It was not democracy’s finest moment. Yesterday morning, an overflow crowd of Bronx neighborhood activists, construction workers, and increasingly peeved news reporters cooled their heels at City Hall for two hours, awaiting the promised city council meetings on the Yankees’ $1.2 billion stadium plan. (Public share: About $400 million and change.) The reason for the delay: Members of the council’s Democratic caucus were behind closed doors downstairs, hammering out a pre-agreement on how the vote would go.
When things got underway, it was immediately clear that speaker Chris Quinn and majority leader Joel Rivera had gotten all their ducks in a row. One by one, councilmembers insisted straight-faced that they’d given “extensive deliberation” to the matter of handing over city cash and parkland to the world’s most lucrative sports franchise, and what a difficult decision it was, before voting in lockstep to approve the plan. Gale Brewer of Manhattan gave an eloquent speech detailing the “many questions” that remain about the plan before voting yes; Tony Avella of Queens, who’d penned a strongly worded letter to the mayor last Friday outlining the plan’s flaws, ranging from lack of suitable replacement parkland to the need for a commuter rail station to the project’s convoluted bond financing scheme, likewise voted for the plan, calling it “much better than the original proposal.” Asked what had changed since Friday, Avella specifically cited the new Metro-North station that Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Pataki threw their support (but no funds) behind yesterday, demurring, “Is it perfect? No. But you have to balance these things out.”
In the end, the only no votes came from vocal stadium opponents Helen Diane Foster, whose district includes the apartment dwellers along Jerome Avenue whose windows would look out directly on the new stadium (and who delivered an emotional speech that all but begged forgiveness for voting her conscience and not the will of the Bronx leadership), and Charles Barron, who hopes to be beyond the reach of council retribution by next year anyway. (At a morning anti stadium press conference, he notably sported a large “Barron for Congress in 2006” pin.) Two other councilmembers, Letitia James and Rosie Mendez, abstained; Melissa Mark Viverito, whose district overlaps Manhattan and the Bronx, voted for the stadium but against the associated parking garages.
In the tabloids’ tired baseball analogies, the Yankees didn’t win Game 7 today—even with its land-use plan approved, the project still has several hurdles to clear before the city can take a wrecking ball to the House That Ruth Built. But after yesterday’s hearings, it seems incomprehensible that the council would reverse course and vote down the stadium bonds when they consider them later this month. That leaves the opposition hoping for a Ninth-inning National Park Service ruling—or a court verdict—that the replacement parkland doesn’t meet the requirement of the federal Land and Water Conservation Act.
The denouement to the stadium’s ten-month land-use process bore all the hallmarks of how it was first launched last June: Vote first, and ask questions later. Even the much-derided Washington, D.C. stadium controversy, which ended up sticking taxpayers there with a $611 million bill, was preceded by months of public testimony, and raucous debate on the council floor about the pros and cons of stadium-building as economic development. By contrast, New York City’s
oversight was one-and-done: a single subcommittee hearing last week preceding yesterday’s land-use vote, with a finance committee hearing on the stadium bonds to be held next Monday.
In thanking her committee for the one hour of work that it put in to discussing the Yankees plan, land use chair Melinda Katz declared, “The one thing this project has shown is that folks are listened to.” Your elected officials just have a funny way of showing it.