NEW YORK -- Only on the island of Manhattan, where developers build towering structures that match the size of their egos, could a single project involve investment banking, subway fares, children's playgrounds, traffic flow, the Clean Air Act, jobs, architecture and ethics.

A bitter fight is brewing here over twin towers that developer and magazine publisher Mortimer B. Zuckerman plans to build at Columbus Circle, overlooking the southwest corner of Central Park.

Opponents have filed a lawsuit and fired up a high-powered publicity campaign, with celebrities including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Bill Moyers charging that the massive project would cast a sweeping shadow over Central Park and otherwise darken the surrounding neighborhood.

Zuckerman, publisher of U.S. News & World Report and The Atlantic, said his development company, Boston Properties, has played by the city's rules. The firm had to design a massive building, he said, because that is what city officials requested in seeking bids on the site at Broadway and West 59th Street.

"It's puzzling, it's painful, because I know a lot of these people," Zuckerman said. "Nobody wants to be in a fight with Paul Newman and Jackie Kennedy and Norman Lear." But, he said, there was "something unfair" when "a group of people who had not participated in the process comes forth five months later and raises a lot of public flak."

The battle over Zuckerman's 68- and 58-story towers is not unlike zoning warfare surrounding many projects in Manhattan, where the world's richest developers run a legal and political gantlet as they compete for the most lucrative real estate. But the sheer size of the undertaking sets it apart.

For starters, Zuckerman has agreed to pay the Metropolitan Transportation Authority $455.1 million for the site, making it the largest real estate transaction in city history. He beat out a dozen other megadevelopers, including Donald Trump, who wanted to build a 137-story, 10-sided structure.

Zuckerman's 925-foot building, to be made of pinkish-gray granite, would feature a nine-screen movie theater and street-level shops at the base, a 300-room hotel above that and 300 luxury condominiums at the top. In between would be more than 2 million square feet of office space, most of which is committed to Salomon Bros., the investment banking firm, which is a major investor in the project and plans to make its headquarters there.

It is easy to see why city officials found Zuckerman's $1.2 billion proposal irresistible. Salomon Bros., which had considered leaving the city, would move 7,500 employes to the new building. The subway system would receive a windfall that equals nearly one-third of its annual construction budget and that city officials say would help prevent a fare increase.

In exchange for what is called "bonus zoning" -- permission to build a project 20 percent larger than the law normally would allow -- Zuckerman would contribute another $40 million to upgrade the 59th Street subway station.

Opponents say the city was blinded by these glittering financial inducements. They say city officials distorted the bidding process, and guaranteed a gargantuan building, by including the zoning bonus from the start and asking developers to find a way to justify it.

"They violated not only the law but the street sense and culture of New York," said Kent L. Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society, a nonprofit group that has sued the city over the project.

Indeed, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote that the proposed building "seems about as comfortable in Columbus Circle as a rocket ship."

Until 1916, Manhattan had no zoning regulations, and overbuilding flourished, blocking sun and sky. Even after the advent of zoning, loopholes and tax breaks continued to fuel crazy-quilt development. Five years ago, the city tried to shift new corporate offices to the less congested West Side, paving the way for projects such as Zuckerman's.

No stranger to such disputes, Zuckerman spent the early 1970s trying to build a Boston project called Park Place before public opposition killed it.

In an interview in his Lexington Avenue headquarters, which he also built by improving the subway station below in exchange for bulkier zoning, Zuckerman said his latest project has become "a symbol" for those opposed to "the Manhattanization of Manhattan."

"They approved the building after an exhausting and difficult and very tough review," he said.

Zuckerman said he would gladly scale down the project at the city's request if the purchase price is reduced. Otherwise, he said, "We don't have the option now to change the building very much . . . . The cake is baked. It's a little late to say you don't want cherries."

Salomon Bros. has said it might pull out if the building is changed. "We believe the business functions better when we have large floors," spokesman Robert S. Salomon Jr. said.

In their lawsuit, opponents charged that the city's environmental-impact statement is "deliberately false and misleading" and seriously understates the increase in traffic and auto exhaust fumes around Columbus Circle.

City officials strongly defended the study. "We believe it was done properly and that there is no problem," transportation agency spokesman John Cunningham said.

A dispute over traffic analyses would hardly have made headlines had the site not bordered Central Park. But, from late fall until early spring, the project would block the late-afternoon sun from some playgrounds and grassy fields, a highly emotional issue in a city of concrete, glass and few green oases.

"If you see in your mind the building against Central Park, it's a repelling kind of image," said Judith Spektor of the nonprofit Parks Council. "The shadow will go up to 73rd Street and across to Fifth Avenue, cutting a wide swath across the lower end of the park."

Studies have shown that, during colder weather, people do not use parts of the park where there is no sun, Barwick said.

Boston Properties argues that the shadow issue is exaggerated and that the additional shade would be limited to 30 minutes a day in affected areas. Opponents say even that is too much.

"The park is full of people who need that sun, . . . who live here, unlike Mr. Zuckerman and others," said Moyers, the television journalist who has worked near Columbus Circle since 1961. "You watch mothers with their babies, old folks on the bench, lovers strolling. That is a precious part of the commonwealth of this city."

Moyers took issue with Zuckerman's complaint that the opponents failed to surface until after the Board of Estimate approved the project. He said he testified at a noon-to-midnight board hearing last February, only to find that most of the members had sent surrogates, some of whom were asleep.

"I could see that the process was rigged," Moyers said. "The testimony was ignored. You could put two and two together and see the deal had already been cut."

Zuckerman brushed aside objections from celebrity critics, saying that they have ignored the project's benefits, such as a cash infusion for the subway system.

"These people don't take the subway," Zuckerman said. "Some of them live in Connecticut or on the East Side or in California."

Zuckerman said he cannot close the deal while litigation drags on, although "we've already committed close to $60 million. We have all the financing arranged, done all the design drawings."

After a pause, he added: "Let's face it, nobody thinks of a developer as a great victim. He is not an object of great sympathy. We accept that. It goes with the territory."