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Stadium of Dreams

Dan Doctoroff’s dreams, that is. With evangelical fervor, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor has been selling a plan to remake Manhattan’s West Side with a stadium for the Jets at its center. But when the cheerleading stops, a question remains. Does the plan make sense?

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The proposed New York Sports and Convention Center.  

Looking out over the hulking Javits Convention Center and the mostly fallow streets that surround it from the the roof of 450 West 33rd Street, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff could barely contain his enthusiasm. Sixteen stories high, the rooftop—actually a basketball court built by the once-hot dot-com DoubleClick when it occupied the space—was the perfect vantage point to showcase his vision. At the start of a sultry evening recently, he spoke with passion and certainty about the city’s future.

“What we have with the West Side is not simply an opportunity for development,” said Doctoroff, 45. “It is an opportunity to turn the area into one of New York’s great places, a place that’s a worthy successor to Rockefeller Center and Lincoln Center.”

Doctoroff warmed to his sales pitch. “We are in a golden age now in the city,” he said. “We’re at the right point in the economic cycle, and there is a spirit, post-9/11, that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. This has opened up great opportunities.”

Then Doctoroff pointed to a huge rectangular hole in the ground that stretched from Tenth Avenue to the West Side Highway and from 30th to 33rd streets. The hole, of course, is the Hudson rail yards, over which a new stadium for the Jets would be built, the most visible—and contentious—part of a plan he’s been working on for a decade.

In Doctoroff’s vision, the far West Side would become, with the stadium as its anchor, a thriving center of culture, sports, tourism, and entertainment. There would be cafés, restaurants, shops, a 1,500-room hotel, office and residential space, and a ribbon of parks along the waterfront. Doctoroff’s dream also includes a broad boulevard with a center esplanade nearly twice as wide as Park Avenue’s. This boulevard would be carved out between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, and run from 33rd Street up to 42nd Street.

On the east side of Eleventh Avenue, between 30th and 33rd streets, the other open section of rail yards would be covered by a six-acre park. On its southern edge, there is space for a cultural institution—perhaps a branch of the Guggenheim museum, whose director, Thomas Krens, has expressed interest.

The noun used most often to describe Doctoroff, sometimes unkindly, is zealot. It is a pretty accurate label. The first time I met him, we had dinner at Aix. He talked for more than three hours about the city’s economic future, the far West Side, and the 2012 Olympics with such alacrity and spirit that I remember thinking when I left that he was like an Evangelical—a true believer whose endless enthusiasm comes from being convinced he is helping other people see the truth.

His plan for rebuilding New York is so complex, it seems like the kind of thing you’d come up with in an urban-planning workshop—“If you could redesign any part of the city with no constraints, what would you do?”—rather than a real, working blueprint. Even Doctoroff himself says that “nothing’s ever been done that’s this big.”

The overall vision is based on an idea he had back in 1994 to bring the Olympics to New York. But the plan now has a momentum of its own. Whether New York is the host city in 2012 or not—and the current betting is that it’s not likely—the West Side stadium has become the critical piece of his redevelopment strategy, the wheel around which everything else turns.

Doctoroff’s ambitious, almost fantasylike vision—and the arcane financing mechanisms he’s put together to get it done—have made comparisons of the deputy mayor to Robert Moses irresistible for many people. But Doctoroff quickly rejects them, in part because with Moses the vision was inextricably connected to the strong-arm. “The thing that makes any comparison irrelevant,” he says, “is that we live in a very different world. And it’s partly because of him. There’s clearly an opportunity to transform the physical landscape now, but in every case, it has to be the result of substantial community input, if not consensus.”

One of Moses’s chief gifts was his talent for circumventing any kind of legislative or political review. He created novel ways to fund projects, like Doctoroff has done, that enabled him to operate with virtual impunity. As Doctoroff used the rooftop view to lay out his plan for this neighborhood currently filled with garages and warehouse space, he didn’t seem to notice the dark bank of clouds that had been steadily sliding in from New Jersey.

“This is Manhattan’s last great frontier,” he said. “There won’t ever be another opportunity like it again.”

Then, on cue, it started to pour.

Why a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan? Why should a prosperous sports team get $600 million of city and state money? Why not build, say, a giant park? Or a new neighborhood à la Battery Park City? What should Manhattan’s last frontier become? And who should pay for it?

These are fair questions, ones that are, increasingly, at the center of the city’s debate over its future as Doctoroff pushes his program forward. His opponents agree with him at least about what’s at stake. “It is a huge opportunity,” says City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, who represents the neighborhood. “And whatever we build, that’s it. We’re not going to do it again. I just don’t think there’s been the kind of process where anyone’s tried to determine what the city really needs. The planning was done after the goal had already been decided.”

Doctoroff himself has become a flash point. While his admirers are legion, his detractors find him arrogant and short-tempered. “He’s become the de facto head of planning for the city,” says a good-government type. “And we’re thrilled with most of the stuff the city is doing in the outer boroughs and along the waterfront. It’s forward-thinking, and they’re completely open to community input. This is true on everything except the West Side. I don’t know if it’s a phallic thing with Doctoroff or what, but there is simply no discussion on the stadium.”

Fueled by the Dolans, the father-son team that owns Cablevision and Madison Square Garden, the battle for public opinion on the stadium—which includes competing TV ad campaigns, noisy press conferences, and posturing by the usual assortment of neighborhood groups—is in danger of resembling the circus that plants its tent in the Garden, a few blocks from the would-be Jets stadium.

The Dolans’ vitriol about the stadium is not entirely comprehensible. A 75,000-seat stadium would not likely draw much business from the Garden, though there would be some competition. (One interesting note in the backstory: When Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV bought the Jets four and a half years ago for $635 million, one of the people he outbid was Charles Dolan.)


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