Sep 1 2005

Media to City: Play Ball

Making New York safe from democracy

On June 6, a years-long civic battle over plans to build a combined NFL/Olympic stadium atop publicly owned rail yards on Manhattan’s West Side ended with a thud. After a hard-fought lobbying campaign that saw more than $42 million spent on both sides (Newsday, 6/16/05), New York state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver used his power as a member of the state’s little-known Public Authorities Control Board to veto bonding for the plan, effectively killing it for good.

By all accounts, Silver’s decision was a popular one. Numerous polls over the years (New York Times, 2/20/05; Newsday, 1/20/05; AP, 7/21/04) had shown that most New Yorkers were opposed to the stadium project, even if—as Mayor Michael Bloomberg insisted, and opponents disputed—it was necessary to bring the 2012 Summer Olympics to New York. The city council and state legislative officials representing the district had all forcefully opposed the project from the beginning, with state assemblyman Richard Gottfried calling the $600 million requested by the New York Jets (who currently play in New Jersey) “the largest taxpayer giveaway to a sports franchise in the nation’s history” (Albany Times-Union, 6/23/04).

“By all accounts,” that is, except for those in the city’s four daily newspapers the next day. Most of the press coverage treated the collapse of the Jets project not as a victory of the popular will over an unpopular mayoral plan—or even as a policy decision made, as it was, in the heat of a bitter lobbying battle between the Jets and the media conglomerate Cablevision, which saw the stadium as a potential competitor for its own Madison Square Garden. Rather, the picture painted the following day was of a tragedy of dreams denied by municipal red tape.

“Wrong, wrong, wrong”

Among the city’s three tabloids, the Daily News (6/7/05) led the pack, describing the death of the West Side stadium as “a catastrophic blow to the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympic Games and to the Jets’ dream of returning to New York.” An accompanying “analysis” piece by City Hall bureau chief David Saltonstall saw a “silver lining”—for the mayor’s re-election hopes, which would no longer be saddled with an unpopular stadium as a campaign issue.

Of the three quoted sources in Saltonstall’s piece, two were Bloomberg himself and his campaign strategist Bill Cunningham, who said of the mayor’s Democratic opponents: “Now what will they do? If they can’t be against something, they have no vision.” None of the four Democratic mayoral candidates received rebuttal space.

The Daily News editorial page, meanwhile, featured a vitriolic essay headlined “Shelly Silver: Wrong, Wrong, Wrong” (6/7/05) that declared that the speaker’s “stubborn, high-handed wrong-headedness was breathtaking.” Silver, fumed the News, was not “open to good-faith negotiations”—a reference to Silver’s refusal to bend in last-minute talks with the mayor designed to offer him goodies for his own district in exchange for a “yes” vote on the stadium.

If attacking a state legislator for standing on principle rather than taking a payoff was odd, it was doubly so in the case of Silver, who has long had a reputation as a consummate dealmaker willing to horse-trade at the drop of a hat. (Silver’s opposition to the stadium was rooted in fears that the accompanying Hudson Yards commercial development, which was to cost another $2 billion in city money, would have drawn businesses away from his Lower Manhattan district.)

The New York Post (6/7/05), which rarely passes up the opportunity to bash a Democrat, editorialized that Silver was “as small-minded and parochial a pol as any of the hicks and hacks he supervises as Assembly speaker.” The Post’s John Podhoretz, calling New York “the city where nothing ever gets done,” said that Silver was “the king of the hill when it comes to doing nothing.”

Thanks—but no thanks

The New York Times (6/7/05), meanwhile, ran a more tempered lead story describing the failed stadium bid as “a victim of the city’s and state’s clashing rebuilding priorities,” and its editorial page cheered the Public Authorities Control Board vote, opining that “New York’s taxpayers will owe them a resounding thanks.”

In the sports section, though, columnist Selena Roberts (6/7/05) penned a bitter picture of Manhattan’s West Side seven years from now, when “sodden shoppers exit the gray cinderblock facade of a Super WalMart built over the railroad yards despite public protests over the excessive red glow of ‘Super’ that has left the neighborhood with the eerie tint of a darkroom.” (This was contrasted with the future of Paris, where the “giddy haute couture crowd is racing like Champagne bubbles up the steps of Stade de France for the opening ceremony of the Summer Games”—a prediction foiled by the awarding of the 2012 games to London a month later.)

Roberts also predicted that in 2012 a subway trip would cost $6—up from $2 today—because the MTA transit system “lost a $720 million infusion from [Jets owner] Woody Johnson.” The Jets, in fact, would have paid only $280 million for land rights, with promises that unused air rights could garner $440 million more for the MTA (New York Times, 3/22/05); one month after the Jets deal collapsed, the MTA would mull a new plan to deck over the rail yards and sell them for a projected billion dollars or more (New York Times, 7/28/05).

The Times also devoted the day’s page-one news analysis slot to an essay by former City Hall bureau chief Jennifer Steinhauer headlined “Another Big Idea Brought Down by Politics” (6/7/05). The collapse of the Jets project, she wrote, “underscores the excruciatingly difficult process that almost every ambitious civic project in New York City faces from inception, calling into question whether anyone can build big in New York anymore.”

Unlike the city’s “vast public housing complexes and highway systems in the age of Robert Moses,” wrote Steinhauer, “the will of City Hall has often been thwarted by the desires of lawmakers in Albany, who control public financing for most large projects in the city.” Of course, as Steinhauer herself noted later in her article, City Hall was only subject to a Public Authorities Control Board vote because it had chosen to use quasi-public state authorities to carry out the stadium plan in order to evade oversight by the city council, which is normally supposed to “control public financing” for the city.

As support for her theory, Steinhauer cited a May 3 speech by Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, one that would end up being quoted repeatedly in the New York media in weeks to come: “Criticism predominates over construction; critics are given more weight than those trying to build. It doesn’t matter how small a constituency or flawed an argument the critic possesses. He or she always seems to predominate in political circles, in the news media, and in the public debate.”

Ironically, Schumer’s comments were made in a speech bemoaning how New York has been slow to get moving on rebuilding the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan; Schumer opposed the Jets stadium project. In any case, the notion that large projects can’t get done in New York “verges on the preposterous,” says Bonnie Brower of City Project, a non-profit budget watchdog that has chronicled the billions of dollars a year lost to the city in forgone property taxes, much of it via tax breaks to developers (Village Voice, 5/17/05). Among the companies that benefitted: The New York Times, which is building a 52-story glass-and-steel headquarters on a site acquired by the state from its prior owners via eminent domain, and with the aid of $18 million in city sales-tax and energy credits.

“Absent an idiotic misstep, as happened with the Jets stadium, many, many projects go forward,” says Brower. “It’s very hard to beat a major developer. There’s no one big czar of development anymore, a la Robert Moses, but there are many mini-czars.”

“Treacherous” politics

As postmortem for the West Side project, the debate over “building big” would have been little more than a journalistic footnote. But the Jets plan was just chapter one of New York’s stadium story: One week later, Bloomberg announced plans for new baseball stadiums for both the Yankees and the Mets, which, added to his previously proposed Nets basketball arena in Brooklyn, would bring the total public cost to more than $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies (, 6/29/05).

The local media were quick to portray the new plans as uncontroversial compared to the Jets deal, with the Times (6/9/05) predicting “relatively smooth sailing” for the Nets plan, saying that it faced “far less organized political opposition than that which faced the defeated West Side stadium plan,” and that “critics are largely centered in the immediate vicinity.” Yet opposition to the Brooklyn plan goes far beyond a few NIMBY-minded neighbors: The Times stories on the proposed Nets arena failed to mention that a Times poll the previous week (6/29/05) revealed that city residents opposed the Nets arena plan by 45 percent to 37 percent. When asked, “What if a new arena in Brooklyn cost $200 million in public funds?”—the actual cost is likely to be more than double that amount—opposition rose to 61 percent, versus 18 percent in favor.

What the Times meant, of course, wasn’t that the new stadium plans are less controversial with the public, but rather less controversial among politicians. In a June 9 article on the Nets plan, the Times’ Jim Rutenberg and Michael Brick explained why: “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. . . . As soon as [development company Forest City Ratner] set about devising its plan in early 2002, it brought aboard a seasoned team of lobbyists who immediately went to work building support among political leaders, especially Mr. Silver.”

One can’t help but wonder if the Times would have been as approving of using “seasoned lobbyists” to influence the political process if the person doing the hiring—Bruce Ratner, the principal of Forest City Ratner and owner of the Nets—were not the Times’ partner in the development of its new Times Square headquarters.

Unfortunately, though, much of this is typical of stadium deals, and of big development deals in general: No amount of public antipathy will do unless there’s a big-name elected official willing to oppose the plan. The Jets plan, in fact, was widely considered a shoo-in by the New York media until early 2004, when Cablevision got involved with the opposition—and started hiring lobbyists, including a former aide to Silver and the son of state Senate majority leader Joe Bruno.

When pols agree, however, the press is happy to sit back and cheerlead. On June 23, for example, Silver, Bruno and New York Gov. George Pataki cut a deal in the waning hours of the state legislative session to approve $150 million in state funds for the baseball stadium projects, and to provide more than $150 million in subsidies and tax breaks for businesses in lower Manhattan. (The bill passed unanimously, in part because legislators were presented with the 23-page bill barely an hour before the vote.)

This, according to Newsday’s Albany bureau chief Errol Cockfield Jr. (6/25/05), marked “a week of productivity that sought to reshape the Capitol’s image as a home of dysfunction.” Dysfunction, apparently, is only when legislative leaders block unpopular corporate giveaways; when they ram them through in backroom deals, that’s just making the city safe from democracy.