On the evening of Sept. 20, New York Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV brought his newest executive, Jay Cross, to Gracie Mansion for an informal get-together with National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. The meeting was meant to be a quiet preliminary talk about Mr. Johnson’s plans to build a new Jets stadium on the West Side. But word of the meeting leaked to the press, setting off a days-long newspaper feeding frenzy.
For Mr. Cross, a 47-year-old Canadian to whom Mr. Johnson has entrusted the stadium project, the experience provided a valuable first lesson: When it comes to building sports stadiums in Manhattan, nothing is ever quiet or preliminary. Since the meeting, Mr. Cross said he’s “kind of been hunkered down” while immersing himself in the problem of building a massive sports facility in the midst of a bustling city. Sheaves of sketches, diagrams and studies are piled up in his brand-new office, on the 18th floor of an office tower above Carnegie Hall. The outlines of a plan for the stadium-and for the transformation of a wide swath of the West Side-have taken shape.
Mr. Cross cautions that his studies and plans are all very preliminary. But in an extensive interview on the afternoon of Nov. 22, he talked about them publicly for the first time.
“I think that what’s on the table now in its earliest public stages is a master plan,” he said. “It doesn’t plan all of Manhattan. It doesn’t even plan all of the West Side. But it’s certainly a pretty comprehensive plan.”
Mr. Cross hasn’t even hired an architect, let alone determined how much the stadium will cost. But already he has made several crucial decisions.
First, the team has decided to incorporate its stadium plan into-and hence tether it politically to-a larger proposal devised by NYC 2012, the group trying to bring the Olympics to New York in a dozen years. That plan would remake West 30th to West 42nd streets between Ninth Avenue and the Hudson River, extending the No. 7 subway line and Metro North and Long Island railroads farther west, carving a wide, five-block-long boulevard between Ninth and 10th avenues, creating a large park at the end of that boulevard, and making West 34th Street into a “major public thoroughfare,” Mr. Cross said.
While building a domed stadium has always been a major goal of Mr. Giuliani’s, Governor George Pataki has always been less enthusiastic. So the Jets have designed the stadium to have a second use, as a large annex to the adjacent Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. Expanding and revitalizing the Javits Center, which has never lived up to expectations as a national convention draw, is a major priority for Mr. Pataki, and Mr. Cross hopes it will provide the stadium with a political impetus beyond sports economics and hometown pride.
“We’re really coming to the table with an idea that is wrapped in two bigger ideas, which is expansion of the Javits Center and hosting the Olympics, and with that the development of the West Side midtown area,” he said.
Finally, mindful of George Steinbrenner’s mistakes in floating a proposal for a new Yankee Stadium on the same site, the Jets are devising a way to sell the plan to the public-something Mr. Cross has ample experience at, having overseen stadium projects for the Toronto Raptors and Miami Heat of the National Basketball Association. The Jets have hired Kieran Mahoney, Mr. Pataki’s chief political adviser, and Peter Powers, Mr. Giuliani’s closest friend, as advisers. Mr. Cross has also been getting informal advice from Mike Murphy, who worked with him on a referendum campaign in Miami and served as a consultant to the John McCain and Rick Lazio campaigns this year.
In the coming weeks, Mr. Cross hopes to release the team’s initial plans and gauge public response. “What I’m describing in general terms is a proposal, which we hope will lead to a lot of vigorous discussion, both publicly and privately, in the hopes that we can build a consensus around what might or might not happen on the site,” Mr. Cross said. “If we can get that consensus put in place early in the new year, then we would like … a memorandum of understanding between the parties, which would be the state, the city and ourselves, by summertime.”
During a Thanksgiving Day appearance at the Jets’ practice facility on Long Island, Mr. Johnson struck a similar note, saying that the project, which could cost $1 billion, could be completed by the time the Jets’ lease at the Meadowlands Sports Complex runs out in 2008. “It’s going to take everybody thinking it’s a good idea,” Mr. Johnson said. “Republicans, Democrats, people living on the West Side and East Side, upstate, New Jersey.”
A tall order, when one considers the West Side railyards are littered with the skeletons of ambitious plans ripped apart by feuding politicians and West Side locals. Mr. Johnson has placed his hopes in Mr. Cross, a former Olympic sailor who bears the experience and scars of two grueling stadium battles.
“Nobody has a [universal] solution to large-scale urban-development projects,” Mr. Cross said. “In the end, they have to be consensus-driven and, in the end, you have to be prepared to make compromises. And so a big part of what we’ve been trying to do for the last two months is listen to people, to try to cobble together a solution.”
A Tweedy Type
Sitting in a boardroom overlooking the Essex House hotel and Central Park beyond, Mr. Cross seemed disarming enough. With his mussed hair, tweed jacket and buttoned-up vest, he looked like the kind of guy who’d be more at home in a faculty club than a football team’s front office. On the conference-room wall hangs a soft-toned watercolor of the new Miami arena. On a long table at the other end of the room is a scale model of Manhattan, complete with a jazzy new Jets stadium-its tiny retractable roof open onto a green football field.
Mr. Cross has spent the last six years working for sports teams, but at heart he is a real estate developer. A bit laconic when he’s talking about turf or the retro-stadium fad, he grows animated when the subject turns to William Zeckendorf or Paul Reichmann, the genius behind the Olympia & York real estate empire. He probably wouldn’t have gotten into the stadium business, he said, if not for the economic crash of the early 1990′s. Working in real estate in Toronto, Mr. Cross realized he wouldn’t be building any office buildings anytime soon. But in 1994 the N.B.A.’s new team in Toronto, the Raptors, was looking to build an arena. Mr. Cross took a job with them.
In Toronto, Mr. Cross confronted a situation similar to the one he faces in New York. He was building over railyards, near a train station and a post office. The trick in Toronto, as it will be in New York, was fitting a large building within a space tightly confined by adjacent buildings, roads and highways.
The site the Jets have their eyes on runs from 30th to 34th streets, between 11th Avenue and the West Side Highway. Mr. Cross’ chief engineering challenge is figuring out whether he can fit a stadium, and all its accompanying infrastructure, into those four square blocks.
In a sense, it is as if Mr. Cross is setting a massive table for dinner. The tabletop is a giant platform, built over the existing rail yards, which must have sufficient clearance to allow trains in and out. The Jets’ stadium would also obliterate the Javits Center’s loading docks and large marshaling yards, where trucks can park after unloading. Those must be replaced beneath the stadium platform.
“It’s an interesting game of nip and tuck,” Mr. Cross said, “because if you want to maintain the floor of this building at the same level as the floor of the Javits Center, it’s all very tightly calibrated. But it works. The amazing thing about it is that it can be done. We’re not off by two inches, and we don’t have to make some structural gymnastic move. It actually works . It’s incredibly elegant.”
Over Mr. Cross’ tabletop sits a tablecloth of grass turf on palettes, which will occasionally have to be whisked off when the stadium is used for conventions. A temporary ceiling with its own lighting will drop in over the field-keeping the giant room from feeling too cavernous-and 30 rows of lower-tier seating will disappear beneath a concourse.
Then Mr. Cross must consider that, at some point, the 75,000-seat stadium may have to be expanded for the Olympics, and that the field would have to be lengthened and widened for track and field events. This means he will have to set his table so that a leaf could be placed in the middle, without disturbing any of the plates on top.
NYC 2012′s planner, Alex Garvin, has suggested putting one whole end of the stadium on giant rollers, allowing it to be pulled out when the Olympics roll around. But Mr. Cross is leaning toward “a one-time-only rebuild,” which means that one end of the stadium might be built overhanging West 30th Street. That end would be torn down after the Olympics and rebuilt farther in.
The greatest challenge Mr. Cross faces, however, is figuring out how to fit all those dishes on a four-block tabletop. It’s not just a matter of fitting enough seats into a four-block area.
Take the case of the grass.
“Where is the grass going to go when we’re having a convention or a rock concert?” Mr. Cross asked. “It’s got to go somewhere; you can’t roll it up like Astroturf. So we decided it should probably go out the south end of the building to maximize exposure to sunlight, so we have to create a farm down there. That pushes the building to the north. Then we sit down, we start speaking to the Olympic folks, and they start convincing us of the merits of really opening up 34th Street to the river. Well, that pushes the building to the south. So now you’ve got something pushing the building to the north and something pushing the building to the south-i.e., something making the building smaller. So then we say to the sports architect, ‘It would be interesting if we could do this whole building with 21-inch seats rather than 19-inch seats, which is the industry norm.’ That makes the building bigger. So it becomes a tug of war.”
There’s been some talk (most of it emanating from Mr. Giuliani) about building a stadium for both the Jets and Mr. Steinbrenner’s Yankees. While not completely ruling it out, Mr. Cross said there are “pretty serious constraints to combining with a baseball team. The geometries of baseball and football are really fundamentally at odds. They can be combined, but it’s a major compromise for both sports. Do people want to put up with those kinds of compromises today? We think not.”
Also, the number of baseball games-81 home dates per season-would effectively rule out the stadium’s use as a convention center annex. The Jets would play only eight regular-season home games a year-a fact that is sure to be cited by critics, who will say the economic impact of eight games on the city’s economy is minimal.
Incorporating a stadium into the Javits Center has turned out to be even more complicated than Mr. Cross anticipated. At first, he said, the Jets assumed the stadium would help the center simply by giving it that much more exhibition-hall space. Then he hired a convention center consultant, who explained that the Javits Center’s big problem was not a lack of exhibition space, but rather a lack of meeting rooms. The lack of such spaces is driving convention business to cities like Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando, Fla.-and even to local hotels like the Hilton and the Marriott.
The solution the Jets have devised is to convert the Javits Center’s ground-level exhibition hall into meeting rooms. The stadium would make up the lost exhibition space. The center would be expanded northward, too, onto property that is currently used for parking lots for city buses. A new hotel would extend perhaps as far as 42nd Street.
As for the economic benefits of the Javits Center expansion, “it’s very hard to argue [that] incrementally, it’s doing this or doing that,” Mr. Cross said. “All we know is it’s better. It’s slightly bigger, but it’s a lot more efficient, and it can broaden its appeal to a lot more conventions. Therefore you can start to calculate the quality of the show will go up, therefore the quality of the economic impact on the region will go up.”
Luckily, Mr. Cross has something more than phantom economic impacts up his sleeve when it comes to selling the stadium to the public. His plan is laced with public amenities. There’s the Olympic Park on 34th Street between 10th and 11th avenues, which would include a No. 7 line stop (not to mention another hotel and a new Madison Square Garden). A public concourse overlooking the river would run around the stadium. Footbridges would allow pedestrian access to the Hudson River Park that is slowly creeping up the West Side.
As Mr. Cross envisions it, West 34th Street would become a brand-name thoroughfare like 57th and 42nd streets, with an identity formed around sports instead of theater or shopping. Residential and commercial development is already occurring at the edges of the area-witness Larry Silverstein’s new apartment building at 42nd Street and 12th Avenue, or the 2.5-million-square-foot office building Brookfield Financial Properties is planning at 33rd Street and Ninth Avenue. Mr. Cross believes the creation of new public spaces atop the rail yards-and the expansion of public transportation into the area-would be the catalyst for an explosion of development.
“What’s driving a lot of this debate about what we might build on the West Side is a recognition that something needs to happen on the West Side-there is enormous potential there, there is enormous pent-up demand in terms of the city being able to grow,” Mr. Cross said. “There is an enormous demand to use the waterfront. And the Javits Center in its current configuration is turning its back on the waterfront. This plan as we’re envisioning it addresses the waterfront and tries to make the waterfront a real, accessible, popular place to go. And, in turn, lead to transportation improvements and lead to more housing, more offices, more hotels-whatever the case may be.”
Not long ago, Mr. Cross was an unlikely candidate to be reconfiguring the West Side. After building the new basketball arena in Miami, he moved into a house in a ritzy part of the city, and he says he would have been happy to stay in Florida. But the lure of New York was too strong. Mr. Cross attended architecture school at Columbia University, and he and his wife have always kept an apartment on the Upper East Side. More importantly, it was a chance for Mr. Cross to develop a project in a city that’s home to the real estate titans-the Zeckendorfs, the Reichmanns-he admires.
As those developers know, nifty plans are a dime a dozen; what really matters is closing the deal. All Mr. Cross’ engineering models and traffic plans won’t matter a whit if Mr. Giuliani doesn’t sign on the dotted line. Mr. Cross will likely have to win over Mr. Giuliani’s successor as well. All of the four principal contenders in next year’s Mayoral election have voiced doubts, (though a post-election Damascene conversion would not be unprecedented in the history of New York’s mayoral politics). And while Mr. Cross maintains the stadium plan can be built independently of the 2012 Olympics, one wonders what will happen if the bid evaporates-and with it all the amenities, like the public park and the subway extension?
Most of all, he’ll have to sell the plan to a populace that feels it’s heard (and rejected) all this many times before. While a recent Quinnipiac College poll showed that the idea of a New York Olympics bid is widely popular, 71 percent of New Yorkers said they opposed using tax dollars to build a new West Side Stadium.
“There will never be an appropriate solution for those that are just plain against development-’I don’t want change, I don’t want buildings, I like it just the way it is,’” Mr. Cross said. “No matter how I try couching it, I’m never going to have a solution for those people. But there are a lot of people that are not dogmatic about it, [but] they want to make sure it’s good, that it meets certain public objectives. So an important element of what we’re trying to do is to meet public objectives and to make it a good project, a good piece of architecture, and a good civic building that people will enjoy using and can take some pride in.”
Mr. Cross closed the interview by paraphrasing Winston Churchill: “This is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.”