News & Politics

NYCFC’s Bronx Stadium Would Use City Parks Land — Sorta

The revived plan for a soccer stadium to replace a Yankees garage could still include public costs

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When the owners of the New York Yankees announced, on a June day in 2005, plans for a new stadium to replace the 82-year-old Yankee Stadium, they had a special treat for New Yorkers who’d been hearing for more than a decade how the public would need to pay for a new home for the ball club: Steve Swindal, George Steinbrenner’s son-in-law at the time, declared, “There will be no public subsidies.”

That turned out to be not quite so much true. After adding up all the tax breaks and parking garage construction fees and costs of rebuilding parks that were bulldozed to make way for Yankee Stadium 2.0, city and state taxpayers ended up out more than $800 million — one of the spendiest public costs for any baseball stadium in U.S. history up to that time.

Earlier this month, developers working with New York City FC — the Major League Soccer franchise co-owned by the Steinbrenner clan and Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan — revealed the latest plan for a new soccer stadium to arise just south of the Yankees’ home field, which has been serving as a not-entirely-satisfactory temporary home for the soccer team since the club launched in 2015. (Among other things, the field dimensions make for a soccer pitch so narrow that players can all but throw the ball into the goal from the sidelines.) Unlike NYCFC’s previous plan for the same site, a New York Times report promised, the soccer team’s owners were “not asking for the avalanche of free land, tax breaks, and public funding” received by previous stadiums in the tristate area.

Is this sports promise for real? A Voice analysis finds the answer to be: It’s complicated. Even more than other previously proposed NYCFC home field sites — which have wandered the five boroughs from Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens to Pier 40 in Manhattan to Aqueduct and Belmont race tracks to a riverside spot in the South Bronx that was dead seemingly even before it got off the ground — the new Bronx plan involves a rabbit hole of leases and subleases, public land and private operators, and creative bookkeeping that makes the final price tag difficult if not impossible to calculate.

“This generation of development just seems to be getting bigger and bigger and more complex,” says Bettina Damiani, a Bronx resident and former director of Good Jobs New York, an economic development watch group that tracked and analyzed the Yankee Stadium deal. And with the added complexity, she says, any hope of transparency has gone out the window: “If you don’t care about the people that live and work and run small businesses in a neighborhood, you should at least have a marker of whether this will financially benefit a community, or a city, or a region, or something.”

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The latest site to catch NYCFC’s eye will be familiar to anyone who lined up around the block for Yankees playoff tickets during their postseason runs in the Seventies or Nineties. Garage 8, also known as the “triangle garage,” is a four-level parking structure that sits immediately south of the old stadium site, providing parking spaces at $35 a pop for anyone foolish enough to drive to a Yankee game. Along with an elevator parts factory across 153rd Street to the west — plus 153rd Street itself, as well as an on-ramp to the Major Deegan — the garage would be demolished to create a roughly eight-acre plot of land just big enough to squeeze in a soccer-specific stadium of the kind that makes fans happy, and MLS execs positively drool with glee.

Five years ago, NYCFC’s owners planned on having the city let them use the land free of charge — and also free of property and other taxes, for a total public gift on the order of $106 million. If you count the $100 million in IOUs that the city would have to forgo collecting from the nonprofit company that runs the garage — money it might never get, given that hardly anybody, it turns out, wants to pay $35 for parking when there are other cheaper garages plus the subway and Metro-North all a couple of blocks away — the total taxpayer cost would have cleared $200 million.

In this latest iteration, the team owners would do away with the need for public cash by means of a new gimmick. Instead of giving the land to the team, the city would sell or lease it to a private developer, the exquisitely named Maddd Equities, which was already looking to build housing in the area. Maddd would, in turn, sublease the garage site to NYCFC, which would erect on it a 26,000-seat, $400 million soccer stadium. (The city, it should be noted, has yet to sign on this plan, though deputy mayor Alicia Glen told the Times that negotiations are ongoing.)

If all that sounds a bit alchemical — add one private housing developer, and presto chango, watch the public subsidies disappear! — it only gets odder from there, thanks to the convoluted history of that garage site.

Back in 1973, when the city embarked on its first Yankees stadium redo project — right after George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS for the cut-rate price of $8.7 million — it acquired the triangle garage land, city property records accessed through PropertyShark.com show, from Kinney System, which had run an open-air parking lot there. (Around the same time, the city used its eminent domain powers to seize the stadium site itself from the Knights of Columbus and Rice University, which through a series of sales by former Yankees owners had ended up holding title to the land and the building, respectively.)

Sometime between the 1970s, when the city actually took title to the garage site, and the present, City Hall placed the parcel in the hands of the Parks Department. But at the same time, it never formally designated it as parkland, a process that involves the city getting the state to add the land to its zoning maps.

This is, parks and city land use experts agree, kinda weird. Some space that is treated as public parks isn’t actually owned by Parks — many community gardens, for example, are technically owned by the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. But the reverse is seldom true. “In general, because Parks has traditionally had a bare-bones budget, they’ve been unwilling to take on things that aren’t really parks,” says Tom Angotti, a Hunter College urban planning professor who formerly worked for the Department of City Planning.

And in any case, even if Parks owns the garage land, that doesn’t mean its exactly Parks land, let alone parkland. That’s because in 2009, after Mayor Bloomberg and the City Council approved building a new baseball stadium atop two public parks (which were actually mapped as parkland, as was the old stadium, as were some of the sites of new garages built by the city to accommodate the Yankees’ demand for still more parking), the land was leased by Parks to the city’s quasi-public city Economic Development Corporation, which then subleased it to Bronx Parking Development, that nonprofit parking company that is currently defaulting on its rent payments to the city. (Not to mention on its commitments to bondholders, who have been keeping Bronx Parking afloat only by allowing it to punt on loan payments for years.) Queries to the Parks Department about the status of the garage site were referred to EDC, as the leaseholder; EDC, in turn, directed questions back to Parks, as the landowner.

All of which is a fascinating glimpse into the byzantine land swaps that underlie our city. But really, there’s one big question here: Would NYCFC’s proposed deal require the city to give up land that, even if it has a surplus parking garage sitting on it now, could otherwise be used as a park, or for housing, or for some other purpose other than a soccer stadium?

The best way to tell for sure would be to look at the lease between Parks and EDC, and see what it says can and can’t be done with the land. Neither agency, though, will directly disclose the actual lease language; a Voice Freedom of Information Law request for the document is currently pending.

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The worry, obviously, is that somewhere in all that fine print are hidden costs that will end up on the city’s tab. This wouldn’t be at all unusual: When University of Michigan sport management professor Judith Grant Long compiled a database of sports venue deals in 2012, she determined that such under-the-table goodies as free land and tax breaks added an average of 40 percent to the public cost of each stadium and arena.

With a little creative financial thought, it’s easy enough to see how NYCFC’s arrangement could be used to sneak in public subsidies as well. The market value for just the 4.5-acre triangle garage site is $31.5 million, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Let’s say EDC were to offer it up for sale to Maddd for, say, $10 million, and the developer then turned around and leased the site to NYCFC for the same price. Even though the city still wouldn’t be giving any cash to the soccer club, suddenly — presto chango — the Steinbrenners and Sheikh Mansour would be getting a $21.5 million discount on their land costs, courtesy of taxpayers.

And if EDC leased the land to Maddd, the deal could be even worse for the city, because the site would then remain exempt from paying city property taxes. The current assessed value of the garage site, per IBO, is $14,165,100; forgoing property taxes on that would cost the city just over $1.4 million a year. (Mayor de Blasio’s office did not have a comment in response to Voice queries about whether Maddd will pay market value for the land or property taxes on the proposed stadium site.)

We’ve seen this kind of maneuver before when it comes to sports venues. In 2013, Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno offered to pay for $150 million in renovations to the team’s publicly owned stadium if the city of Anaheim would just hand over development rights to 150 acres of parking lots on the site; the land gift, the city later determined, would have been worth about twice as much as the renovation costs. (After Anaheim mayor Tom Tait rejected the deal, Moreno quietly signed a lease extension without getting his desired land.) And closer to home, the New York Islanders are pursuing a new arena atop state-owned land at Belmont Park that could be worth anywhere from $74 million to $300 million in public land discounts.

And there’s one final twist to the NYCFC plan: The garages only become available if the Yankees agree to lift the requirement, agreed to in 2006, that the city provide a minimum of 9,500 parking spaces for fans — a provision that even the team owners no longer care about, but which they can decline to do away with unless the city agrees to use the garage property for a project of their liking. In effect, the Yankees and NYCFC can say: Yes, that’s a valuable site you have there — now give it to us for a stadium, or else we’re going to make you keep it a parking garage until long after cars are a thing of the past. Michael Bloomberg’s Yankee Stadium deal truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

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