On Wednesday, June 16, New York Jets owner Robert Wood Johnson IV is scheduled to give a speech at the Marriott Marquis introducing Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan, lauding him for his philanthropic efforts and contributions to the city’s economy.
The pairing of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Dolan would seem to be an odd one. Mr. Dolan and his father, Charles, are bankrolling a fierce public attack against Mr. Johnson’s attempts to build a stadium for the Jets on the West Side. Attack ads from both sides have been coursing through the airwaves for the last month.
Nevertheless, the circle of billionaire sports-team-owning philanthropists is a small one, even in New York, and allegiances are bound to overlap. In this case, the Alliance for Lupus Research, of which Mr. Johnson is the chairman, decided to single out Mr. Dolan at its annual fund-raiser for his philanthropic efforts in general. Mr. Johnson declined to comment, but a spokesman for MSG said Mr. Dolan accepted the honor knowing full well whom he would be sharing the stage with.
Despite the two men’s differences, Mr. Johnson should be primed for the encounter. About three weeks ago, he waded into much more hostile territory. Around 6 p.m. on May 17, Mr. Johnson strode into a reception for the Democratic State Committee held at the midtown Sheraton, and proceeded to chat up several legislators who are either active stadium opponents, or lawmakers who have expressed caution about the project.
“You could see the jaws drop,” said one observer to the scene. “Here’s one of the most prolific Republican fund-raisers in the country, who’s a close friend with the President, walking into the bastion of the Democratic Party.”
One legislator Mr. Johnson made sure to buttonhole was State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has yet to take a public opinion on the stadium, but who has criticized aspects of its public financing.
“They didn’t talk about the stadium at all,” said the observer to the scene, “but the Jets are making a full-court press to reach out to Democratic officials, and the purpose of Woody being there that night was to show that the Jets are willing to seek support wherever it may be.”
For Mr. Johnson, Speaker Silver was the big fish of the night. For although neither the Mayor nor the Governor’s office has yet released the details of how, exactly, they intend to pay for developing the West Side stadium, it has become clear that, one way or another, the powerful speaker will almost surely have the means to stop the project in its tracks.
The city and the state plan to invest $600 million public dollars into the stadium project, slotted for a stretch of M.T.A.-owned rail yards between 30th and 33rd streets, from 11th Avenue to the Hudson River. However, because neither administration has made clear how that investment would be structured, it is impossible to say whether Mr. Silver could exercise any control over that money flow. Regardless, it is going to take more than money to make the stadium a reality. For example, there exist two little-known regulatory boards that will likely have to approve various aspects of the stadium proposal-and Mr. Silver has veto power over both of them. That gives the Speaker at least two aces up his sleeve.
“Shelly can block the stadium, no question about it,” said State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a stadium opponent.
The question now is whether or not Mr. Silver has the inclination to do so. For although he has expressed reservations about various aspects of the city and state’s larger plan to redevelop the entire West Side, he has yet to take a position on the most controversial aspect of that plan, the stadium. And because he is one of the few people in the entire state who is both in a position to halt the project in its tracks, and whose vote is essentially up for grabs, Mr. Silver is quickly becoming the ultimate prize for stadium proponents and opponents alike.
In recent weeks, for example, Mr. Silver or his staff has met or held talks with representatives from the anti-stadium Hell’s Kitchen/ Hudson Yards alliance; Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, who is spearheading the city’s stadium drive; Mr. Johnson from the Jets; and Assemblyman Dick Gottfried, who is one of the most vocal stadium opponents in the Assembly.
“If I tell my colleagues [in the Assembly] that there are serious issues regarding the stadium, they may roll their eyes and figure I’m telling them that because I’m against the project,” said Mr. Dick Gottfried. “But if the Speaker presents those issues … it has a lot more credibility, as it should.”
Adding further pressure to the Speaker, several of Mr. Silver’s closest friends and former aides are now working as either lobbyists or strategists for both the pro- and anti-stadium forces. The Jets, for example, have hired Mr. Silver’s friend and lobbyist Andrew Roffe; and NYC & Co., the city’s tourism bureau, has hired Mr. Silver’s former top aide, Brian Meara, to lobby for the separate but politically connected expansion of the Jacob K. Javits convention center. The Dolan family, which owns Madison Square Garden, and is bankrolling a new anti-stadium coalition, has long had on retainer Patricia Lynch, a high-powered Albany lobbyist who was Mr. Silver’s aide for eight years. Sources also tell The Observer that the Dolans have hired another top Albany lobbyist, Kenneth Shapiro, who was an aide to several Assembly Speakers before Mr. Silver, and who was friendly with Mr. Silver as a junior Assemblyman. All the lobbyists either declined to comment on their plans or did not return calls.
In face of the rising pressure, and in lieu of commenting for this piece, Mr. Silver announced on June 8 that two Assembly committees would hold hearings in Manhattan on the whole West Side development project, tentatively scheduled for June 18. “I have serious concerns regarding the massive financial investment called for under this proposal,” Mr. Silver said in a statement, “as well as concerns about oversight and quality-of-life issues surrounding this proposed project.”
Of course, Mr. Silver is not the only state legislator to hold potential veto power over the stadium project. Aside from Governor Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno can also bottle up the actions of the PACB and the M.T.A. boards. However, Mr. Bruno is an upstate Republican, and the majority of Republican State Senators who make up his base are also from upstate, which makes them less likely to throw a monkey wrench in Governor Pataki’s plans for what many might view as a Manhattan-centric issue.
“The whole project is in Manhattan, and Bruno represents Rensellear County,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, a stadium opponent. “How much of an impact does the stadium really have on him?”
Mr. Bruno did not return calls for comment.
Since assuming the Assembly’s top leadership post in 1994, Mr. Silver has occupied one of three seats in the (only somewhat) proverbial “back room” of Albany, where he and Mr. Bruno and Governor Pataki meet to forge compromises on every bill facing the legislature. Four years ago, Mr. Silver narrowly avoided being unseated in his speaker post in a coup by former Assemblyman Michael Bragman that rained acrimony upon the Assembly. Since then, Mr. Silver has pledged to be more responsive to the pressing wishes of the members in his delegation.
For assembly members like Dick Gottfried, Scott Stringer and Deborah Glick, all of whom represent areas in Manhattan in or near the stadium site, there is no issue of more pressing importance. Furthermore, Ms. Krueger said there exists a tradition in the state legislature of the majority leader not crossing members of his or her own delegation when it comes to projects on scales of anything approaching a stadium.
“It’s my view that the vast majority of the delegation of Manhattan is united about [the stadium] being the wrong thing to do,” said Ms. Krueger, “That makes it very difficult for the Speaker to go against them on this.”
What’s more, there are several indications that Mr. Silver himself is looking askance at the city’s $5 billion plan to redevelop the Hudson Yards district, which includes the stadium, the Javits expansion, an extension of the No. 7 line, an up-zoning of 59 square blocks and the creation of various parks. Most recently, there are the hearings that Mr. Silver requested into the West Side plan on June 8. On a deeper level, however, Mr. Silver’s uneasiness with the redevelopment plan stems from the fact that he represents eastern and lower Manhattan, and has long said that the Second Avenue Subway is his top transportation priority. In late April, Mr. Silver’s delegate on the M.T.A. capital review board vetoed a $5 million expenditure for further study of the No. 7 line extension.
At the time, Mr. Silver’s spokeswoman said, “There are a lot of questions regarding the whole West Side development,” but declined to elaborate. Earlier, Mr. Silver publicly announced his opposition to the city paying for its share of the Javits extension by tapping funds from the Battery Park City authority, which had been earmarked for low-income housing.
Mr. Gottfried, though quietly confident of his ability to bring Mr. Silver around to his way of thinking, knows at the same time that there is a limit to how much he can push.
“One thing people have learned about Shelly is he doesn’t like to be pushed around, and people rarely succeed in trying.”
Because it is not yet clear how the stadium will be financed or developed, the pro- and anti-stadium forces have largely concentrated their efforts on swaying mass public opinion via rallies and, lately, big-buy television ads. Because of that, Mr. Silver has not yet had to wade too deeply into the battle. But that all changed last week.
On Friday, June 4, Governor Pataki introduced legislation that would expand the Javits Center’s northward boundaries to 42nd Street. The Javits Center is also slotted to expand south, with the creation of the West Side stadium, which will act as annex convention space when the Jets are not playing. And although the Mayor and the Governor have always portrayed the Javits expansion as being inextricably linked to the stadium, the legislation did not include any explicit provisions for the stadium’s creation. At the same time, however, many stadium opponents told The Observer that they fear the legislation’s wording is so vague that it could indeed be interpreted as authorization for stadium’s construction. To wit, the legislation calls for the creation of “adjacent facilities containing a plenary hall, meeting and exhibition space.”
“My view of the Governor’s bill is that it is more stadium-esque than perhaps we are being led to believe,” said Assemblyman Scott Stringer, a stadium opponent.
Adam Barsky, an aide to Governor Pataki, insisted that the slated “plenary hall” is in actuality a small meeting hall to be constructed east of 11th Avenue at 35th Street-not a stadium for the Jets.
Nevertheless, stadium opponents said they aren’t taking any chances. The bill has to be approved by the State Senate and the Assembly, and many anti-stadium members in both those houses said that they have sent “the alarm” down the line for their colleagues to be wary of the bill. Suffice it to say, the bill does not appear headed toward passage any time soon.
One veteran of bruising development battles with Mr. Silver said that it would not be out of character for Mr. Silver to use his authority through boards like the PACB to kill a project to which he was opposed.
The source, referring to a veto of the PACB board action, said: “My experience is that when he wants to hold up a project, that’s what he does.”