Whose big idea was this anyway? Who believed you could have a National Football League stadium on Manhattan’s West Side without a tailgate-party-filled parking lot? Who were the culprits who insisted—all logic and experience to the contrary—that most fans would take public transit?
For that matter, what genius decided that the best use for prime riverfront property was a stadium where only seagulls can enjoy the view? And who cooked up the financing plan for this new sports mecca on the Hudson where you float the bonds first and pray that the revenue arrives later?
Did these folks never hear about the pie-in-the-sky schemes that sparked the city’s worst fiscal crisis back in 1975? Did they pick up none of the mutterings of the city’s real estate moguls about this waste of a great, buildable site? Had they never visited Giants Stadium on a Sunday afternoon? Never fought their way up the West Side on a busy weekend, even after West Street was expensively widened?
Who are these people?
The answer is that the folks who tried to sell you a deeply subsidized $2.4 billion football stadium cum convention center on Eleventh Avenue are, despite the cheerleading rhetoric, more schemers than dreamers, more grifters than civic patriots. Within hours after the plan to award $300 million in state subsidies to the project fell apart last week in Albany, the stadium’s most stalwart proponents began a reverse field run, tossing aside long-cherished arguments and launching one of the great flip-flops in modern city history:
Maybe the Jets could build their stadium on the site with private money after all (something previously described as impossible). Maybe New York’s Olympic committee could amend its proposal (after insisting that such changes were never allowed). Maybe Queens would make a fine locale for an Olympic stadium (after steadily dissing the borough and those who said it was a viable option for more than a year). Maybe that new stadium, built in tandem with the Mets, can be constructed for less than $300 million in public subsidies, compared with $600 million for the West Side version (after claiming there would be no cost savings if it were built in Flushing).
All of those notions had been ridiculed by Team Bloomberg right up until the afternoon of June 6, when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (with a much unheralded assist from Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno) said he had “a moral obligation” not to support huge state taxpayer contributions to help build it while Lower Manhattan still goes wanting. Within moments, the West Side stadium was dead as Kelsey’s nuts.
And it was probably dead a long time before that, although only a handful of insiders knew it for certain. Former U.S. senator turned millionaire lobbyist Alfonse D’Amato, who was hired to represent Jets foe Cablevision, confided to Republican pals weeks ago that the stadium would never be built, sources say. Since Bruno’s vote alone was enough to snuff the project, and since Bruno owes his career to D’Amato, the Fonz presumably knew what he was talking about, just as lobbyist and Silver friend Pat Lynch did when she gave similar assurances months ago.
At City Hall, it took a week for Team Bloomberg to make up its mind whether to hold a wake for the now moribund West Side project or take a shovel-in-the-ground photo for yet another new stadium concept. Mayor Bloomberg initially offered a mournful elegy (“we let down America”), but then quickly asked people to just stop talking about it (“My attitude is—that’s history,” he told his Friday radio show audience). The mayor, his backers know, has been relieved of the biggest single negative in his campaign for re-election. “It’s a gift from the gods,” said one longtime Bloomberg loyalist. “They have lifted the boulder off his shoulders.”
But while the failure of the mayor’s biggest plan may be the strongest boost for his campaign, it’s still worth analyzing the cabal that tried to foist this scheme upon us. Here are some key players:
DANIEL DOCTOROFF‘s official title, the one Bloomberg bestowed on the 46-year-old multimillionaire investor when he was sworn into office in January 2002, was deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding. The “rebuilding” tag was a nod to the immense task facing the administration in the wreckage of Lower Manhattan. But Doctoroff already had his eyes focused elsewhere. He had been a brash, young investment adviser, running a huge capital fund for Texas billionaire Robert Bass, when he formed NYC2012, the Olympics organization. In 1999, Mayor Giuliani agreed to back Doctoroff’s plan to have the city make an Olympics bid, with a West Side stadium as its linchpin and the New Jersey-based Jets as the stadium’s prospective new tenant.
Even back then, areas of Queens such as Willets Point, near Shea Stadium, and the Sunnyside rail yards were suggested as alternatives. But Doctoroff dismissed them out of hand. His theory was that the Jets stadium would spark massive new commercial and residential construction on the underutilized far West Side. Records show he put his money where his mouth was. Among the Bass investments Doctoroff personally participated in was the 1999 purchase—just three months after Giuliani embraced the Olympics bid and the new stadium—of a 16-story, two-block-wide office building at the corner of West 33rd Street and Tenth Avenue.
When Juan Gonzalez of the Daily News (ironically, one of the building’s tenants) began questioning him this year about the investment, Doctoroff refused to provide specifics about how much he’d invested; his lawyers would only say it was minimal and that he had sold it after taking office under an agreement to dispose of his real estate holdings (which included four other West Side properties as well). But Gonzalez’s research showed that Doctoroff’s share wasn’t sold until late 2003—after the building’s owners had begun negotiating to have it included in the new Hudson Yards zoning changes. The Department of City Planning, which falls under Doctoroff’s supervision, later granted zoning changes allowing the owners to build a monstrous 50-story structure on the site.
Doctoroff’s spokeswoman said he had nothing to do with the specific rezoning. But the investment confirmed the suspicions of opponents that the stadium and attendant Hudson Yards rezoning smacked more of a real estate gold rush than a benign urban reshaping. Like Westway, the long-deceased plan to build a massive highway on the West Side, the stadium was always more about creating opportunities for real estate than civic enhancement.
When billionaire pharmaceuticals heir WOODY JOHNSON purchased the Jets in 2000, he did so with a vision of a shimmering, glass-and-steel 70,000-seat West Side stadium firmly in mind—with profits right through its government-financed, retractable roof. The stadium would allow the Jets to double the amount they charge for luxury boxes in the Meadowlands, to more than $230,000; in addition, it would let the team impose the NFL’s most odious fan tax, so-called “personal seat licenses” costing up to $10,000 apiece—just for the right to buy a season ticket. Naming rights for the stadium, along with other corporate sponsorships, would be worth more than $50 million, the team estimated.
The Times‘ Charles Bagli, who broke many of the key stories about the stadium, noted that even as the Jets were telling investment bankers how profitable their new home would be, at the same time they were insisting it couldn’t be built without a minimum state and city subsidy of $600 million.
Although the Jets used to play in Queens, Johnson and team president JAY CROSS both dismissed suggestions that they consider sites there rather than the West Side.
NYC2012 director JAY KRIEGEL was hired for his job by Doctoroff, who thought the former City Hall aide and television executive had the right combo of political know-how and pizzazz for the mission. While Doctoroff remained the group’s top figure, Kriegel was the daily point man.
The snowy-haired Kriegel was a perfect representative, intelligent and humorous, as long as he was fielding ground-ball inquiries about Olympic venues and procedures. But when reporters sought to ask him about the successful fundraising meetings he and Doctoroff held with firms that do business with City Hall, Kriegel dropped the charm act. He brusquely suggested that it might be unpatriotic to question the group’s Olympic-fundraising methods. Moreover, Kriegel said that the notion that business leaders were making contributions as a means of gaining access to Doctoroff at City Hall was “outrageous.”
It wasn’t the first time Kriegel was put on the defensive. Back in 1971, the Knapp Commission on police corruption looked into charges by a pair of young whistle-blowing detectives named Frank Serpico and David Durk that they’d warned Kriegel, then a top aide to John Lindsay, about corruption but that he had done nothing about it.
Construction trades union leader ED MALLOY provided the muscle, manpower, and much of the money in the push to win political support for the stadium.
There was no doubt the stadium would’ve generated many jobs—but so does every big project, like the still unbuilt Second Avenue subway or the cross-harbor rail freight tunnel, both much needed improvements. But while Malloy’s troops never fought to win political backing for those projects, they pulled out the stops for the West Side stadium, adopting a carrot-and-stick approach, say political officials who got the full Malloy treatment. The carrot was in the form of union campaign donations that would “max out”—the most allowed under law—to those pols who agreed to endorse the project.
The stick was a threat that the politician would not see another union dime, with the money going instead to fund potential opponents. Since re-election is goal No. 1 for every pol, the tactic won many converts. Although the evidence won’t show up until next month’s campaign finance filings, several pols who saw the stadium light will be displaying newfound union wealth in their campaign coffers.
Ironically, some of Bloomberg and Doctoroff’s most ardent support for a West Side stadium came from Queens pols like City Council finance committee chairman DAVID WEPRIN. While critics like Brooklyn-Queens congressman and mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner repeatedly promoted the idea of a Queens stadium, the hometown delegation steadily shot it down, making it impossible to build political momentum for the idea. As late as this March, Weprin, along with eight other Queens pols, wrote Bloomberg an open letter insisting their own borough would make a lousy site, citing, amazingly, traffic and costs. Jets president Cross demonstrated his thanks to Weprin last year, donating $2,000 to his campaign committee. Late last week, Weprin, of course, was backtracking, along with the rest of Team Bloomberg. “We’re exploring all other options,” he said.