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The Stadium Catbird Seat

In the battle for the West Side stadium, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver holds all the cards. He never knew he had so many friends.

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Noah’s ark original deli is an odd little restaurant. Its clientele is predominantly silver-haired and wears orthopedic shoes and yarmulkes, yet the dining-room soundtrack is Hot 97 turned up too loud. The menu includes outstanding kosher pastrami and brisket . . . and Cajun chicken salad.

All of which made Noah’s Ark an appropriate location for an awkward little dinner date on a Thursday night in mid-April. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called with the invitation to break bread; State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver chose the spot, on Grand Street near Essex, in the heart of his Lower East Side legislative district. The two men would seem to have plenty in common. The 63-year-old Bloomberg and the 61-year-old Silver were born two years and one day apart into families of modest means. Silver is a Democrat and Bloomberg nominally a Republican, but they’re both pragmatists. In public, each is less than charismatic.

Together they settled into a banquette and studied the Noah’s Ark menu. Bloomberg and Silver agreed to share the specialty of the house, the Romanian tenderloin steak. And that’s about the last thing they agreed on.

Mike Bloomberg wants a West Side stadium and convention center. Shelly Silver wants downtown Manhattan redeveloped faster. Bloomberg can steer tax breaks and other incentives to struggling downtown businesses in Silver’s district, which includes ground zero. Silver holds the crucial vote needed for state approval of the West Side financial plan, the last major hurdle in the way of a stadium for the Jets and the 2012 Olympics. The pieces would seem to be in place to make a deal faster than you can say “Pass the rugalach.”

Yet there’s more separating the speaker and the mayor than the relative merits of the development plans. Their differing policy agendas are rooted in the differences between the two men and how they see the future of the city. This is a clash of old politics versus no politics. Of insular, old-world Grand Street versus the borderless world of Bloomberg Inc. Silver is looking to boost his neighborhood’s immigrant-Chinese restaurant and garment workers. Bloomberg is looking to advance his vision of a New York for the next century, where the city plays to its strength as a tourism mecca.

Silver is a throwback, in the best sense, to the old ward bosses. “For Shelly, the big thing is not gonna be ‘Put a million dollars in my campaign fund,’ ” one stadium advocate says. “He’s used this as a chit to get what he wants, policy- and substance-wise, for his district. Which I’ve been pretty impressed by.”

Not that Silver is admitting to anything so obvious. “It’s not a matter of horse-trading,” he tells me. “That’s not what it’s about.” He then proceeds to sketch a Thoroughbred down to the forelock. “When I had dinner with the mayor,” Silver says, “he said, ‘What do I have to do to make the West Side make sense for you?’ I told him that 24 million square feet of new commercial space on the West Side doesn’t make sense. Forget the stadium for a moment. Downtown, you’ve got 7 World Trade Center. There is not a foot of office space that’s leased. There are at least three undesigned buildings on ground zero still to come. They haven’t been designed because they say there’s no demand. And the only response from both the governor and the mayor is 24 million square feet of office space on the West Side to compete with downtown?” He pauses, then lets out a sly heh-heh. “Madison Square Garden let me know that their plan is purely housing,” Silver says. “Heh. They heard my objection.”

Bloomberg has thrown several bones in Silver’s direction. Yet the real goodies haven’t been offered. Partly this seems a matter of philosophy; Bloomberg proclaims that he doesn’t toss around tax breaks for businesses. “Wait a minute,” Silver says, laughing in a low rumble. “Bloomberg is using $600 million to put the Jets on the West Side. The sale of property rights by the MTA could be an additional $600-to-$800 million subsidy. They’re using Liberty Bonds on the New York Times building. I don’t understand how they say they’re not using tax incentives.”


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