The Stadium Catbird Seat

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.”

Another reason for the slow negotiations, though, is Silver’s skill in maximizing his leverage. The longer he strings out his demands and the closer the stadium decision gets to the International Olympic Committee’s deadline for awarding the 2012 Games, the more valuable the prizes he’s likely to gain. Last week, on the same day Bloomberg met with Ray Kelly, Larry Silverstein, and Governor Pataki to delay building the Freedom Tower, Pataki quietly slipped an item onto the agenda of the Public Authorities Control Board: a vote on financing the West Side stadium and convention center, scheduled for May 18.

It’s an impressive title, the Public Authorities Control Board. In reality, it’s “three men in a room” by another name. Pataki installed his budget director, John Cape, as one of the PACB’s three voting members. State Senate president Joe Bruno dispatched Owen Johnson, a loyal senator from Babylon. Silver, not messing around with phony intermediaries, placed himself on the PACB board. The PACB is such an insider’s game that its meetings aren’t even transcribed or recorded.

Whether approving financing plans for new state-university dormitories or water-filtration plants, the PACB three must vote unanimously. Pataki is on record as supporting the West Side stadium. Bruno is considered very likely, with the help of some funding for upstate development, to vote in the interests of fellow Republicans Pataki and Bloomberg. Which leaves Silver as the focus of intense lobbying by everyone from Al D’Amato (who’s on the Cablevision anti-stadium payroll) to Ed Malloy (the pro-stadium president of the construction-workers union).

“He’s used this as a chit to get what he wants, substance-wise, for his district,” says a stadium advocate.

“There’s gonna be a lot of horse-trading to get the stadium,” Malloy says. “Whatever Shelly Silver needs to jump-start lower Manhattan, I think the changes will be made.” An anti-stadium lobbyist scoffs: “The mess downtown works for us, absolutely. It shows that the priorities have to be focused downtown, which is what the commitment was after the attack.”

Silver is the rare person, in a process ingeniously designed to have no real public input, with the ability to make an actual democratic decision on the stadium. If he votes against the West Side development, it will be in part because he has calculated that it strengthens his Democratic majority in the Assembly. As a master of Albany delay tactics, though, his most likely play is to stall until after the International Olympic Committee meets in Singapore on July 6. The IOC’s decision would do Silver’s work for him, giving the stadium de facto approval or rejection. The only sure thing in the next two weeks? If Silver votes for the stadium, we know who’ll be picking up the billion-dollar city and state tab.

The Stadium Catbird Seat