Aol Building: Down, But Going Up

The building is going up (and up), but it isn't rising as fast as the questions about one future occupant. The AOL Time Warner Center, as it's currently named, is rising 80 stories above Central Park, a $1.7 billion, twin-tower project that was billed as an urban breakthrough marrying residential, commercial and retail space under one roof. Filling some of the space: $40 million penthouses, a Cartier store and the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel. And the most prestigious tenant of all, according to the plans? The world's largest media company.

As an original partner in 1998, Time Warner forked over $150 million upfront. A bank is financing as much as $500 million more, which the company will owe. For that, it will own 10 floors for corporate digs, an additional expanse for its CNN studios and naming rights to the building. (Original name: the Time Warner Center.)

But with AOL stock tanking, New Yorkers are buzzing about whether the company name still has the cachet to command such flashy real estate--and are questioning whether the company will ever move in. "That Taj Mahal," a sarcastic shareholder rebuked CEO Richard Parsons recently. A senior company official predicts Parsons will "seek a clever exit from that obligation." But a spokesman insists nothing has changed: "We have every intention for it to be our headquarters." The lead partner, Stephen Ross, agrees. Yet even he would like another name change. He recently was overheard telling a companion that he hopes Parsons drops the "AOL"--or at the very least will "call it Time Warner AOL."