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Flashback, 2000: the borough president criticizes the mayor over a sports facility

Just seven years ago, the Brooklyn Borough President disagreed with the Mayor over the siting of a baseball stadium in the Coney Island and the no-bid process behind it.

And backers of the original sports facility planned for the site wanted to ensure that public land and public subsidies supported amateur, not professional sports.

Times have changed.

The much-needed Sportsplex

Consider this passage from Brooklyn 2000: State of the Borough, an annual report from then-Borough President Howard Golden that I recently looked at:
After over a decade of advocacy, the Borough President was pleased to learn in 1997 that the city and state governments had each provided $30 million, combined with his $7 million, to fund the creation of the Brooklyn Sportsplex. This major sports facility, dedicated to indoor scholastic, inter-collegiate and amateur athletics, would accommodate 12 events simultaneously through the following facilities.
--an arena for track and field, basketball or ice hockey with 12,300 seats
--a gymnasium accommodating 2000 spectators
--a multipurpose room for a variety of sports
--a boxing gym
--training arenas
--a sports medicine center

With over two million residents and more than 600,000 scholastic, college and amateur athletes active in organized sports, Brooklyn needs and deserves the Sportsplex. These needs were documented in a report commissioned by the Brooklyn Sports Foundation, a not-for-profit organization formed 10 years ago by Brooklyn's elected officials, business, educational and community leaders to address the critical shortage of recreational and competition space in Brooklyn.

The report further showed that the Sportsplex would not require any city subsidies to operate. In fact the report by Ogden Entertainment, the largest arena management firm in the nation, showed that the facility would produce more than $8000,000 in annual operating surplus through almost 2000 amateur athletic and community group uses and 112 commercial uses such as Disney on Ice and Ringling Bros. Circus, according to the report.

Developers were interested in the Sportsplex. As I wrote, the Daily News on 11/12/98 (BOROUGH BIGS NEARLY WHIFF ON RUDY'S BALLPARK CURVES) reported that developer Bruce Ratner had "talked with Brooklyn Sports Foundation officials about building the Sportsplex at cost, provided he can build an entertainment complex next door."

On 3/22/02, Golden's successor Marty Markowitz issued a press release about the Borough's State Legislative Agenda, citing a goal to "retain funding for the Coney Island Sportsplex and increase the allocation in order to attract an NBA franchise." Even in 2003, on the day of his next State of the Borough address, the New York Daily News reported (Marty’s Minding Our Manners, 1/23/03):
The borough president also goes to sleep dreaming of bringing a National Basketball Association team to Coney Island.

That plan, of course, fell by the wayside later in the year as Forest City Ratner's plan for Atlantic Yards emerged.

Rudy wins

Golden's report continued:
Unfortunately, none of the funding has been released to the Brooklyn Sports Foundation to proceed with planning or construction because the mayor [Rudy Giuliani] has proposed to build a minor league baseball stadium on the same Steeplechase Park site in Coney Island that was slated for the Sportsplex. Compounding this mistake is that the mayor has decided to give the stadium to a New York Mets Single-A level, short-season team on a sole source basis, rather than utilizing a competitive process.

The Borough President urged the mayor to utilize a competitive process to identify a team for this stadium that would yield higher economic benefits for Coney Island and the city than the proposed single-A, short season team, which would play only 38 games with the possibility of 6 additional playoff games. The Borough President has received interest from two independent leagues seeking to play in the vast Brooklyn market.

Realizing that the Brooklyn market deserves a team with a higher level of play, the Borough President commissioned a study entitled "Out at First! The Giuliani Administration's Missed Opportunity." This study, prepared by Dr. Mark S. Rosentraub, Professor and Assistant Dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, documented that the concession being negotiated by the city with the Mets "is not in the best economic interest of the City of New York or the Borough of Brooklyn." Dr. Rosentraub also recommended, "to maximize the benefits received from a minor league team in a new Coney island ballpark, the City of New York should issue a request for proposals from major League Baseball and the independent minor leagues." The mayor, unfortunately, has not followed this advice.

The Borough president will work with the Brooklyn Sports Foundation and community organizations to save the Sportsplex project, while continuing to urge the mayor to utilize a competitive process for the selection of the highest caliber minor league team for the proposed minor league stadium.

Contemporary analogue?

Atlantic Yards is not precisely analogous; there's no pool of professional basketball teams that might bid to play at a city-funded arena. But was the RFP for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard, issued 18 months after Forest City Ratner was anointed the developer for the yard as well as nearly 14 acres around it, a "competitive process"?

I wonder what Golden would say. After all, he earlier this year cautioned against the Manhattanization of Brooklyn.

Sports for whom?

The original role of the Sportsplex raises a question; would the Barclays Center, if built as planned, really serve Brooklyn's amateur athletes? After all, a planning document prepared by Forest City Ratner predicted just eight college basketball games and five high school sports events, a far cry from the 2000 annual amateur sports and community uses predicted for the Sportsplex.

Have those needs been met elsewhere?

A 6/7/99 Daily News article, headlined SPORTSPLEX SEES SOFTER CITY STANCE, quoted Brooklyn Sports Foundation Chairman Peter Kiernan:
"I believe public land and public money should go for public purposes," Kiernan said, underscoring the foundation's insistence that the Sportsplex be focused on amateur, not professional, sports.

More recently, at the 5/3/07 hearing on the challenge to the Atlantic Yards environmental review, Empire State Development Corporation attorney Philip Karmel, as I reported, got into trouble when pressed on exactly how a professional sports arena fits the law’s definition of a facility for recreational purposes.

“It generally means you have a community-based basketball team” or other sports team, Justice Joan Madden suggested.

“It would be recreational activity” to watch a basketball game, Karmel responded.

"I thought that was profit-making,” responded the judge.

After a bit, Karmel returned to the theme. “We believe that going to a ballgame is a recreational activity, and having a ball team is a civic event… It brings pride to a community.” (Perhaps, but “civic event” doesn’t necessarily segue to the statutory definition “civic project.”)

Madden's decision is expected next month.