Tuesday, June 07, 2005


Bloo Monday?

Since Ben Smith was nice enough to mention me on what was certainly NOT a slow news day, it's appropriate to chime in on the apparent collapse Monday afternoon of Mayor Bloomberg's West Side stadium dream.

For those who don't understand New York state politics (and believe me, you can live here for years and not understand it), the quick-and-dirty of it is that state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver -- whose district is a large swath of downtown Manhattan -- has a vote on the a state panel that had to authorize funding for the project to go through. Silver decided to vote "No."

The controversy over the stadium has always centered around whether it is primarily a "giveaway" to the New York Jets football team or whether its multiple uses -- conventions, hotel space, other sports events -- would provide enough economic development and continuing revenue to be a benefit for the city for years to come. Bloomberg has primarily pushed the necessity of the stadium in order to guarantee New York's 2012 Olympics bid.

In the next few days, there will be no end of shots over "Who Lost The Stadium?" For Michael Bloomberg, it's not just an academic question. Along with education reform, the stadium has been the signature issue of his first term. It will be now much easier for his opponents to say that he fought the wrong war at the wrong time (sound familiar?). Indeed, in announcing his opposition to the stadium, Silver said that, ""There is already an incentive plan for that commercial space on the West Side of Manhattan -- yet how long it will take to get a brick in the ground at Ground Zero remains to be seen. And therefore the relative competition between the two is of major concern to me and a lot of other people in this city."

Interestingly, in promoting his book on the legacy of Rudy Giuliani's administration, author Fred Siegel has made a similar criticism of Michael Bloomberg. In a recent Manhattan Institute event, Siegel said that there was no way that Giuliani would have started a fight over a huge west side project while a terrorist-produced hole remained in downtown Manhattan. Siegel's clearly not a liberal Democrat, so it can't be said that he's reflexively against anything that a Republican mayor would propose.

Retrospectively, it can be said that Bloomberg made two decisions that may be considered fatal mistakes -- one strategic and one tactical. Strategically, it was the decision to link the stadium to New York's getting the Olympics. For one thing, the city hasn't been enthused about the idea of getting the Games. More significantly, nearly everyone realized that New York was, at best, second behind Paris in actually getting them (possibly third after London). Thus, one had to buy into two things to accept the need for the stadium on these terms -- 1) Building a costly stadium (even though the Jets were paying for the actual complex, the entire project depended on $300 million from the city and the state for various infrastructure improvements. The state portion is what was voted down on Monday.)

Bloomberg's major tactical mistake was his decision to practically give away the railyard area where the platform would have to be constructed to enable the Jets to build the stadium. The land -- owned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) -- was actually valued at least $300 million. Bloomberg was willing to allow the MTA to accept a no-bid offer from the Jets for $100 million. A later survey found the actual worth of the property to be closer to $700 million.

At a time when New York subways appear to be increasingly in disrepair, letting the authority leave at least $400 million on the table seemed to be an incredibly poor idea for Bloomberg to suggest. Opening up the bidding on the property forced the Jets to make a more proper offer -- but it also gave stadium opponents more time to further refine their arguments that this was a rich man's giveaway to another rich man (Jets owner Woody Johnson). Having Cablevision -- owners of Madison Square Garden and threatened by a stadium/convention center just a few blocks away -- bankrolling millions of dollars in advertising as well as put forth a competing bid obviously didn't help.

Because of his money and his rather weak opposition, Bloomberg is still the favorite to win re-election. But, the certainty of that took a major hit this week. Since all the Democrats in the field were against the West Side stadium, they will speak with one voice now in saying that Bloomberg's priorities are not right for the city. However, the risk they run is that if the project is dead, they lose the biggest example for their message. They are vulnerable to the charge from Bloomberg, "OK, what are your ideas." That's tough because, except for the always perennial in New York -- "affordable housing" -- none of the Democrats seem to have any. Bloomberg can at least say that he tried and failed because of lack of support from Albany.

Will it work? It will be an interesting summer to say the least.

UPDATE: I would be foolish not to underscore how, despite Bloomberg's own mistakes, how much the collapse of the deal is connected to the long-term dysfunctionality of New York state politics. This Times article provides a good snapshot of that ongoing problem.

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