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If Barclays Center gets built, how long before it's obsolete?

This is the seventh of a multi-part interview (conducted May 28) with Neil deMause, the Brooklyn-based co-author of the book Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit, and writer of the companion web site. He testified at a 3/29/07 Congressional hearing that questioned taxpayer financing of stadiums, convention centers, and hotels.

Q. Economist Mark Rosentraub, in your book, says something like, if you’re not prepared for major changes in your sports facility by its second decade, you’re being pollyanish. Let’s say Frank Gehry’s designing the best arena of its time. How long would it last before it needs to be reworked?

A. Well, [Seattle's] Key Arena was rebuilt in '94; now the Sonics are trying to move to Oklahoma City, that’s 14 years. [They have since gotten the OK to move.]

It depends on what you mean by reworked--torn down and rebuilt, or have some new things added? I think there will always be new technology that teams want, or new things that someone else will come up with and will make more revenue, and they’ll say, we need some of those too, the question is what you can retrofit, how much it costs and who pays for it.

At one point, I asked that to Rod Fort, an economist at the University of Michigan. His response was, Well, from the perspective of the owner, if you’re not paying for it, I don’t see anything wrong with a new arena every year.

What kind of question is it?

A. It’s certainly not an architectural question--none of these are architecturally obsolete. It's not even an economic question: at what point are they economically obsolete? It’s a political question: at what point can you go back and say We need a new one, or We need a renovated one, without people saying, What are you talking about, we just gave you one?

Oklahoma City to get the Sonics, is going back and doing renovations to the Ford Center, which was built five years ago--admittedly, it was built barebones…

I don’t think there's any way of knowing. I think the answer is: it’s when the team owner, whoever it happens to be, thinks they can realistically come back and demand something. That could be five years, it could be 30 years--but there’s always going to be something they don’t have.

Is there enough public oversight?

A. That’s the problem with the baseball and basketball [projects] here, they’re not really vetted much by the public. The Yankees and Mets went through ULURP [the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure], but it was very cursory. I will forever remember the City Council Member whose entire speech during the vote on the Yankees project was, I have always loved the Yankees and now I love them even more. I vote aye.

Q. Or Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) telling Bettina Damiani of Good Jobs New York, who testified before Congress last year, I’m with you, because I’ve always hated the Yankees.

A. We have an exceptionally dysfunctional government and these projects, and especially the Nets one, because it’s not going through oversight process, are not really getting a public hearing.

Talking about [Andrew] Zimbalist defending his report--there isn’t this process for going in and trying to evaluate economic claims.

The IBO [Independent Budget Office] can do a little bit, but really its mandate is just to look at limited stuff... We don’t have an agency whose job is--I guess City Planning is supposed to be that, but it’s not--to be saying what is a reasonable plan for city development... We don’t have a good process, and what processes there are were not even followed in the Nets case.

Enough public airing?

A. So that’s why it’s been up to community groups to have different forums… that MAS [Municipal Art Society] forum [in 2006] was probably one of the best things I’d seen. It at least attempted to have an intelligent conversation about what sort of planning would make sense here.

But it really shouldn’t be left to the Municipal Art Society to be our public oversight body.

Yeah, it would’ve been great to have Zimbalist called before the City Council or [Assemblyman Richard] Brodsky [whose committee oversees public authorities] or somebody like that and have somebody say, OK, what actually makes sense here?

Because, instead, it’s me and [Zimbalist] yelling at each other in the newspaper--and [to him] I’m ‘not an economist.’

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