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One of the toughest critics of the mayor's plan to create a $1.7 billion stadium for the New York Jets is Richard Ravitch, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority who is credited with rescuing the city's subway system in the early 1980s. Before he headed the MTA, Ravitch was a successful real estate developer, and although he is long out of that business, lately he has been telling his old pals something they don't usually hear: that a lot of them agree with his stadium criticism but don't have the nerve to say so.
It is a rare instance in which a blue-ribbon member of the development fraternity, never known for outspoken courage, has broken ranks to denounce one of City Hall's most sacred cows. While most builders have remained mum on the subject, Ravitch has been speaking out forcefully against the stadium, arguing that the proposed deal shortchanges both the MTA, which owns the site, and taxpayers.
Ravitch made that point at a recent luncheon of the Real Estate Board of New York, a group comprising the city's most powerful builders.
"I was invited to express my point of view," Ravitch told the Voice last week. "And I told them why I thought the stadium was a mistake. I also asked them why they were supporting it." That question didn't bring much of a response, so Ravitch tried to provoke one. "I mentioned that there were some people in the room who tell me privately that they agree with me, but they won't say so publicly. I asked them 'Why?' " Nobody said anything.
Ravitch said the reason for the silence was obvious.
"They don't want to get into a fight with the mayor, or with Dan Doctoroff," he said referring to the powerful deputy mayor for economic development who has declared construction of the stadium the linchpin for West Side development as well as bringing the 2012 Olympics to New York. "I think it's assumed it is because they do business with the city," he said.
Speaking on the same subject last week with WNYC talk show host Brian Lehrer, Ravitch had an even more graphic explanation for the closed-mouth syndrome: "They're in the witness protection program," he said.
Ravitch demonstrated his own development chops years ago when he built the Waterside towers on the East River, Manhattan Plaza on West 42nd Street, and a concrete colossus at West 33rd Street and Tenth Avenue that straddles the commuter rail tracks beneath it and which now houses the Daily News and other media tenants. As MTA chairman he later created the vast Long Island Rail Road yards across the street, stretching all the way to Twelfth Avenue. The western portion of what's called the Hudson Yards is now the designated site for the new stadium that would house the New York Jets, and possibly the Olympic games.
When he laid out the yards, Ravitch was mindful that this vast swath of midtown was a valuable MTA asset and would one day be developed. Drawing on his experience building the 33rd Street office tower, he ordered footings constructed along the tracks so as to make it easier to build above the lines without disrupting rail traffic. Over the years, the yards have drawn sporadic but intense developer interest (see sidebar).
Now, whether they say so out loud or not, the city's developers understand that the rail yards site is worth far more than either the $100 million the Jets have offered to pay for it, or the $300 million that the MTA has said it is seeking, Ravitch insists. "Anybody who knows anything about this business knows that this site is developable," he said.
Months before the MTA was forced to release its own appraisal that found the site was worth more than $900 million, Ravitch told a hearing held by State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky that the price tag was around $1 billion.
"I am not in the business anymore but I know what developers pay," he told the Voice. That claim seemed justified last week when the owners of Madison Square Garden made a last-minute offer of $600 million to the MTA, saying they would construct a mixed-use community of offices and residential towers there.
Mayor Bloomberg and Doctoroff have dismissed the offer as grandstanding by a competitor bent on sinking not just the stadium but the Olympics as well. "It is just an outrage," the mayor said last week in Staten Island. But Ravitch, who said he had no way of knowing whether the Garden's offer was sincere, insisted that if the site were placed on the open market it would bring legitimate bids far larger than that made by the Jets.
"If they really open up the process they will get a lot of proposals," said Ravitch. "And it will be a funny irony, because they will get a lot of offers from developers outside of New York."
Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, which has offered its own alternative scheme for the site, agrees. "There is enormous and vastly increased developer interest in the site just over the last few months," he said. Since the Garden's proposal made the news, developers have been calling in from outside the city, Yaro said. "I can't mention names, but there have been discussions with some of the biggest developers in the world."