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.
Moreover, because Macombs Dam Park received funds under the federal Land and Water Conservation Program in the 1980s, the National Park Service still must certify that lost parkland is replaced by equivalent green space. In actuality, says Lukas Herbert, a Westchester city planner who lives near Yankee Stadium and serves on Community Board 4, “the replacement parkland that they’re building is almost a mile away, and it’s going to be difficult for senior citizens and kids to get there. Right now you walk out your front door, and the park is right there.” Save Our Parks is considering a lawsuit over both the EIS failings and the federal park-replacement regs, but, says Herbert, “a lot of us are concerned that if the City Council approves it, they’re going to go in and start tearing down trees.”
The Mets project, meanwhile, virtually disappeared from the radar after Bloomberg’s initial announcement last summer of a new 44,000-seat facility—about 25 percent smaller capacity than Shea Stadium, though roughly the same height—to be built in what’s now the center field parking lot. Unlike the Yankees’ series of ULURP hearings, the Mets plan has only a single public hearing to its credit so far: an Empire State Development Authority shindig that was held at four on a Monday afternoon, and drew all of six speakers.
“It was a farce,” says Flushing community activist David Oats, who has long lobbied for an Olympic stadium in Queens. “Here’s a huge, multimillion-dollar project that will affect New York City for generations, and they hold one hearing at four o’clock in the afternoon, and they don’t even send out a press release?”
The city insists that the Mets plan doesn’t need a fresh public review process because it already conducted an impact study back in 2001, when the project was set to sport a retractable roof and a different financing scheme. It’s hard to say, though, since the Mets have still not released their designs for a new stadium, and official state documents indicate design schematics as “intentionally deleted.”
The speed of the process has also left little time for the sort of intensive scrutiny that the Jets and Nets plans were subjected to, either by good-government groups or the press. The city Independent Budget Office hasn’t weighed in on the fiscal impact of the baseball projects (the IBO’s Doug Turetsky says “elected officials have not been coming asking about this”), and no public polls have been conducted, aside from one last July that found just 27 percent of New Yorkers would endorse a new Queens stadium if it cost $180 million in public funds. (The actual Mets subsidy, including tax breaks, would be closer to $400 million.)
The council itself mostly seems to be hoping the whole thing goes away without any tiresome public debate, especially after the tightly controlled Bronx Democratic machine lined up early behind the Yankees. Unlike with the Jets and Nets proposals, a local Bronx councilmember, Helen Foster, co-sponsored the Home Rule message OK’ing the parks grab. Foster recently declared she’s not “ready to concede” to building a stadium in the park, while Maria del Carmen Arroyo, whose district actually includes the stadium site, is officially undecided; last Thursday’s scheduled council hearing was abruptly postponed at the request of Bronx members, with Arroyo citing unspecified “concerns” that City Hall had yet to address. (Neither Foster nor Arroyo returned calls for this article.)
Jeremy Soffin of the Regional Plan Association, a veteran of the West Side wars, blames “stadium fatigue” after eight years and counting of sports facility squabbles, dating back to Rudy Giuliani’s ill-fated gambit to move the Yankees to the West Side rail yards. Others insist that it’s less about the timing of these stadium plans, and more about the color of their borough. “In no other community would they accept a stadium across the street from where people live, and accept parking garages to replace parkland,” says Anita Antonetty, a Save Our Parks member and recording secretary for Bronx Community Board 4. “The process is just too fast, and the alternatives are not being explored at all.”
The still larger concern, adds David Gratt of Friends of Yankee Stadium, is what sort of precedent this sets for future city projects. “The Bronx Terminal Market went through this way; the stadiums are going through this way,” says Gratt, a former Department of City Planning staffer. “Developers now expect to finalize their deals by sitting down with the mayor’s office, the borough president, and the council. And the process, which was originally designed to solicit public input, is being used to disregard the public.”