When you voted on November 2, did you feel like a certain something was missing from your ballot? You could choose between George W. Bush and John Kerry, sure; ratify your member of Congress; and make your picks from the usual list of obscure judicial nominees. But where were the yes and no levers for the proposed West Side stadium for the Jets? You know, the one that’s going to cost at least $1.4 billion?
As it turns out, if you were hoping to give a personal thumbs-up or -down to the Jets’ new digs, you can try calling in to Mayor Bloomberg’s radio show, but you won’t be able to cast an actual vote. And if current trends hold, neither will your representatives in the City Council or Albany.
Polls consistently show that city residents would support the stadium if it could generate enough revenue to pay for itself, but overwhelmingly oppose paying for it with their tax dollars—and that they aren’t convinced it can make money. In fact, the stadium is so unpopular that if it did come to a vote, it might scuttle Bloomberg’s entire plan to redevelop the West Side. The latest Quinnipiac survey shows that New Yorkers support extending the No. 7 train, expanding the Javits Center, and rezoning the Hudson Yards, all by wide margins, but oppose the overall package, including the stadium, by 52 percent to 40 percent.
So the mayor and Deputy Mayor– slash–Olympics czar Dan Doctoroff have gotten jurisdictionally, as well as financially, creative in structuring their West Side proposals, and are pushing the stadium through a labyrinth of unelected bureaucracies. Some of these agencies would have to approve any big development project, but others are assuming more power because of the way Bloomberg is driving this deal, and most are dominated by George Pataki appointees. “Some legislative body somewhere should approve the financing for this,” says Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, a Democrat who represents the area where the stadium would be built and who opposes the project. “But under this plan, if 8 million New Yorkers opposed it, the mayor can say, ‘It’s nice to hear from you, but we’re going to do it anyway.’ ”
Of course, the public does have one bit of political leverage over Bloomberg: The man is running for reelection. But the mayor seems impervious to criticism over the stadium. Part of that is just his style—the billionaire shrug Bloomberg gives when he thinks he’s doing the right thing no matter what his critics say. But despite the negative poll figures, there hasn’t been a genuine public outcry against the stadium (so far). And the mayor has had the incredible good fortune to draw Cablevision, one of the few entities in the city against whom he can play the populist, as a high-profile opponent.
As a result, a West Side stadium is already closer to reality than many of its critics assumed it would ever get. City Hall already has worked with the Jets to come up with a master plan, made the stadium a centerpiece of the mayor’s efforts to redevelop the West Side and to bring the 2012 Olympics to New York, lined up support from the construction workers’ unions and the city’s Real Estate Board, and secured initial approval from the state’s economic-development authority. Now the Bloomberg administration is moving quickly to wrangle the remaining green lights it needs to drive the stadium to completion.
The City Council will meet twice to discuss the rezoning necessary for Bloomberg’s overall plan to redevelop the West Side, on December 13 and 14, and then vote on it in January. But the council has no official say over zoning for the new stadium: The land on which it would be built is owned by the MTA, not the city, which means it’s beyond the council’s purview. Similarly, the council’s Finance Committee is planning a hearing on how the city intends to come up with the $300 million the mayor plans to spend on the stadium. (The Jets are supposed to put $800 million into the kitty; the state, $300 million.) But as long as Bloomberg keeps the expenditure out of the city’s capital budget, he doesn’t need the council’s permission. “He can move money to an off-budget agency, which is what the Hudson Yards Infrastructure Corporation will be,” says Councilwoman Christine Quinn, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood slated for the stadium and opposes the plan. “There is no legislative authorization required.”
The City Council meetings, then, may indicate how severely City Hall’s imperiousness has irked its opponents, but they won’t derail the stadium. And they will give the mayor’s staff a chance to keep other elements of the West Side plan rolling: The stadium is controversial, but many council members like the idea of expanding the Javits Center and extending the No. 7 train to Eleventh Avenue.
On December 16, the Empire State Development Corporation will hold public hearings on the stadium at the Javits Center (4 to 8 P.M., if you want to show up). The ESDC, the state’s economic-development agency, has already approved a general plan for the stadium and will accept comments on the proposal for 30 days following the hearings. Officially, that means the ESDC’s board of directors could modify the stadium plan before voting on it again in January. In reality, the agency is what one City Council member calls a “rubber stamp” for Governor Pataki. The ESDC is headed by Charles Gargano, who as the overseer of 90 public authorities is the closest thing New York has to a Robert Moses today, and who is also, not coincidentally, a longtime Pataki fund-raiser. Expect the ESDC to give final approval to the stadium plan by the third week in January—and expect a healthy chunk of the resultant building contracts to go to Republican donors.
Meanwhile, the city and the Jets will continue their negotiations with the MTA over how much the rail yards are worth. The answer depends on whether the property is evaluated based on its current use or its future potential. At one end of the spectrum, Gargano argues that if the MTA sees any money at all from the land, it will be a “windfall.” At the other end, former MTA chief Richard Ravitch has estimated the rail yards are worth $3 billion—this is, after all, three square blocks with unobstructed views in four directions and easy access to Penn Station.
The two sides aren’t really that far apart. With his agency’s finances in tatters, MTA chairman Peter Kalikow has made a show of demanding “full value” for the rail yards. But he has shown no inclination to get an independent estimate of their value, asking instead for about $700 million. Kalikow, a Pataki appointee and former developer, doesn’t want to wreck the stadium plan; he just wants to get a face-saving price at a time when the MTA is probably going to have to hike fares again. If Bloomberg wants to keep pushing forward, the city and the Jets will probably have to fork over most of what the MTA wants by January. And they should be thankful the agency isn’t putting the rail yards up for bid.
Finally, the stadium will wend its way to the Public Authorities Control Board, which is controlled by Governor Pataki, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno, and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and which needs to unanimously approve new authorities, such as the one that would operate the stadium. Ironically, since it has the same “three men in a room” M.O. that has made other parts of state government such a wreck in New York, the board is the one agency in this whole process to which the views of actual voters might matter. Not to Pataki, though: The governor is more interested in redeveloping lower Manhattan than the West Side and has left heavy lifting on the stadium to Bloomberg, but he backs the plan. Nor to Bruno, whose chief concern will be getting the state to spend as much on upstate Republican districts as it does on the Hudson Yards.
Silver, however, is still up for grabs: He supports expanding the Javits Center but said in November that the “jury is still out on the rest of the plan.” The speaker is a Lower East Side Democrat and Pataki nemesis who thinks lower Manhattan should be a higher priority for the city and state than the West Side. He’s also a wily infighter who knows just how to gum up the bureaucratic works when he wants to. Last spring, for example, he blocked $5 million in funding to study expansion of the No. 7 train, and he has also called for hearings on the bidding process and financing for the stadium.
But Silver is also a key leader of his party. This is one reason why Cablevision has waged such an expensive ($8.2 million through October) campaign against the stadium. Its real target is less the mayor—despite his ire about its ad campaigns and hiring of lobbyists affiliated with his mayoral opponents—than state legislators who might sway Silver. So the cable giant has also hired Patricia Lynch, who used to be one of the speaker’s top aides, as a lobbyist. (The Dolans have also put Kenneth Bruno, Joe’s son, on their payroll.) “I am pretty confident Silver’s vote will reflect the consensus of the Assembly Democrats, and at this point most are pretty neutral,” says one member. “There are probably a couple of dozen who have been pitched by some combination of the mayor, the Jets, and the unions, and an equal number opposing it.”
Bloomberg is hoping to have the PACB’s approval by early February, in advance of a visit by the International Olympic Committee that month. If Silver ends up supporting the stadium, things will move very quickly afterward: Construction of the world’s most expensive football stadium could begin in the spring, giving City Hall a huge new arena to use as extra bait for the 2012 Games. “It’s essential we have shovels in the ground before the final IOC vote in July,” says Jay Carson, a spokesman for NYC 2012.
All of which is to say, it’s a little later in this game than you might have realized. By the time of the Super Bowl, just as your election fatigue and holiday hangovers have finally faded, the West Side stadium may well be a done deal.