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Moses to O'Malley, 1953: urban renewal won't support "speculation in baseball enterprises"

Master builder Robert Moses, vilified for ignoring neighborhoods and prioritizing the automobile, nevertheless was unwilling to be strongarmed by Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley into supporting significant government subsidy for a privately-run sports facility.

Indeed, a 6/22/53 letter from Moses to O'Malley on exhibit at Columbia University's Wallach Art Gallery puts it plainly. In the letter, part of the "Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution" exhibit that's one of three segments in Robert Moses & the Modern City, Moses resists O'Malley's entreaty to locate a new stadium in urban renewal land between DeKalb and Myrtle avenues, just east of Flatbush.

(Note: O'Malley primarily wanted a separate site over the Long Island Rail Road station and including land to the east, site of the Fort Greene Meat Market, both north of Atlantic Avenue. That's not the same as the site south of Atlantic Avenue--including the MTA's Vanderbilt Yard and more--planned for the Atlantic Yards project, though Mayor Mike Bloomberg and others have conflated the two. But Forest City Ratner has malls north of Atlantic Avenue and wants to build Atlantic Yards across the road.)

Public purpose

First, Moses advises O'Malley that the stadium plan would not be allowed by federal law. He did allow that the New York Coliseum in Manhattan, which opened in 1956 (and was demolished for the Time Warner Center), had also been the beneficiary of federal Title I funds, but said that that project had been authorized and declared a "public purpose."

(That's the issue regarding Atlantic Yards. The Empire State Development Corporation declared it a public purpose, because of the arena, below market housing, transit improvements, and blight removal, but those challenging eminent domain assert those benefits are pretextual.)

Sports speculation

But Moses had more to say. He wrote:
Let me add that there are other reasons aside from those of law and sound policy why your plan is not one that justifies the exercise of the power of eminent domain, not to speak of the use of public funds to reduce the cost of land. Our Slum Clearance committee cannot be used to encourage speculation in baseball enterprises. You are, of course, the best judge as to whether in fact a new Dodger Stadium would be anything other than a white elephant, and whether the extension of your present property with additional surface and other parking facilities would not meet every problem you mention except television competition.

I am sorry to have to write this letter but I know you want it straight from the shoulder.


Moses to blame?

So, was Moses to blame for the loss of the Dodgers? Many now think that, but Henry Fetter, a lawyer and author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball, 1903 to 2003, says no.

He spoke yesterday at a symposium keyed to the exhibitions, Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder. Moses reflected the public and political consensus against public assistance for sports teams, he said. The willingness of newer cities, like Los Angeles, to shell out for sports facilities led older cities to follow suit.

"Moses was not alone--there was simply no political support for this kind of public subsidy for a private stadium," Fetter said. Had Moses said yes to O'Malley, Fetter said, he would've been vilified.

Back to AY

So that suggests future historians--heck, contemporary ones--will study how Forest City Ratner helped engineer public and political support for the Atlantic Yards plan. Among them:
--finding (and funding) local "sycophants" for a Community Benefits Agreement.
--sending deceptive brochures and buying newspaper ads.
--hiring economist Andrew Zimbalist, a foe of sports subsidies, to conjure up a study claiming enormous new revenues.
--claiming some $1.15 billion in subsidized loans to build affordable housing, some 60% of which would be unaffordable to the average Brooklyn household.
--and yes, capitalizing on the failure of local leaders to rezone some valuable land, to plan for development, to address the affordable housing crisis, and to move forward on a major sports facility.

There certainly would be a public purpose, but the question in court is the amount of that purpose relative to the private benefit.

Indeed, the project also would bail out the money-losing Nets, thanks to new sponsorships and luxury boxes in a subsidized arena. In 2007, the state's powers of eminent domain, and the power to override local zoning to allow an out-of-scale development, apparently can "encourage speculation in bas[k]e[t]ball enterprises."

Rose-colored glasses

Though many Brooklynites, and former Brooklynites, were shattered by the loss of the Dodgers--we could start with Borough President Marty Markowitz--Fetter said that his look at Dodgers-related letters in the Municipal Archives a few decades back didn't show ay groundswell of opinion in favor of subsidies.

Only in the spring of 1957, near the date of the Dodgers' departure but well after the threat had been made, was a "Keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn" committee founded. The massive sense of loss came later.

Jonathan Cohn, who last year cited that letter, wondered if we're better off:
So we lost the Dodgers, but we gained some great neighborhoods. Instead of second guessing the loss of the Dodgers, things could be worse; we could be asking ourselves: “Who lost Brooklyn?”

$300 million

Fetter said there was "widespread resistance to the massive public subsidy" to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn. How much would it cost? He said the most expensive plan to keep the Dodgers, the establishment of a Brooklyn Sports Authority, would've required about $300 million in today's dollars.

Funny, that's just about the amount the city and state have pledged for infrastructure and land acquisition costs for Atlantic Yards--and far less than the combination of tax breaks, public costs, and tax-exempt bonds that would support the project. (Then again, the amount of private investment today would be much higher as well.)

Asked what Moses's take would be about subsidies today, Fetter said he wasn't sure. Moses was no sports fan, but he was a product of his time, and attitudes toward subsidies have changed, he said.

So could Moses have supported Atlantic Yards? Check here tomorrow for another expert's observation.

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