While the London wheel was "wildly successful," he isn't naive about the challenge in replicating its success. Marin said the company spent a year and a half in discussions with city officials about a possible site before agreeing on Staten Island.
Under the deal announced Thursday, New York Wheel will pay the city $1 million per year on a 99-year lease for a waterfront location within walking distance of the Staten Island Ferry terminal. Simultaneously, another development group will be building a 350,000-square-foot shopping mall and hotel on the opposite side of the terminal. The neighborhood is already home to a minor league baseball stadium.
"It's a location and a site that I have come to love," Marin said.
Having the wheel next to the ferry, which is already ridden by an estimated 2 million tourists annually, will save the developers about $100 million in transportation infrastructure costs, he said. And, despite the distance from other tourist sites, the view of New York harbor will be thrilling and unique enough, he predicted, to draw the millions of riders needed to earn back the ride's high cost.
Several other giant Ferris wheels built in the past decade have been successful. China's 525-foot-tall Star of Nanchang and Singapore's 541-foot Singapore Flyer have both been a hit with tourists.
In other places, planned wheels never got off the ground. A 682-foot-tall wheel that was supposed to open in Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics was never completed. An earlier pioneer in the business, the Great Wheel Corp., had projects in the works to build similar wheels in Dubai, Berlin, Orlando, Fla., and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but all were either suspended or collapsed.
"These are expensive and difficult, big projects," said Wil Armstrong, the North American representative for Starneth, a new company, formed by veterans of the London Eye design and engineering team, that is providing the designs for the New York wheel. "Every city, it seems, of any size, has thought about it. But wanting to do and actually doing it is a large step."