Stopping a Stadium


In the doomed deal to use state money to build a West Side stadium, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver wasn’t alone: There was a lot in the plan not to like and plenty of people who didn’t like it.

They all had their reasons—civic virtue wasn’t the only force—but to those living next to where the New York Sports and Convention Center would have risen, motives didn’t matter. “We all want to protect our interests here,” Anna Levin, one of the Hell’s Kitchen residents who battled the proposal, tells the Voice. “Everyone’s got self-interest. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

While they are worried that a West Side stadium plan could rise again, last week was a time for the anti-stadium forces to savor victory and for Mayor Michael Bloomberg to mourn defeat—at least until the mayor cobbled together the Queens plan.

At one point, the mayor lamented that our great metropolis had “lost a little bit of our spirit to go ahead and our can-do attitude.” But the opponents of the West Side stadium would disagree. Against the combined power of the governor, the billionaire mayor, U.S. Olympic officialdom, a wealthy team owner, the National Football League, and the construction union, a motley cast prevailed. Here they are, in no particular order:

RICHARD RAVITCH: Dubbed the elder statesman of the opposition, the former Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman was a lone public voice of skepticism from the development world. He tells the Voice that he was most irked by the risk that the MTA would get shorted on the deal. “The idea of conveying that property at less than market value was not in the interest of the city and the transit agency,” Ravitch says. That simple critique stuck, especially when subway problems arose to highlight the MTA’s financial woes.

REGIONAL PLAN ASSOCIATION: When other civic organizations were taking a hands-off approach to the stadium deal, the RPA weighed in—after internal discussions “more extensive . . . than on any other issue in memory” and despite arm-twisting by Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff. The RPA’s argument (“there is no compelling need to place this in a part of the city that should be devoted to high-value, high-density office and residential development”) helped transform the debate from a narrow argument by skeptical residents to a larger discussion of the city’s priorities.

JUAN GONZALEZ ET AL.: While the tabloid press waved pom-poms for the stadium deal, the Daily News columnist kept asking uncomfortable questions about the housing plans, traffic problems, and complex real estate deals encompassed by the Hudson Yards push. Anti-stadium advocates also credit Bob Herbert and the New York Times editorial writers who raised their voices in skepticism.

THE POLS: Silver threw the big punch last week, but he was only the latest elected official to come out against the stadium deal. Neighborhood residents credit a long line of politicians—Congressman Jerry Nadler; state senators Tom Duane, Eric Schneiderman, and Liz Krueger; assemblymembers Adriano Espaillat, Deborah Glick, Dick Gottfried, and Scott Stringer; councilmembers Gale Brewer and Christine Quinn; and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. They lent staff members to the anti-stadium efforts, lobbied their leaders in Albany and on the council, hosted press conferences, and in some cases, went to court.

THE LAWSUITS: Litigation by Cablevision, the Straphangers Campaign, the Transport Workers Union Local 100, and others has yet to actually convince a court to officially block the stadium plan. But the suits helped delay the closing of the Jets deal, and that gave the activists time to work on public opinion as well as lobby Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. The legal action also brought to light some awkward truths about the stadium deal, like the terms of the Jets-MTA agreement that allowed the team to pull out if the public financing was nixed.

THE GRASSROOTS: Community Board 4 chairman Walter Mankoff compares the stadium fight to a scene from The Barber of Seville, where a single, hushed word of scorn multiplies into a cacophony of voices. “We started as a whisper and ended as a storm also,” he says.

For years there had been opposition to a stadium on the West Side, dating back to Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to install the Yankees there. But with the full force of NYC2012 and the mayor behind the Jets plan, some local activists believed a more organized resistance was needed this time around. This feeling gave birth, in February 2003, to the Hell’s Kitchen/Hudson Yards Alliance, a group encompassing several local organizations. (Some neighborhood activists stayed out of the coalition because they felt the alliance was too willing to accept heavy development in the area.)

The alliance knows it didn’t defeat the Jets deal. “It was, I guess, Sheldon Silver and Joe Bruno,” Anna Levin acknowledges. “But the stuff you heard coming out of their mouths were arguments we helped develop that sort of went up through the food chain and came out of their mouths, and in the end won the day.”

The alliance did that by meeting with other local organizations, collecting signatures, holding rallies, staging press conferences, and writing to officials—delivering 25,000 letters to Silver and Bruno a week before the key stadium vote. Its members mastered the complex, interrelated subjects that the stadium deal involved: zoning laws, stadium economics, municipal finance, the convention business, and the gigantic environmental-impact statement. Most importantly, Levin says, “We’ve learned how to take our own parochial interests and connect them up with the broader interests that other New Yorkers might have because we knew we weren’t going to kill this if it was just a ‘not in my backyard’ argument.”

Luck gets credit too. The looming 2005 elections helped the alliance get the attention of political heavy hitters. And by chance, many of the hearings on the stadium were held at the Fashion Institute of Technology, easily accessible to “the Penn South ladies,” a group of elderly, dogged opponents of the Jets plan. “Those ladies came to every single meeting and they got a lunch and they got a bottle of water,” remembers Joe Restuccia, an alliance member. “And they were pissed off.”

CABLEVISION: It was last spring, about a year after the Hell’s Kitchen/Hudson Yards Alliance formed. “We got a call from Cablevision asking how they could help our effort,” Levin remembers. “It was very scary.”

Joining forces with a massive corporation out to protect its bottom line was a daunting prospect, Levin says. But she adds, “We knew we needed media support. We knew we needed lobbyists. We knew we were going to litigate. We knew we needed all sorts of resources,” like T-shirts, photocopies, a professional organizer—and a voice in the high halls of government. Cablevision provided it all. “We would never had had the access in Albany that this campaign got without the Garden’s lobbyists, and that’s the reality of politics in New York,” Levin says.

Cablevision wasn’t the only business interest to help fight the stadium. A few developers lent support to the alliance, but did so quietly to avoid angering the mayor and Doctoroff. Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Shubert Organization, also pitched in on behalf of Broadway theaters worried about how stadium traffic would affect their audiences. But only Cablevision had the clout and chutzpah to make the key move in the whole stadium drama: the rival bid for the MTA site.

“That was a stroke of genius,” Levin recalls. It exposed the fact that there had not been open bidding, and that the cash-strapped MTA might be able to get millions more for the valuable site. The cable giant’s bid also forced MTA head Peter Kalikow to open bidding, delaying the closure of the Jets deal. And once the MTA opened a formal process, the anti-stadium forces got ammunition for some of their suits.

SHELDON SILVER: The Daily News dubbed him “the spoiler.” The Post called him “as small-minded and parochial a pol as any of the hicks and hacks he supervises.” But to those who opposed the stadium, the Assembly Speaker was the biggest hero of them all because in the end he was the only one whom Doctoroff & Co. couldn’t get around.

“I thought that Silver was courageous,” says Gene Russianoff of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Silver’s comments about his decision “read like the words from someone, whether you agreed with him or not, who had a deep affection and concern for his district,” Russianoff tells the Voice.

But it wasn’t just Lower Manhattan that was on Silver’s mind. “Shelly really was affronted, rightly so, by the mayor’s failure to respect the checks and balances of government,” Russianoff adds. Others agree. As much as the plan’s details dragged the stadium deal down, the arrogance of its backers might have been the fatal flaw—like hubris in a Greek tragedy, with Shelly Silver swinging the fateful sword.

DAN DOCTOROFF: Of course, it takes two to make a tragedy. John Fisher, a West Side activist who didn’t join the alliance, notes that “Dan Doctoroff helped too—the way they operated, they tried to shove it down people’s throats.” That approach managed to anger people who didn’t give a hoot about the stadium itself. It added yet another constituency to the coalition, one that agreed on at least the word no.