Speaking to a packed ballroom of droopy-eyed business leaders in the New York Hilton on Mar. 16, Crain’s New York Business publisher Alair Townsend issued a stern warning to potential hecklers at her magazine’s breakfast forum on the proposed West Side stadium for the New York Jets.
“Scattered around this room are many plainclothes security personnel from the hotel, private guards and the NYPD,” she said. “Should any [outburst] occur, people will be removed swiftly …. If I get annoyed enough, I’ll press charges.”
Ms. Townsend had been warned about the possibility of a disturbance by an article in that morning’s New York Post , which quoted an activist as promising some polite heckling that would fall short of “throwing a pie” in anyone’s face.
The activist quoted was David Oats, the founder of the fledgling Queens Olympic Committee, which is advocating the construction of a new stadium for the Jets in Queens and not on the West Side.
Perhaps cowed by Ms. Townsend’s admonition, Mr. Oats’ polite heckling amounted to nothing more than the distribution of photocopied fliers to forum attendees. In the meantime, Jets president Jay Cross and NYC and Company Chairman Jonathan Tisch calmly batted away critical questions about the stadium proposal from two journalists who rounded out the forum’s panel.
For Mr. Cross, at least, it was a marked improvement from the defensive performance he made during a meeting called by Community Board 4 in late February. That contrast is emblematic of the Jets’ new efforts to build support for the project. Although the stadium plan still faces widespread opposition, the Jets have begun to show that they have supporters, too. In the last two weeks, a group of minority city and state legislators endorsed the stadium, as did the chairman of the City Council’s finance committee, and the team expects several key union leaders to do the same on Mar. 18.
Proponents of a Queens-based stadium have yet to start their public-relations campaign in earnest, but Mr. Oats had plenty to say about the Jets’ recent publicity efforts. He pointed out that only three minority legislators showed up at a press conference to tout minority support for the West Side project. He also noted that the Council’s finance committee chair, David Weprin of Queens, acknowledged that he based his endorsement on a financial study that the Jets themselves had commissioned from Ernst and Young.
“I don’t think they’re on a roll,” Mr. Oats said of the Jets. “I think they’re in a free fall. What they’re doing is re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic .”
Mr. Oats said his presence at the Crain’s forum served notice that he and his supporters “are going to be at every single thing that the Jets do.”
That may be so, but both Mr. Oats and Manhattan-based stadium opponents have the disadvantage of facing a Mayor and a Governor who support the plan and who refuse to consider seriously the idea of building the stadium in Queens, where the Jets once played before moving to the New Jersey Meadowlands in the early 1980′s.
At the Crain’s forum, Mr. Cross and Mr. Tisch made two announcements that further added to the sense of momentum for the stadium project. Mr. Cross said that one of the top show bookers of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center now supports the proposed stadium, which would provide additional space for the convention center when it is not being used for football.
The show booker, Jeff Little, president of George Little Management, had been a vocal opponent of the project, and his changed position means that the Jets can claim that the city’s top three show producers are now in favor of the proposal. This would seem to weaken the argument of critics who claim that the stadium will not be attractive to show bookers, and will not provide a large economic benefit to the city-as the Jets contend.
A spokesman for Mr. Little acknowledged that his changed position was at least in part due to political realities: The Bloomberg administration and Governor Pataki are pushing hard for the simultaneous construction of the stadium along with a northward expansion of the Javits Center. Because Mr. Little apparently feels that he cannot oppose the stadium while supporting the convention center’s expansion, he has, in effect, joined the Jets’ team.
“There’s been an evolution in our thinking in relation to the project,” said Cathy Steel, a spokeswoman for Mr. Little. “The company is supportive of an expansion of convention center facilities, but to the extent that both the Javits expansion and the stadium development are going to move forward together, in that instance we would be willing to support the stadium.”
For his part, Mr. Tisch announced that the executive committee of the city’s Hotel Association had conditionally approved-andwould recommend to its full board-a $1.50 per-key, per-night surcharge to room prices to help pay for the expansion of the Javits Center. Although that funding source won’t directly affect the stadium, the two projects are politically linked, and Mr. Tisch clearly hoped that the boost to the Javitsexpansion would convey a sense of momentum for the stadium proposal.
The Jets and city and state officials are pushing to begin stadium construction quickly because it is a centerpiece of the city’s bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. The International Olympic Committee may begin winnowing down the finalist cities as early as May.
The Jets would pay $800 million for construction of the stadium, which will sit on a stretch of M.T.A.-owned rail yards between 30th and 33rd streets and 11th and 12th avenues. The city and the state would each contribute $300 million for the construction of a deck over the rail yards and a retractable roof-a necessary feature in order to use the stadium as a convention hall. In addition, the M.T.A. expects to be compensated for the transfer of the air rights of its rail yards. No agreement on that issue has yet been publicly announced.
Respected civic organizations like the Regional Plan Association and the Municipal Arts Society, which often play a significant role in influencing arguments for or against large city projects, have yet to take a public stance on the West Side stadium proposal. A spokesperson for the M.A.S. said that the group is waiting for more information before it takes a position. To date, the city and state have not announced how they will pay their $600 million share of the project-a figure that doesn’t include the potential cost of the air rights to the M.T.A. rail yards. A spokesperson for the R.P.A. said that the organization hopes to play the role of a “neutral convener” of all sides in the controversy. The R.P.A. has dedicated its Apr. 16 annual assembly to the issue.