Friday, December 16, 2011

Did Bloomberg's Olympic legacy really pay off? Some dissent to the new narrative, and an odd attempt to shoehorn in Atlantic Yards

A new report, How New York City Won the Olympics (also embedded below), argues that most of the benefits of the city's 2012 Olympics bid have been achieved, and without the crushing costs of the event.

It has drawn supportive coverage from the New York Times (though see this cautionary comment) and an enthusiastic New York Daily News editorial, plus coverage in The Bond Buyer.

But it should be taken with significant skepticism. The report is authored by the much-quoted Mitchell L. Moss, Director, Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, New York University.

Moss, an advisor to Mayor Mike Bloomberg's 2001 mayoral campaign, has often defended Bloomberg and the Olympic Plan's chief architect, former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, so--despite failure to mention that connection in press coverage--that connection must be layered on his academic credentials.

Also, the report includes some strained attempts to attach the Atlantic Yards arena and plan to the Olympics legacy, though that's not backed up by evidence.

Some skepticism: need for a platform

Not everyone joined the Moss-created, Times-endorsed consensus.

Greg David, in 11/27/11 Crain's New York Business column headlined The few, true signs of economic health, wrote:
Coach Inc. agreed to become the first anchor tenant in Hudson Yards, the enormously speculative development on the far West Side where The Related Companies is gambling billions of dollars.
...Coach's corporate headquarters will anchor a new office tower that Related is building on what it calls terra firma, meaning solid ground at a corner of the Hudson Yards site. Related needs several more tenants to actually begin construction of a massive platform over the Long Island Rail Road tracks where the vast majority of this new neighborhood—often billed as the next Rockefeller Center—will be built. It is the decision to move ahead with the platform that will signal Related believes the city will thrive, not this single office building. 
(Emphasis added)

Similarly, the Atlantic Yards project was supposed to alleviate blight created by an open railyard cut.

Once we see a platform over the Long Island Rail Road tracks, then perhaps the project could be described--using the ill-chosen recent word of an Observer reporter--as "thriving." (Still, if additional subsidies are needed, or if Forest City uses all available time, "thriving" won't be the right word.)

Some skepticism: cost overruns

Also, Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez, in a 12/7/11 column headlined Hudson Yards on Manhattan's far West Side plagued by cost overruns, wrote:

The Hudson Yards development project on Manhattan’s far West Side is about to become New York’s next big money pit.
The city could be on the hook for more than $500million by 2015 just to pay interest on $3 billion in Hudson Yards bonds — largely because commercial and apartment building construction in the area has not reached anywhere near the level Mayor Bloomberg’s top aides predicted back in 2005.
Meanwhile, costs have ballooned for Hudson Yards’ two main public improvements: extension of the No. 7 subway to 34th St. and 11th Ave., and construction of a new ribbon park and midblock boulevard between 10th and 11th Aves.
A misleading Moss report graphic

The Moss report opens with a misleading graphic (right, click to enlarge), which places the Atlantic Yards arena at bottom right in Downtown Brooklyn.

Also, the graphic limits the 22-acre Atlantic Yards site to the (incomplete) arena block, thus leaving the impression that the whole project is coming to fruition in a very small space.

In fact, the shading inside the graphic emphasizes the western tip of the arena block, which is the site of... a temporary plaza.

The summary

The report states:
Six years ago, New York City lost its bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Contrary to popular belief, the New York City Olympic Plan has largely been implemented, even though the 2012 Games will be held in London. New York City’s bid for the 2012 Olympics explicitly sought to use the Olympics as a catalyst for development of facilities and infrastructure that would have lasting value. New York’s bid went much further than what was required by the International Olympic Committee. From the outset, New York City’s plan for the 2012 Olympics was designed to spur action on, and obtain resources for, projects that would have a long-term positive impact on the city whether or not the IOC chose New York City to host the Games.
With this vision in mind, NYC2012 – the organization formed to develop the city’s bid – formulated a plan that focused on seven areas of the city that had been the subject of multiple studies but were still relatively underdeveloped – the Far West Side of Manhattan, Brooklyn’s East River Waterfront, Long Island City in Queens, the Flushing section of Queens, Harlem, the South Bronx, and Downtown Brooklyn.
Although New York City ultimately lost its Olympic bid, comprehensive plans were approved for the targeted areas. In each, a major rezoning was completed, which included planned affordable housing, mass transit enhancements, new parks and amenities, and other new infrastructure. In addition, four of the facilities that were to be part of the Olympic Plan have either been completed or are under construction.
(Emphasis added)

Areas highlighted

Moss writes that "sites were sought in the seven targeted areas with the initial plan locating venues in each," thus catalyzing development. Those areas included:
  • Far West Side: new football stadium/Olympic stadium
  • Long Island City: Olympic Village, later private apartments
Some sites changed. They included:
  • Brooklyn Bridge Park, where the aquatics facility for water polo was moved to Orchard Beach in the Bronx and then to Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens for the final bid
  • "A modern, indoor arena for volleyball, also located in Downtown Brooklyn (York Street) a site that proved unavailable, was then moved for the initial bid to Coney Island, and later replaced in the final bid by the proposed Nets arena at Atlantic Yards in Downtown Brooklyn."
But that had nothing to do with the Olympics plan, it was because Bruce Ratner wanted to build a project and saw that he could use basketball to leverage control of land and gain city and state support.

The indoor volleyball plan

As of 11/9/00, according to the Internet Archive version of the NYC 2012 web site, the plan was this:
Brooklyn Sportsplex
Volleyball - Indoor
The Brooklyn Sportsplex, a new venue being developed by the Brooklyn Sports Foundation independent of the Olympic Games, will host Olympic volleyball. Located on Coney Island and easily accessible by subway, the venue would accommodate between 12,500 and 14,500 spectators. After the Games, the Brooklyn Sports Foundation would continue to operate the facility, which would accommodate a variety of athletic activities, including track and field, basketball, gymnastics, volleyball, and boxing.
The Sportsplex would have two major components that could be used independently: (1) a large arena configurable for a variety of sports, seating 12,000 to 14,500 spectators, and (2) a smaller multi-use athletic facility that would include a gymnasium, a multi-purpose room, a boxing gym, a weight-training room, and support facilities.
As of 2/23/02,  as shown in the screenshot at right, the language had been jazzed up, citing Coney Island as "one of the city's most iconic neighborhoods" and emphasizing that New York would become "a viable host for the many collegiate, amateur, and professional competitions that now lack an appropriate, efficient venue in the city."

For some reason, even though the plan was updated, the NYC2012 website continued to cite the Sportsplex, not the Atlantic Yards arena, through 2005, as the home for volleyball.

However, by 1/31/04, less than two months after the Atlantic Yards plan was unveiled, the Brooklyn Paper reported that the arena could displace the Coney Island Sportsplex to host indoor volleyball.

Fudging the timetable

Writes Moss:
By 2000, NYC2012 had a cohesive plan for specific venue sites required to support the 2012 Games, each of which would be able to stimulate future investment and development in these long-neglected areas. As this report will show, many of these projects had previously been contemplated or proposed, but little progress had been made to bring them to fruition, including a new West Side stadium, expanding the Javits Center, extension of subway service to the Far West Side, development of a new arena in Brooklyn, revitalization of the East River waterfront in Queens and Brooklyn, and expansion of private ferry service. The NYC2012 Olympic bid packaged all of these separate projects and proposals and others, across all five boroughs, into one comprehensive development plan that would be implemented according to the strict timetable of the Olympic bid process.
(Emphases added)

Well, there had been a longstanding plan for a new Brooklyn arena, but the goal was Coney Island, not Prospect Heights. The Olympics didn't catalyze the arena plan.

Changing the plan

Moss details changes, including "a last-minute shift in the proposed location of the Olympic Stadium from the Far West Side of Manhattan to Flushing, Queens." He adds:
But there were other changes as well, including:
• Shifting the proposed location of the gymnastics competition from Madison Square Garden to a new arena at Atlantic Yards in Downtown Brooklyn that was being planned as the home for the Nets professional basketball team as part of a major new mixed-use development;
• Shifting the basketball venue from Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands to Madison Square Garden; and, instead, moving volleyball from the proposed Coney Island arena – which was in effect being replaced by the much larger and more conveniently located Atlantic Yards Nets Arena – to the Continental Airlines Arena;
A curious omission

Moss writes:
The following sections of this report explore the effort of Doctoroff and his NYC2012 and City teams to get all of the required approvals and commitments for Olympic facilities in place by the IOC decision in mid-2005. They used the process to advance a broader agenda for redevelopment and revitalization of the City, with a particular focus on:
Redevelopment of the Far West Side of Manhattan;
• Waterfront revitalization, especially along the East River in Queens and Brooklyn;
• Redevelopment along the Harlem River, especially on the Bronx waterfront; and
• Development of new stadiums for the Mets and Yankees, plus a new Nets basketball arena and surrounding development in Downtown Brooklyn.
However, while the report does address the new baseball stadiums, there's no subsequent mention of the arena and Atlantic Yards. Too complicated? Didn't fit?

The PILOTs dodge

Moss doesn't question the city's innovative, pushing-the-envelope funding plan for stadiums and the arena. He writes:
To help reduce the cost of the stadium, the City granted the Mets the right to construct it on City-owned property, foregoing payment for the land. The Mets were also offered the use of tax-free bonds to finance construction. Although federal law since 1996 had barred the use of tax-exempt bonds to finance professional sports facilities. [sic]
Deputy Mayor Doctoroff and his colleagues proposed to the Internal Revenue Service a new variant under which the stadium bonds would be supported by payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) on the facility, rather than rent paid by the team. The City argued that since PILOTs were the equivalent of real property taxes, this arrangement was functionally equivalent to financing the stadium with general obligation bonds, which would have qualified for tax exemption. Practically speaking, this meant that since the PILOT payments were being used to pay off the bonds, the Mets would not have to pay real property taxes on the new facility.
Who paid? Moss writes:
In the end, the new Yankee Stadium cost $1.5 billion--making it one of the most expensive stadiums in the world--paid for by the Yankees, largely using tax-exempt bonds... Citi Field cost $875 million, paid for by the Mets, also largely using tax-exempt bonds.
Yes, they paid for the stadiums, by re-routing the payment of taxes. That's since been banned.

The legacy?

Moss concludes with a round-up if the plan's legacy:
• The Hudson Yards rezoning and redevelopment, including the LIRR development
• Extension of the #7 subway line
• High Line: the transformation into an elevated linear park
• Brooklyn Waterfront: "the Olympic timetable helped accelerate the long-discussed rezoning of the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront:
• Hunters Point South moves ahead
• Ferry Service: a new private East River ferry service began in 2011
• Baseball Stadiums: "Rejection of the proposed Far West Side sports and convention center drove the City in 2005 to reach agreements rapidly with the Mets and the Yankees on the construction of their new stadiums, with the teams themselves providing most of the financing."
• South Bronx: the Bronx Terminal Market was finally redeveloped
• Harlem Armory and Queens Pool were renovated.

He adds:
The Olympic bid was the catalyst that identified neglected areas and made them a priority for redevelopment by the Bloomberg Administration, even when they were no longer part of the Olympic Plan, such as Coney Island and the Brooklyn Bridge waterfront.
What's missing? Any mention of Atlantic Yards, which is a wild card in the discussion.

That's because it was not catalyzed by the Olympic bid.
How NYC Won the Olympics, RudinMoss

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