Too Big Not to Fail

You would think that a city as sharp and self-aware as ours, led by a mayor as devoted to empirical rigor as ours—a no-bullshit engineer and Harvard M.B.A. who created a cutting-edge company from scratch—would have no trouble learning the staggeringly obvious lessons of the past four decades of urban redevelopment. You would think that given the opportunity to turn thirteen Hudson riverfront acres into a complicated, stirring, living, breathing new piece of Manhattan, this city and mayor would see the plain wrongheadedness of filling that precious space with a gawky, meretricious, $2 billion monolith whose raison d’être is 40 hours a year of football. You would think.

But we’re all products of the eras in which we came of age. When Michael Bloomberg arrived in New York as a 24-year-old Salomon Brothers trainee in 1966, Joe Namath was making the Jets the sexiest team in America (and no less so for playing in Queens). In 1966, too, “urban renewal” was the prevailing city-making doctrine. It was the upbeat synonym for “slum clearance,” and meant demolishing whole blocks, because their buildings were old and weird and scruffy, in order to build pristine modern complexes. All the wise men agreed. And so, in 1966, Lincoln Center, having replaced a real neighborhood torn down by Robert Moses, was new and glamorous in its corporate-Utopian fashion. Our present (charmless) Madison Square Garden was under construction, replacing the beloved 1910 Penn Station. Downtown on Vesey and Liberty streets, the demolition of several lively old blocks had just gotten under way, so that a sterile plaza and the tallest buildings on earth could take their place.

But even as urban renewal of this heedless, grandiose, ultimately unloved and failed kind was reaching its apotheoses in Lincoln Center and the World Trade Center, a smarter countertrend was emerging. Perhaps Bloomberg, as he commuted from the East Side to Wall Street, didn’t notice what was happening in between. In 1961, Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities and spent the decade leading the fight to stop the demolition of her neighborhood, the far West Village. A crosstown superhighway that would have aborted the embryonic Soho was defeated as well in the early seventies, just as that neighborhood was ratified by the city as an official artists’ quarter and cognoscenti had begun to call Tribeca Tribeca.

Over time, New Yorkers, and then the rest of America, came to see tatty buildings and blocks with new eyes. Shabby was (potentially) chic. It became clear that desolate districts could be revivified gradually, old building by old building, by many hands, and that the outcome was far more successful—more interesting, more attractive, more urban—than any arrogant macher-master-builder could achieve. It was a great and enduring and truly conservative achievement of the countercultural sixties.

Ever since, we have watched the fairly miraculous rebirth of a dozen neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn, without any huge new buildings implanted as anchors. Consider how in a decade the far West Side of Manhattan, from the meat market north, has changed: One smallish development has led to another, more or less organically, in an accelerating virtuous cycle—Chelsea Piers, the riverfront bike path and parks, Pastis, the galleries in the Twenties, the clothing stores on 14th, the hotels and clubs, the High Line, before long the Frank Gehry–designed headquarters for InterActive Corp. between 18th and 19th streets … and on it goes, real urban synergy, with the light hand of planning bureaucrats only nudging it along. Or take the current transformation of the financial district. Last week, the Times reported that the residential population south of Chambers Street has doubled to more than 30,000 just since 9/11—thus starting to revert to its character before misbegotten “urban renewal” pushed out housing and 24-hour life.

During the past 40 years, we have seen pretty clearly what works and what doesn’t, what is most apt to generate new New York–worthy development and what isn’t. Convention centers are necessary evils, and the Javits Center is not awful as they go, but after nineteen years, it has failed to ignite life in the West Thirties. Yet Bloomberg is now doubling down, wishfully, by insisting we build a heavily subsidized 75,000-seat football stadium—by far the most expensive anywhere, ever—adjacent to the Javits. It’s 1966 all over again.

Even many who back the stadium do so as a kind of resigned political pose. One developer told me that while he “publicly support[s] the stadium for the same reason half the people in town do”—that is, to stay on Bloomberg’s good side—he believes that if it gets built, it will be a “white elephant” and urbanistically “inert.” When I asked the Planning Department’s spokesperson why the city needs a stadium for the Jets on that spot, she said it was “essential to jump-start development” in the neighborhood. Really? Essential? Right on the Hudson, immediately north of the successfully renovated Starrett-Lehigh office building and a thriving art neighborhood and Chelsea Piers? “There’s a hole there,” she said, referring to the MTA yards over which the stadium would be built. Holes can be filled in lots of other ways when they’re adjacent to living urban tissue, albeit not as quickly. Well, she said, the stadium—that is, the New York Sports and Convention Center—is the best option on the table.

The stadium is, of course, the cornerstone for a New York Olympics, and, in all likelihood, vice versa. As much as providing a place for the Jets to play in Manhattan, it is the prospect of hosting the Olympics that seems to be driving Bloomberg. But the mayor is smart enough to understand that while the sports-venue case alone—ten Sundays a year of football, three weeks of spectacle and tourism in 2012—might carry the day in a place like Buffalo or St. Louis, it seems pretty tenuous justification for such a suck of money and municipal energy in this already glamorous, robust city. So he is attempting, in disingenuous Rube Goldberg fashion, to make the stadium seem essential and inevitable by insisting that it’s the linchpin for every necessary West Side improvement. If you don’t like candy mints, it’s also a breath mint, a floor wax as well as a whipped topping.

The Javits Center is too small to get the country’s biggest trade shows—so the Jets would build a retractable roof that could transform the stadium into a southern Javits annex when necessary. But only a year ago, Bloomberg and Governor Pataki unveiled another plan for nearly doubling the Javits Center to the north, toward 42nd Street, a sensible scheme that would obviate the need for more convention space—and only a little more space at that—in the stadium to the south. As for the $2 billion extension of the 7 line west from Times Square and then south under Eleventh Avenue down to the stadium, a truly visionary city might instead spend half as much to build three three-block-long “light rail” trolley lines connecting Eighth to Eleventh along 23rd, 34th, and 42nd streets.

Finally, the mayor has whipped up working-class support for the stadium by promising it will generate thousands of jobs, in construction, as well as service positions for the long haul. But whatever is built there will create jobs—and better jobs, one might imagine, than part-time peanut vending and ushering.

So what might be built instead of stadium seats that will sit empty 99 percent of the year? Unlike at ground zero, architects would be burdened by no quota of destroyed office space and underground shops to reproduce, no particular iconography (freedom, requiem, rebirth) to incorporate, no ghosts to propitiate. And unlike the prosthetic Manhattan appendage on which Battery Park City was built in the eighties, this site is not horribly walled off by an eight-lane highway (which the authorities announced last week will not, alas, be turned into a tunnel as part of ground-zero reconstruction). Cablevision’s competing anti-Bloomberg bid was transparently self-interested, so no one took its hastily concocted scheme—apartments, a hotel, a small park—seriously. But why not, as the transmogrified High Line helps propagate the Tribecafication of the adjacent blocks, imagine a tightly woven extension of the southern and eastern neighborhoods into the rail-yards site? Why not build apartments and hotels and theaters, a better, funkier Battery Park City? Or a big park? Or the second Guggenheim Museum? Or a campus for New School University? Why can’t this city assemble a brilliant team of designers and entrepreneurs to dream up a thrilling new piece of New York—people with as much visionary gusto as, say, the man who started a new kind of digital data and news company a quarter-century ago? It wouldn’t be finished in five years, because creating great new places that people are eager to visit and live in is not easy or fast. But wouldn’t it be better to be driven by the ambition to create a 21st-century Rockefeller Center than by a deadline to hold the 2010 Super Bowl and a 2012 torch-lighting ceremony?

There’s only one more (unelected) New York administrative entity, the Public Authorities Control Board, that needs to sign off on the Jets stadium plan, and though there are some politics to be played there, the inside betting is that Bloomberg will get what he wants. That isn’t the end of the story, however, because on July 6, another unelected administrative entity will vote—the International Olympic Committee, which will choose between New York and four other cities to host the Olympics. That’s the real reason for the rush on the stadium, why the de facto deadline for breaking ground is only eleven weeks away. Absent that, the IOC vote will certainly go against New York. And if we don’t get the Olympics, it’s a good bet the stadium will not be built after all.

Personally, I would be happy to have the Olympics here, especially if we can start calling the games by their supercool proper name, the XXX Olympiad. But I don’t want to waste a glorious piece of Manhattan land on Bloomberg’s big, dumb, old-school scheme. Therefore, at the risk of seeming an unpatriotic American and disloyal New Yorker, in July I’ll be pulling for Paris or London or Moscow or Madrid—anyplace but here.

Too Big Not to Fail