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A Stadium Story: eerie echoes, curious contrasts, and cautionary lessons for AY

Remember the battle over the West Side Stadium, that 15-month donnybrook, from March 2004 through June 2005, that dominated the city’s discourse over sports facilities, leaving scant attention for the Atlantic Yards and baseball stadium controversies?

The documentary A Stadium Story, screened in 2006 but not yet in wide release, offers some eerie echoes, curious contrasts, and cautionary lessons for Atlantic Yards watchers. (The film is well worth watching; for now, it’s available for $25 from the official web site, but it should be distributed soon, according to the filmmakers.)

Summary of the battle

The stadium, to be built on Metropolitan Transportation Authority railyards west of Penn Station--the Hudson Yards site--was to serve not only as the home of the New York Jets, to be relocated from the Meadowlands (accessible pretty much only by car), but would be the centerpiece of the city’s bid to host the 2012 Olympics and also, with a retractable roof, be home to trade shows and other events.

The battle, at least as portrayed by filmmakers Benjamin Rosen and Jevon Roush, was at essence much simpler than that over Atlantic Yards.

The stadium plan was backed by the city and state and many in the business community, with the most significant public support coming from unions seeking jobs. The opposition consisted of a community coalition wanting to preserve the neighborhood--but the film could explain more about their connections to local politicians and doesn't show their critics who saw them as sellouts.

Some rhetoric from backers and opponents sounds remarkably similar to AY watchers. However, in Brooklyn, Forest City Ratner wisely recruited community support via the “50/50” affordable housing plan and the Community Benefits Agreement (an effort praised by an unskeptical press), thus turning "community" into battle tinged by race and class, and also lined up support from many local elected officials. Thus some of the officials who looked carefully at the West Side Stadium and wound up as critics, such as Council Member (now Speaker) Christine Quinn, failed to apply such scrutiny to the fuzzy numbers of the Atlantic Yards plan.

Then again, stadium opponents had a wealthy patron, Cablevision (owners of Madison Square Garden), to amplify their criticisms. Thus what on one level seemed liked a David-and-Goliath story was, at least from the perspective of lobbying expenditures, much more of a fair fight.

If Atlantic Yards opponents had had such a megaphone, the public debate, if not the result, would have been different. Even so, the protracted Atlantic Yards battle--already three times longer than the West Side Stadium fight--suggests that the issues raised and the opponents' effort deserve to be taken seriously.

Notable lessons

The West Side Stadium story offers some notable lessons for the city and for AY.

  • First, though the "community" fought off the stadium, it hardly beat back very big development, given the re-emergence of the Hudson Yards plan.
  • Second, though union leaders suggested that the battle was between "jobs" and "no jobs," the eventual development will in fact create many jobs.
  • Third, though city officials and the Jets went to bat for a low-ball value for the railyard at issue, a test in the market--then and this year--showed that others considered the property quite valuable.
  • Fourth, as the Jets' Jay Cross observes wisely in the film, “This is my third sports facility. I learned early on that sports facilities in the context of urban environments are not about sports. They’re about metro politics.”
Opening echoes

Upon the announcement of the project in March 2004, the rhetoric offered echoes of the Atlantic Yards debate. We see construction workers chanting “Build It Now.” Mayor Mike Bloomberg declares, “This is the right building at the right place at the right time, and we’ve got the right people to build it,”sounding very much like Borough President Marty Markowitz, who has said (in multiple variants) “Atlantic Yards remains the right project, in the right place, at the right time for Brooklyn.”

Then we meet John Raskin, the (paid) organizer for the opposition (left), introduced as an affordable housing advocate. He’s a recent graduate of Harvard, reflecting on the contrast between his path and those taken by classmates who went into Wall Street or consulting jobs.

At a rally, we hear some opposition rhetoric. “I object to this mayor and deputy mayor stopping light and air of being part of the Far West Side,” says one volunteer. “It’s morally wrong.” Adds Raskin, “There is legitimacy in having a community on the Far West Side.”

While the film doesn’t circle back to this explicitly, the opposition later embraces a plan that would stop a lot of light and air--and the ultimate result expected on the site would do so as well.

Meeting Deputy Doctoroff

We get a sense of how much Bloomberg admires Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding Dan Doctoroff: “There is nothing that I could say laudatory enough about this next speaker and his impact on the future of eight million people, of the city, of the state, and really of this country.”

Then the film cuts to Doctoroff, at a dais and in an interview: “Literally the first day that I walked in the door as deputy mayor I was in a position to think about a much broader vision for the West Side... What we are announcing today is the centerpiece of a plan to take that area, one of the least productive, the least occupied places in New York City and turn it into one of New York’s great places.”

The plan, he reveals, was spawned a decade before, after seeing a World Cup match. There would be hundreds of millions of dollars a year of tax revenues, he asserts, and “thousands and thousands of jobs... what it does is fills this area with people, fills it with will accelerate the transformation of Hudson Yards to a place.”

More combatants

By constrast, Raskin’s employer, Joe Restuccia, a small-scale affordable housing developer suggests, “We’re not in a place where the city itself, like Cleveland, has died, and you’re desperate for some anchor to put something in,” he says. “We are New York City, we are Manhattan, on the West Side, it’s not the prairie."

Then we meet local Jim Mahoney, the salt-of-the-earth business agent for Local 580 of the Ornamental and Architectural Iron Workers. “I believe working people should have a voice,” he says. There’s a sympathetic scene in which he counsels an anxious member who’s been out of work too long.

"There’s not a lot going on, but we’re not gonna get busy,” he says, sounding a little like Frank Sobotka, the embattled union boss in the HBO drama The Wire.

Raskin acknowledges some ironies. “One of the things that makes neighborhood people really uncomfortable about these hearings is that we have to fight construction workers,” he says, pointing out that residents in nearby housing developments have a history in the labor movement.

“We’re both Democrats,” says one artsy-looking protestor after tangling with Mahoney.

“I’m borderline socialist,” admits the union boss.

Raskin offers some perspective: “I think it’s kind of disorienting for a lot of people who are politically active, because there’s no clear ideological distinction. The stadium is not a liberal idea. It’s not a conservative idea. It’s a good idea or a bad idea.... It makes for strange bedfellows, but it also makes for strange sparring partners.”

Similarly, with Atlantic Yards, many traditional liberals support the power of the state to exercise eminent domain for redevelopment, but the closer they get to Atlantic Yards, the more they're willing to challenge it and ally with libertarians like the Institute for Justice.

Public hearings

Hours of public hearings are boiled down to some sound bites, so, while I can’t say how representative the clips are, there are some echoes of the AY fight. One hearing opens with an Empire State Development Corporation representative blandly reading the description of the project--as at the AY public hearing, such boilerplate prompted cheers and boos.

What’s notable is the anti-stadium posturing by elected officials.

A finger-pointing Rep. Anthony Weiner (below), who wasn’t exactly representing the area but was running for mayor, declares, “They’re taking perhaps the most lucrative piece of real estate in the entire country, if not the world, and they’re giving it away for a bargain basement price.”

Assemblyman (and later Manhattan Borough President) Scott Stringer says scornfully, “Nobody, nobody has ever come up to me and said, ‘Scott, we need a stadium on Manhattan’s West Side.’” (The MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard had been identified in 1974 as a possible site for a Brooklyn arena.)

Doctoroff acknowledges that “the Olympics are a catalyst to getting things done. They impose a firm deadline.” We hear a debate about what benefit exactly the Olympics might bring, given mixed results in other cities.

Some outside reflection

The filmmakers gather a couple of journalists to comment on the process. “In a sense, this is the last frontier,” observes Charles Bagli, real estate and development reporter for the New York Times. “There is no other neighborhood where you have a chance to do large scale construction.”
Bagli calls Doctoroff “a very bright guy... a master of the PowerPoint presentation. When he makes a presentation, you think he’s thought of everything. But I think that he also has a very transactional view, coming from Wall Street, so that everything’s a deal, and he forgot he had to build a political coalition.”

Bagli has been saying recently that the era of the grand PowerPoint is over; apparently, he’s talking about Doctoroff.

Sweetheart deal?

“If the return is so great,” asks City Council President Gifford Miller, “why wasn’t it opened up for people to make a seriously competitive bid?” The same question could have been asked about Atlantic Yards; the MTA’s Vanderbilt Yard was put up for bid 18 months after the city and state backed Forest City Ratner’s plan.

Then there’s glaring evidence of a sweetheart deal. “There’s a very public document we executed last March,” declares Jets president Cross. “[We] pledged to pay fair market value to the MTA for use of the site.”

“So what do you think fair market price is?” asks Quinn.

Doctoroff demurs: “I’m not an appraiser and this is really going to be an issue for the appraiser.”
“I wouldn’t speculate,” Cross continues.

“You did, you said it was worth $35 million,” Quinn responds.

“Exactly,” Cross confirms. “I wouldn’t say speculation. That was an appraisal.”

$35 million! His cool demeanor masks what is obviously a huge benefit to the Jets and a reminder that appraisals can be gamed. (See the lingering questions over "Arena land.") Indeed, in a 2/4/05 New York Daily News interview, Cross acknowledged that the Jets told their appraiser they’d offer $100 million, “which, last time I checked, is not chump change.”

Well, six weeks later, as the Times reported, Cablevision had bid $600 million and Transgas $700 million, “although those two bids contain conditions that make it difficult to compare directly to the Jets' bid.”

It’s a reminder how the MTA’s own appraiser valued the Vanderbilt Yard at $214.5 million, Forest City Ratner bid $50 million and rival Extell bid $150 million--which led the MTA board to negotiate exclusively with FCR, which upped the cash component of the bid to $100 million. (FCR values its total bid at $379.4 million.)

Exactly what the city and state were contributing, and whether the Jets were “making a private commitment totaling $800 million” (to quote Bloomberg) remained very murky. “The taxpayers are going to be stuck with this well over a billion dollar tab,” declares Assemblyman Richard Gottfried.

Stadium backers of course say the opposite. The film captures Jets owner Woody Johnson sounding ever so much like a public-spirited elected official. “We’re going to make a very handsome financial return, the city and state and country, if we get the Olympics,” says Johnson.

“And the Jets,” chimes in Bloomberg, reminding us that this would be a private business deal.

“The funny thing about these numbers is that, it didn't matter which you used, because they were all right,” Bagli says at one point. I’m hoping he meant that each number had some backup, not that more accuracy was impossible.

Enter Cablevision

City budget director Mark Paige observes that “fair market value means a value that you can obtain in the market.” Quinn notes that “the market is bigger than the Jets.” Thus came Cablevision’s bid and, as Bagli says, “the world changed.”

We see Cablevision owner James Dolan, now even more the heavy after the debacle with the Knicks, go on sports talk radio to defend the company’s image. But the smart thing to do, as the film shows, was to ensure Restuccia and Raskin would remain the more public face of the opposition.

Restuccia tells the filmmakers he did 65 takes for a Cablevision-funded commercial which reminds viewers that there is “no public vote,” there will be “massive traffic jams,” and “it’s just wrong. Say No to a West Side Stadium.”

The ad is paid for by MSG LP-NY Association for Better Choices. (Fun fact: Forest City Ratner spokesman Loren Riegelhaupt worked on this campaign.)

“It’s weird but it is the right thing to do,” Restuccia admits. An odd coincidence is the name of the Madison Square Garden VP who introduces the company’s “Hudson Gardens” plan: Hank Ratner. (Apparently, if the name “Yards” is taken, “Gardens” is always a good fallback.”)

Note that Community Board 4, which does not appear (at least by name) in the film, supported MSG’s plan.

Exactly how big

Bloomberg denounces Cablevision’s plan as “a joke... a p.r. stunt that would slow thing down.” Joke or not, with nearly 6000 units of housing, it’s clearly very big.

The Times’s Bagli is incredulous: “You had some of the community leaders supporting Cablevision’s plan to put the most densely populated apartment complex on the railyards..... You would never support this if somebody came along and just suggested this is what should happen here.”

It’s a reminder that the first iteration of the Atlantic Yards opposition would never have supported Extell’s highly dense bid, which followed only in part some of the principles developed in the Unity Plan.

Restuccia says that at least Cablevision’s plan “begins to act like there is a community here.” He adds, “If protecting this neighborhood means that you’re going to compromise, fine.”

Cablevision becomes the bogeyman. “We are not going to let any company’s selfish interest take away our future,” says Bloomberg, sounding not unlike Borough President Markowitz.

An unidentified union guy bellows: We are not about to let some greedy, deep corporate son-of-a-bitch tell us our future is for sale.”

(I guess it depends on which “greedy, deep corporate son-of-a-bitch” you choose.)

Olympic fever

“If we were to not get the stadium going very soon, we’d have to drop out,” says Bloomberg in anticipation of a 2/21/05 visit by the International Olympic Committee. The charming Meryl Streep introduces guests to a little sampling of some of the thousands of movies shot in the city. (She’s got more star power than the “Magic Lady,” AY supporter Roberta Flack.)

The committee, oddly enough makes a visit to MSG, another important Olympics venue. Doctoroff and Olympics chair Jay Kriegel note that, other than the little matter of the railyards dispute, they have a good working relationship with MSG.

The union debate

Public officials, more so than in the Atlantic Yards battle, have been willing to criticize unions. Gottfried, at a public meeting, declares: “Unions in this town, over the years, have gotten in the habit that, when a mayor or a governor dangles a construction project in front of them, no matter how sensible or unsensible it is, or whether there are better alternatives, they will go bananas and advocate for it.”

Union workers, given some time on camera, make the case that they are losing work to nonunion contractors who save on labor with workers willing to live and work in substandard conditions. That issue remains legitimate in Brooklyn; there's a lot of construction, but a lot is non-union.

The MTA meetings

Gearing up for a meeting of the MTA board, Raskin points out that the mayor and governor run the agency, and that he has to be there extra early to make sure that neighborhood residents aren’t blocked out by construction workers. As with the Atlantic Yards hearings, the MTA wisely chooses to let representatives from each side speak in alternating order.

Raskin tells MTA that “there’s no way that this organization should be taking anything less than your appraised value for the railyards.

City Council Member Larry Seabrook of the Bronx, brings up the race issue, reminiscent of BUILD’s James Caldwell in the AY debate.

“Fifty-one percent of African American males in the city of New York are unemployed,” Seabrook says. “This is going to be one of the most inclusive, comprehensive jobs program in the history of this city.” Unmentioned is that Seabrook isn't the best messenger; his questionable ethical history is well-detailed in this recent Village Voice article.

Restuccia gets an oration: “It’s is amazing that the public debate in this city has been stifled. Not stifled, because New Yorkers are speaking. When it comes to the Public Authorities, it’s a setup and it’s a sham. Completely shame on you. It’s a shame that everyone’s been divided and conquered on this.”

In another scene, on the steps of City Hall, Restuccia is met by two women, not identified, the sisters Patti Hagan and Schellie Hagan of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, which launched the AY opposition.

“How do we get such terrible government?” Patti Hagan (center) asks.

“We’ve always had terrible government, it’s just the degree of it,” Restuccia responds.

“It’s so transparently corrupt,” Patti Hagan continues. (She has since been bounced from Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn and criticized the group in turn. I’ll write more about this when and if I can add beyond what's been published.)

Enter Silver

All the money and posturing may have been irrelevant, since the fate of the stadium was up to the three-member Public Authorities Control Board (PACB), controlled by the Governor, Senate Majority Leader, and Assembly Speaker, and the latter, Sheldon Silver, who thought that the accompanying plans for office space on the West Side threatened rebuilding in his Lower Manhattan district

“I don’t see a great need,” the dour and phlegmatic Silver tells a TV interviewer. “I could theoretically support a stadium, with or without an Olympics, theoretically.”

The antagonists ramp up their efforts. Raskin says opponents will bring 25,000 letters to Albany.

Union leader Ed Molloy offers an observation that echoes the Robert Moses revisionists: “Everybody could think of some reason why we should not do something... cities are not built by detractors or obstructionists, they’re built by people with vision.”

Bloomberg makes the legitimate point that he cares about Lower Manhattan “but I also have a responsibility to the other parts of the city.”

The battle ramps up

The New York Post’s Fred Dicker suggests, “There’s a culture of corruption now in Albany... there is a sense that... you can buy your way into legislation.” The screen shows campaign contributions by Cablevision. (Unmentioned is Common Cause's report showing enormous spending by proponents and opponents, though Cablevision spent the most.)

Mahoney declares, “No matter what the politics are, all we want is jobs.” (That’s part of the problem--how to decide among competing interests?) Were union workers in Albany paid by their local? Raskin says yes, but a union rep says no.

Silver’s call

Silver at a press conference, with Gottfried smiling behind him, delivers the bad news, cloaked in an expression of public concern: “A short time from now, the PACB will convene and will decide whether the taxpayers of this state, at a time when New Yorkers should be working together, in the spirit of patriotic duty, to rebuild Ground Zero and revitalize a devastated lower Manhattan, arguments are being made that pit New Yorkers one against another in a highly confusing battle over which part of Manhattan should take precedence when it comes to development and building incentives.”

Cut to Kriegel, who says “the mayor’s made incredible offers” to Silver.

Silver continues: “The 2012 summer Olympic games are being used as a shield to hide another goal, to shift the financial and business capital of the world out of lower Manhattan and over to the West Side... I cannot in good conscience cast my vote in support of the proposal before us today.”

We see union guys chanting: “Whose future? Our future. What do we want? Jobs,” then we see Raskin and supporters cheering.

The battle revisited

Raskin comes off as strong-willed but genial. His counterpart in the AY fight, the goateed 30something Dan Goldstein of DDDB, comes off as more combative. Then again, Raskin was 23 and paid for his work, while Goldstein, an AY footprint resident, is a volunteer living through a battle that’s already lasted more than three times as long.

We see Restuccia summing up with a public thank you to Raskin, who could “engage such a broad range of people [that] at one point, people from Cablevision called me and asked if they could hire him.” (He’s now working for the organization ACT NOW.)


Mahoney says he thinks the “opposition was bought and paid for by MSG.” He adds, with a smile, “They had their billionaires--we needed ours. I guess their billionaires did a better job at getting things done than our billionaires did.” (Though it’s not directly comparable, it sounds like the rhetoric of ACORN New York Executive Director Bertha Lewis, who, in the documentary Brooklyn Matters, declares, “They had their bean counters and we had our bean counters.”)

Kriegel sounds like a Moses fan: “The amount of energy, the amount of effort, that it takes to get any project done in this system, given the bureaucracy, the checks and balances, the litigation, the public communal questioning. interrogation, means you’ve got to make disproportionate dedication of resources and efforts of very talented people who have many demands on their time.”

The money quote goes to the Jets’ Cross: “This is my third sports facility. I learned early on that sports facilities in the context of urban environments are not about sports. They’re about metro politics.”

Going forward

The movie ends with words from stadium supporters and opponents, with Mahoney and union members picketing at a non-union site. We see shots of a street fair in Hell’s Kitchen and hear Tom Waits’s melancholy song, “In the Neighborhood.” (Lyrics here.)

The movie is dedicated to the residents, the unions, New York's dreamers, “may they find common cause together in the neighborhood.”

But that’s not quite all. As the film fades, we see a montage of clips about other planned sports facilities, including a fleeting glimpse of Frank Gehry’s 2005 Atlantic Yards designs, as a television anchor intones, “The next step to bringing a new Nets arena to Brooklyn takes place today... the team cites more jobs and the likely revitalization of the area.”

Going forward?

The most notable closing line, however, comes from Raskin at a community meeting: “I wanted to ask everybody not to drift away and to remember that it’s not done until the neighborhood looks exactly like we want it to.”

What exactly that means is another question. The Hell's Kitchen Hudson Yards Alliance, for which Raskin and Restuccia worked, supported a plan “designed to accommodate 28 million square feet of office space and at least 12.6 million square feet of residential space”--an enormous amount, and a precursor to the current Hudson Yards plan.

And some of the protestors in the film concerned about light and air probably don’t think the neighborhood will look “exactly like we want to.” More on some of the West Side infighting from critics at

But the new plan is not so much a sweetheart deal, since it's worth more than $1 billion to the MTA--a far cry from $35 million. (Cross and Kriegel have joined winning bidder Related.)

Some post-mortems

Critics mostly liked the film. In the Huffington Post, S.T. VanAirsdale described how the filmmakers themselves differed on the stadium. Union leader Mahoney called the film “not accurate" but admitted “from an outsider's point of view, it was pretty close.” Then again, his fear that the property would be a dead zone was quickly proven wrong by a new bidding process.

In Variety, John Anderson noted that the filmmakers “leave a few grimy stones unturned in their effort to be objective -- Bloomberg's well-known friendship with Jets president Jay Cross, for instance, or the home addresses of most of those protesting construction workers, few of whom were likely to be neighbors of the protesting Westsiders.” But he thought the film a good explanation “for why it's so hard to build a consensus, or a building, in today's political climate.”

The Times, in its 6/8/05 postmortem on the stadium, concluded that the project was doomed because Doctoroff didn't think that lawmakers in the city and state needed to be cultivated.

And what about AY?

As noted, there are some significant contrasts with Atlantic Yards. Bloomberg, Doctoroff, and Ratner did their homework, lining up political support and creating community support beyond simply union members wanting jobs. On the other hand, there is a savvy and resourceful opposition.

The day after its West Side post-mortem, the Times, ran a seriously underinformed 6/9/05 article headlined Unlike Stadium on West Side, an Arena in Brooklyn Is Still a Go:
While the Brooklyn plan still has hurdles, its progress so far is providing an object lesson in how to navigate big projects through the often treacherous and choppy waters of New York state and city politics. In the Brooklyn project, backers have aggressively courted the local community since the project's inception, trying to placate those who could be its most aggressive foes. Perhaps most important, they have reached out to Mr. Silver.

The article quoted Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, as saying that the 50/50 housing deal gained community support--but didn’t mention that ACORN, signatory of the housing deal, is a founder of the WFP.

The Times also reported:
Others noted important differences between the West Side stadium and the Brooklyn arena. For example, the Brooklyn arena would require a $200 million public investment as opposed to the $600 million investment the West Side plan was calling for.

That’s up to $305 million in direct investment and far, far more in public support.

The article also included this dubious generalization:
Manhattan also has an especially practiced antidevelopment movement on its West Side and is already home to Madison Square Garden and countless world-renown cultural institutions. Brooklyn, still smarting from the loss of the Dodgers nearly 50 years ago, is generally more welcoming to projects that could help put it on the national map.

Brooklyn is “still smarting”? If Brooklyn is a proxy for Borough President Marty Markowitz, maybe. (More critique of the article from Scott Turner of Fans for Fair Play.)

Finally, the article got to a home truth:
But opponents say all of this ignores this crucial advantage that Forest City Ratner had over the Jets: It did not have to face an opponent such as Cablevision, the owner of Madison Square Garden, which has money to wage such a battle.

The arena may still be “a go,” pending dismissal of other litigation and the availability of tax-exempt bonds, but it has been four and a half years--54 months--since Atlantic Yards has been announced. Even with the announcement Monday that the Supreme Court wouldn't review the case, the AY “done deal” remains in some question.

Were Atlantic Yards to fail, the possibility of jobs would not vanish. Rather, there would be some serious fighting over the future of what Chuck Ratner of parent Forest City Enterprises calls “a great piece of real estate."