Nothing livens up a City Council hearing like billion-dollar corporations throwing money around. Fresh from their TV ad war over Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed West Side stadium, the Jets and avowed nemesis Cablevision kicked out the jams for council hearings on June 3 and June 14, with dueling rallies where Jets minions handed out caps proclaiming “Jobs!” in team colors, while opponents dressed in basic black paraded in “No West Side Stadium” tees.
At stake: $600 million in taxpayer money, to be used for suspending the stadium atop a platform over the Eleventh Avenue rail-yards and crowning it with a retractable roof. (The Jets say they’ll cover another $800 million, making the project easily the most expensive in National Football League history.) Even as the Bloomberg administration has mapped out the rest of its Hudson Yards financing plan—property tax money for the No. 7 subway extension, a mix of hotel taxes and redirected Battery Park City fees to expand the Javits Center—the source of the stadium funds has been terra incognita.
At the June 3 hearing, deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff took a step toward filling in the blank check: There would be no special taxes, no naming-rights fees or dedicated stadium revenues, no rent from the Jets to the city or state. Instead, a public authority would sell bonds that would be paid off out of the state and city treasuries. Doctoroff painted this as an “investment,” citing a Jets-sponsored study by Ernst & Young that showed $74 million a year in increased tax revenue from a stadium, against $42 million in annual costs.
Economic impact studies are a bit of a joke by now—when Doctoroff insisted that relying on the Jets’ paid consultants was OK because they’re a “reputable firm,” Councilmember Eric Gioia quipped, “Arthur Andersen was a reputable firm at one time”—and a closer look at E&Y’s report reveals some, shall we say, interesting assumptions. For example, E&Y assumed that every conventioneer who ducked his head into the stadium for a plenary session would otherwise be partying it up in Orlando or Las Vegas; likewise for attendees at the two sports “mega-events,” such as Super Bowls or Final Fours, that the Jets Palace would be required to land each year. (Studies of past Super Bowls have shown that NFL fans generally just displace cities’ existing allotment of tourists.)
If you’re wondering where all those “mega-events” would come from, you’re not alone. Allen Sanderson, the University of Chicago economist hired by Cablevision to critique the E&Y report, noted in his testimony that only three Super Bowls have ever been held in cold-weather cities, and that plans to lure NHL and NBA All-Star games would run afoul of league rules requiring they be played at teams’ home arenas. Convention consultant Paul Sajovec added that other NFL stadiums grafted onto convention centers are seldom used during the off-season.
When and how the stadium’s fate are to be decided is still anyone’s guess: “It’s something that we’ll determine” is how Doctoroff described the likely budgeting process to the council. This is a strategy straight from the stadium playbook: Get up a head of steam before tipping your hand, hoping that by the time the bill comes due, the project will be seen as a fait accompli. (It may also explain why the 2012 Olympics, originally the driving force behind Hudson Yards, are suddenly being downplayed by stadium boosters hungry for a surer angle.)
The problem is that, of all the scattered puzzle pieces that make up Hudson Yards, the stadium is the one element that nobody seems to like—it was roundly hammered by economists and development experts at a day-long Regional Plan Association conference in April, and most of the community activists and elected officials who joined with Cablevision in the new New York Association for Better Choices (though not Hell’s Kitchen gadfly John Fisher) say they’d be fine with developing the West Side, but want no part of a stadium. Even Council Speaker Gifford Miller, previously noncommital on the topic, felt secure enough to pepper Doctoroff with questions as to why the city should devote $600 million to a stadium instead of, say, schools.
Of course, whether Miller would even get to vote on a stadium bill is still uncertain. No doubt Deputy Dan still has a few surprises left in his bag of tricks.