With the new ballfields intended to replace those bulldozed five years ago to make way for Yankee Stadium: The Next Generation finally nearing completion — look, you can even see them now on Google Maps! — it’s time to finally turn the page on the ugly battle over the park-stealing, $2.3 billion stadium project, right? Or it would be, if not for the fact that the convoluted financing of the stadium looks like it’s going to have repercussions into the second Baldwin administration.
In the latest twist, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who’s largely stayed out of the Yankees fray — it was his predecessor, Adolfo Carrion, who lobbied heavily for the stadium and fired community board members who opposed him — yesterday released a “request for expressions of interest” for any developers who might want to build a conference center and hotel near the stadium site. The specific location is currently occupied by a parking garage: not one of those built at stupendous expense for the newfangled stadium, but Garage 8, the old three-story structure that formerly abutted the first-base side of the old House That Ruth Built.
“A major hotel and conference center has been a priority for the people of the Bronx for decades, and we are getting closer and closer to seeing that dream become a reality,” Diaz said in yesterday’s press statement. “For years, my office and the BOEDC have heard from both developers and hotel operators expressing their desire to develop a new hotel and conference center in the vicinity of Yankee Stadium. This RFEI will show the city just how much interest there is in this site, and is the first step towards the eventual development of this parking garage as a world-class hotel and conference center.”
Indeed, the Bronx Borough President’s office has been talking up a hotel and conference center for eons; it was even part of Carrion’s announced plan for the old stadium site, before the Yankees and their partners roundly ignored him. But the immediate impetus for the search for hotel developers is far simpler: The not-for-profit garage operator that was put in place as part of a complicated tax dodge is nearing bankruptcy after Yankee fans proved smart enough to pay $10 to park at the nearby Gateway Center mall and walk three blocks rather than cough up $35 to park at the stadium lots.
“They have 9200 spaces and only 4500 of them are being used,” observes Diaz spokesperson John DeSio. With that kind of math — and enraged bondholders breathing down the parking company’s necks — razing a garage and putting up a hotel might not be the craziest thing in the world.
As for who would pay for building such a thing, and who would pay to stay there … well, that’s why they call it a cry for help “request for expressions of interest.” Garage 8 sits on city land, so normally you’d expect a hotel to pay property taxes (or “payments in lieu of” property taxes, aka PILOTs); the city could be asked to kick back some of those to make the deal work. The poor saps who bought the city’s garage bonds could also possibly be asked to take pennies on the dollar for what they’re owed, since if things keep going as they are, they’ll soon be left holding a bunch of worthless paper. As for the Yankees, don’t expect them to cough up any Steinbucks: In fact, a clause way at the end of Diaz’ call for developers notes that the city’s agreement with the team requires it to replace any eliminated parking spaces — so somebody’s either going to have to find room for a new garage or (more likely) buy out that clause from the Yanks with cold, hard simoleons.
Whether any hotel developer would consider such a project without a major infusion of subsidies is dubious, given the off-the-beaten-path site — did we mention this was in the South Bronx? — and less-than-sterling track record of similar projects elsewhere. “A conference center depends upon group business, and there is not much in terms of demand generators (or Manhattan amenities) around the stadium,” notes University of Texas at San Antonio convention center economist Heywood Sanders via email. Moreover, the conference center market is currently glutted, and only expected to become more so: Javits Center business is down in recent years, Sanders observes, and a conference center/hotel is already part of the city’s plans for a redeveloped Willets Point in Queens.
Asked to come up with a city that had successfully built a hotel anchored primarily by stadium business, Sanders draws a blank. “Cleveland did subsidize some new hotels into being around Gateway,” he says, “but the downtown hotel market there never took off and now is suffering.”
Meanwhile, the very notion of razing a Yankees garage, even a 1970s-vintage one, is likely to peeve the Bronx residents who spent years bemoaning the Yankees’ seizure of most of the former Macombs Dam Park to make room not for a stadium flanked with garages that it turns out aren’t needed. Recreational facilities displaced solely for garages include basketball and handball courts (closed for years before being squeezed in on a garage rooftop near the Macombs Dam Bridge ramp), tennis courts (relocated to the Harlem River waterfront on the far side of the Major Deegan Expressway), and a ballfield that the Yankees had previously commandeered for parking way back in the ’70s (not replaced, just because). Maybe if locals are lucky, Diaz will find a developer who’ll let them use the hotel pool.