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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."
Yaro also agrees that there is good reason to be fearful of the administration's response to dissenters. Last year, Doctoroff lobbied the RPA heavily not to oppose him on the West Side. "We were under all kinds of pressure," Yaro said. "Our board members were as well." Two members, Keyspan Energy and developer Jerry Speyer, both quit the board after Doctoroff's arm-twisting, according to Yaro.
"There is a reign of terror in this town," Yaro said. "The litmus test is 'Do you support the Olympics?' If so, then you can do business with the city."
Ravitch said his own decision to speak out emerged when he realized the MTA was facing a crisis almost as severe as the one he confronted when he took over the agency in 1979. "This is a crucial time for them," he said of the MTA's leadership. "I think they have come up with a very legitimate budget plan but the political system hasn't responded. The mayor's people voted against the plan at the MTA board level, which shocked me. And then the governor's response wasn't adequate. So there is the MTA in desperate need of billions of dollars, and they are asking the chairman to give away an asset worth that much money for next to nothing."
For Ravitch, 71, it is the first time he has entered a public policy debate since his failed 1989 bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination, when his candidacy won admiring editorials but little popular support.
"I just decided I have been involved in this city for my whole life, and if I wasn't willing to speak up, why the hell would I expect anyone else to?" he said.
Veteran transit advocate Gene Russianoff said he had tried in the past to get Ravitch to speak out on transit issues without success. "If someone was going to say what Richard Ravitch's legacy was for the city, it would be that he made the trains infinitely better," said Russianoff. "He killed himself to get that money to turn the system around. I think he feels like, 'I'll be damned if I'll sit by while they screw it up.' "