Two Stadiums. No Waiting.

Yanks and Mets plans leave little room for public debate

Compared with the long-running sagas of the West Side Jets stadium (born January 1999, died June 2005) and the Brooklyn Nets arena plan (unveiled December 2003, still not out of the starting blocks), Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to build new homes for the Mets and Yankees has whizzed by in a virtual blur. First announced during a whirlwind week last June as part of Bloomberg's last-ditch attempts to revive the city's flagging Olympic bid, the $1.8 billion twin-stadium plan is now scheduled to come up for a winner-take-all City Council vote on April 5.

Yet key details of the plans remain unresolved, leaving some neighborhood activists and good-government advocates wondering if the teams' rush to break ground is trampling on the need for open public debate. "The proposal to build a new Yankee Stadium is moving at warp speed, and nobody can get on this train," says Bettina Damiani of the subsidy-watch group Good Jobs New York. "The New York Stock Exchange subsidy deal didn't move this quickly; even some 9-11–related projects didn't move this quickly. It's disconcerting, to say the least, how quickly this project is moving, and at the same time completely excluding the input of local community members."

The Yankees plan, which would demolish the House That Ruth Built and build a new stadium across 161st Street to the north, leaped out to a quick start last summer. Just eight days after Bloomberg's stadium press conference, and before most Bronx residents had even learned the details of the plan, the state legislature moved to "alienate" Macombs Dam and Mullaly Parks, 21 acres of which would be obliterated to make way for the ballpark. Before this could happen, the city council had to sign off on a Home Rule message endorsing the legislature's land grab. This message, however, arrived in the council "preconsidered"—the city's version of the state legislature's infamous "messages of necessity" that allow lawmakers to dispense with debate.

As a result, there were no public hearings, and according to council minutes obtained by Good Jobs New York, councilmembers never even discussed the issue. Meanwhile, the council's finance division provided members with a "Fiscal Impact Statement" indicating "no impact on [city] expenditures resulting from the enactment of this legislation"—though by the city's own admission, it will be on the hook for more than $135 million in land and infrastructure costs. (Both a Good Jobs study and an analysis by the Voice put total public subsidies, including tax and rent breaks, at more than $400 million—with about half of that coming from the city.)

The council unanimously approved decommissioning the parks. (Brooklyn arena opponent Tish James abstained.) Three days later, the state legislature passed its alienation bill, and the Yankees had their land.

"No alienation has moved as fast as the Yankees'," says Christian DiPalermo, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks. Coming on the heels of a similarly fast-tracked alienation to place a water filtration plant in Van Cortlandt Park, DiPalermo worries, taking parkland for private uses might become a pattern, especially as new restrictions on eminent domain make it more difficult to take private property for public projects.

With this crucial state legislative hurdle cleared, the project dove straight into the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, put in place in the 1970s in response to the bad old days of Robert Moses's bulldozing of neighborhoods for "urban renewal." After a series of contentious public hearings—at one, stadium-backing Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrión was met with angry chants of "You work for us!"—Bronx Community Board 4 voted 16 to 8 in November to reject the Yankees plan. Under ULURP, though, community board votes are only advisory, and the City Planning Commission—which does have veto power—subsequently unanimously endorsed the project.

The city's draft environmental-impact statement, meanwhile—a 700-plus-page tome that, several Bronx residents have complained, is unreadable to the borough's many Spanish speakers—attracted a flood of citizen comments, which were mostly dismissed with a perfunctory wave of bureaucratese. (Sample text: "The commenter's assertion that the proposed project is 'laden with hidden public subsidies' is outside the scope of [this] analysis. . . . Neither the City nor the State will have any obligation to pay for construction of the new stadium. Thus, there are no hidden public subsidies.")

To some, this timeline points up the trouble with ULURP, which sets a strict seven-month window for public review before a council vote. "That may not be long enough to have a public debate about a major facility that's going to transform an entire area of the city," says Hunter College urban-affairs professor Tom Angotti.

It certainly hasn't been long enough to solidify the stadium plan itself, which remains in a state of flux. As just one example, the city Industrial Development Agency recently revealed that the cost of new parking garages has skyrocketed from $235 million to $320 million in the past four months. While $70 million of that will come out of the pockets of state taxpayers, the remainder is expected to be paid by as-yet-unidentified private developers. If no developer voluntarily comes forward—and the higher the price, the more it looks like a money-loser—the city could be left having to front this money itself.

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