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Designer turns developer for U.N. proposal.

Lou Switzer loves a challenge.

In 1975, in the midst of the city's last recession, he opened the doors of the Switzer Group, his own design and facilities planning firm.

"People thought I was crazy," he said. "The market and the economy were pretty bad."

Switzer's strategy was to have all the trial-and-error of a new firm behind him and be an established player by the time the market turned around. Today, The Switzer Group is the nation's largest black-owned design company and it places in the top 50 on Interior Design Magazine's top designers list.

Now, with the industry entrenched in the current recession and no new construction in sight, Switzer is embarking on another journey. Armed with a $1.3 billion plan for an adjacent annex to the United Nations, the architect is determined to become a developer.

"It's a brand new role for me," said Switzer. "It's certainly a role that we're capable of doing."

Switzer's vision for the four-square-block "United Nations International Center" -- preliminary designs by May, Whitlaw, Pinska -- calls for, in its first phase, moving the Con Edison steam plant from First Avenue to make way for a 550,000-square-foot hi-tech Conference Center and an office tower of up to 1.7 million square feet intended for U.N. agencies and related tenants. In its second phase, Switzer would add 1.1 million square feet of permanent and transient housing for U.N. staff, guests and dependents and a United Nations Community Center.

The majority of the land for the proposed complex, slated for 42nd through 38th Streets between First Avenue and the East River, is owned by Con Edison and a small portion is city-owned land.

The plan has been submitted to both the city's economic development officials and Con Ed.

A spokesperson for Con Edison said they told Switzer they would be "happy to participate" in a feasibility stud on relocating the plant. The spokesperson said they have stressed to Switzer the need for a replacement facility because the plant in question generates 40 percent of Con Ed's steam.

Switzer is confident that one of the sites he has proposed along the East Side would be appropriate.

"In my opinion it can be done, "Switzer said.

Switzer said he has been speaking with key United Nations personnel, but the reaction so far has been "very quiet." That's okay, though, he said, because the project is still in its embryo stage.

A Wall Street firm Switzer declined to name is currently exploring "the financials." One possible avenue for funds would be the sale of tax-exempt government bonds. He realizes, however, that there is little hope for financing the project without an anchor tenant.

"I think if this project would have been proposed back in 1980-something, it would have been a done deal," he said.

Lucky for Switzer, since conceiving the idea two years ago, at least four U.N. agencies -- among them UNICEF, the United Nations Development Fund, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, and the United Nations Population Fund -- have indicated they may leave the city. UNICEF is being wooed by a number of places beyond the confines of the city, including New Rochelle and Armonk, New York, and other agencies have been offered rent-free quarters in Bonn, Germany.

"This is the ideal site," he said. "Why go to Germany when you can go across the street?"

The facility, Switzer said, would rival the "overall appeal and image" of The World Financial Center and, he said, it would help the city maintain its pre-eminent international status.

"I think New York City should do whatever it can to keep the United Nations and all the internal agencies," he said.

The plan, he said, would also glorify the East Midtown area. Many neighboring residents, he believes, would be receptive to moving the steam plant, the site of a recent explosion.

"Most people assume Con Edison is not going anywhere," he said.

Thinking ahead

Thinking like a true New York City developer, Switzer has already revised the plan in anticipation of community and government opposition. The office tower, which began as 70 stories, and the housing have been scaled down in height to resemble the existing U.N. structures. He is also thinking in terms of givebacks because there is a ball field on the city-owned portion of the land.

"No matter what you do there will always be objections," he said.

Beginning as an apprentice with a small interior design firm earning $55 a week, Switzer went on to join various design concerns before becoming assistant director of Facilities Planning with the Wall Street Investment firm of W.E. Hutton & Co. After that, and before joining The Switzer Group, he was a 50 percent partner in LCL Design Associates before breaking out on his own.

The Switzer Group offers interior design/space planning, graphic design/corporate identity, engineering/construction management and telecommunications. Their client list includes: The Equitable, Banque Paribas, Avon Products, Citibank and other.

The firm was recently selected by Frederick Atkins, Inc., the international merchandising organization, to redesign and renovate its 135,000-square-foot headquarters at 1515 Broadway. Highlights of the space are a 25,000-square-foot complex of flexible planned meeting rooms, a data center and a Products Center.

The firm's current projects include the design for all of the special spaces -- cafeteria, fitness center, training facility, etc. -- for Chase Manhattan Bank at MetroTech. For Con Edison in Long Island City, they are transforming an out-dated structure into a 200,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art training facility. Key to the success of his firm, Switzer said, has been continuity. A number of the firm's staff, which includes 10 registered architects, have been with him for 14 or 15 years and they have long-standing relationships with clients.

"We still have our very first and second clients today," he said, namely Avon Products and Citibank respectively.

Switzer said the size of the firm has grown beyond his expectations and does not feel that size is tied to the level of service.

"I'm not interested in being 100 people," he said. "I certainly wasn't interested in being more than six people, but it happened. You don't necessarily get the service you require from the large firm. You can get it from any firm."

Despite the gloomy financing and office market, the would-be developer's resolve is undaunted.

"Do I have $1.3 billion to put into it at this time? No, but I'm not concerned."
COPYRIGHT 1992 Hagedorn Publication
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:profile of designer Lou Switzer of Switzer Group; United Nations
Author:Fitzgerald, Therese
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Article Type:Biography
Date:Dec 2, 1992
Words:1075
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