When Eloise Met Norma Rae

Photo: Eliot Shepard

Peter Ward got married at the Plaza 22 years ago, but by fighting to keep Elad Properties from converting it to condos, he’s not just trying to hold on to the memories of his wedding night. As president of the New York Hotel Trades Council, he’s trying to hold on to jobs (and union membership, which is currently 26,000). With an ad campaign that mixes nostalgia with economics, he’s attempting to turn the city against the white-hot real-estate trend of creating high-end housing out of hotels. Ward spoke to Greg Sargent about his “Save the Plaza” plan.

The hotel-to-condo conversion fad isn’t new. Why make a stand now?
Initially, we thought we should just cut the best deal possible for Plaza workers and asked Elad for double severance. They finally said no. They stand to make a $900 million profit, but they couldn’t spare $10 million for people who’d worked there for 30, 40, even 50 years. After our campaign started, they said, “We’re prepared to give you double severance right now.” We said the offer was unacceptable.

We’re shining a spotlight on the overall problem through the lens of the Plaza. Condo conversion destroys what are some of the best blue-collar jobs in the city. In twenty months, we’ve lost 1,000 union jobs to conversion. Unless we meet this head-on, it could be irreversible.

You’re seeking legislation to block conversion. Is there a legal precedent here?
Eminent domain is a good example. The state and city condemn real estate all the time and tell owners, “Tough shit,” because they think it’s in the public interest. And there are historic theaters whose owners have been told they may not alter them.

What’s next?
On April 5, we’re having a meeting with 6,000 of our members at Radio City. Then we’ll all march to the Plaza.

Is a deal possible?
We’re asking Elad to build luxury condos in the top 25 percent of the building. We have two hotel companies that are willing to come to the table to buy the bottom 75 percent.

Who are they?
I’m not at liberty to say.

Why has Bloomberg jumped onboard?
The mayor’s saying to developers, Don’t gut the hotel industry for a quick profit; build in places we’ve rezoned: western Queens, the Brooklyn waterfront.

Apart from your wedding, what makes the Plaza so special?
Imagine telling someone from London that you were gonna replace the Savoy with a shopping mall.

When Eloise Met Norma Rae