Can a Billion Dollars Save the Dismal Javits Center?

After a $500 million expansion in 2013, attendance at the Javits Center actually fell.EXPAND
After a $500 million expansion in 2013, attendance at the Javits Center actually fell.
Sam Aronov / Shutterstock.com

Jacob Javits was a four-term U.S. senator from New York, a liberal Republican (he was a staunch advocate of civil rights and an early opponent of the Vietnam War) whose final political move was to run for his own seat as a third-party candidate after losing the 1980 Republican primary. He managed to siphon off enough votes from Democrat Liz Holtzman to deliver New Yorkers eighteen years of Al D'Amato. Even sadder, his most prominent legacy is to have his name on a convention center that has been declared obsolete almost from the moment it opened in 1986 on the site of former Penn Central rail yards.

The Javits Center has been derided as too small (it's the nation's twelfth largest convention center) and too out of the way (even after the MTA expanded the 7 train to its doorstep last year, it's still a hike from the rest of midtown). It also looks hideous — Curbed NY once dubbed its waterfront-blocking glass walls "the ugly wart on the ass of Hudson Yards." In his 2012 State of the State address, Cuomo proposed replacing it with a mammoth $4 billion complex at Aqueduct Raceway in Queens.

That plan went nowhere, and yet the governor's new plan to instead plunk another $1 billion into the current Javits would be just as inane, says Heywood Sanders, a convention center economist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "It has nothing to do with any economic or market rationality," says Sanders, whose 2014 book Convention Center Follies recounted how cities continue to pour dollars into new facilities in hopes of bringing in more business — only to glut the convention market, then throw even more money around in the hope of grabbing a bigger share of a vanishing business. (Nationwide, available convention space nearly doubled between 1989 and 2011, even as fewer and fewer large conventions were held.) The Javits Center saw 1.25 million visitors in 2000, a number that consultant PricewaterhouseCoopers projected would rise to 1.62 million if more space was added. After much wrangling, a state-funded $500 million expansion was finally completed in 2013 — at which point attendance promptly fell to 595,000.

Believing that another, doubly expensive expansion will somehow reverse this trend is sheer lunacy, Sanders says. "I'm equally dubious about them doing the Moynihan Station deal the way they're saying," he says. "But when it comes to Javits, I know the numbers, and it's just ugly."

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