“It’s a dog-and-pony show without the dog or the pony,” one reporter muttered as Charlie Schueler, a spokesman for the embattled Dolan family, shouted over the general ruckus.
The grumbler was among a throng of reporters and cameramen who arrived at Radio City Music Hall late on the afternoon of March 21 to hear what Cablevision would pay for 13 acres of train yards on the West Side of Manhattan-the site where Mayor Michael Bloomberg so recently thought his stadium for the New York Jets was sure to be built, and upon which his dreams of securing his city as the venue for the 2010 Super Bowl and the 2012 Olympics depend.
The press left without its answer, and fighting over slick renderings of a cluster of buildings gathered around a green lawn-a sort of scrubbed-up Lefrak City-that the Dolans have said they want to build on the far West Side. Hudson Gardens, they called it. It was hard to discern the differences between the apartment buildings, school, hotel and library pictured in the renderings.
During the press conference, Alex Krieger, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, described his design-and later, he told The Observer he’d staked his reputation on the project, which he said was better for the West Side than the Jets Stadium would have been.
“I imagine they couldn’t find anyone in New York to do it so they came to me instead,” he said. “So I guess I won’t get a job in New York for a while.”
“This is a briefing,” Mr. Schueler said, dissolving the news conference into chaos. “We are not going to do a Q. and A.”
How much was the bid worth? Was this cable television company getting into land development purely to antagonize the Mayor that wants to build a giant stadium 10 blocks north of the Dolans’ Madison Square Garden that will surely draw business away from them?
“There are more details in the press packets you can get on the way out,” said another press officer. Except there weren’t enough press packets to go around.
The Dolans have provided the city with some of its most dramatic political theater in recent days. But that afternoon at Radio City, the curtain seemed to be lowering on the final act.
How likely is the M.T.A., as cash strapped as it is, to sell to a renegade company like Cablevision and destroy the possibility of a stadium on the West Side? The stadium is not just a stadium-it’s one of Mayor Bloomberg’s signature items, which he has declared a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the city’s bid to win the 2012 Olympics, not to mention the 2010 Super Bowl, which the Jets announced they were in the running for late on March 22.
And M.T.A. chairman Peter Kalikow, whose own company has donated more than $50,000 the city’s Olympics bid committee, was appointed by Governor Pataki, who’s following the Mayor’s lead on this.
“We’ve been very critical of the process, but it’s not the M.T.A.’s fault. They were put into a box by the Mayor and the Governor,” said Jeremy Soffin, director of public affairs at the Regional Plan Association, an independent planning organization opposed to the stadium. “Chairman Kalikow has proven himself to be tremendously independent in terms of presenting a capital plan and in moving forward with the bid process. But yes, we are worried that the Mayor will continue to exert pressure in favor of the stadium.”
Cablevision stayed mum past Monday’s afternoon deadline and into Tuesday on how much it was offering to develop the West Side. (Its earlier bid was for $600 million, which included $250 million for a platform over the rail yard-which, should the Jets win, would most likely be covered by the city and state.) Needless to say, the strategy worked. Cablevision had visuals, which showed up on television and in newspapers: pictures of natty Internationalist buildings with tremendously happy, happy people walking about. The Jets’ bid, by contrast, was represented by a line of 10 current and former football players walking into the M.T.A. building to drop off the paperwork, which was apparently contained in steel-plated briefcases, the type that traveling salesmen now carry if they want to be extra secure.
The Jets didn’t release a dollar figure either-at least not officially. But a source close to the franchise said the bid was worth $720 million. Only $280 million of that would come from the Jets-compared to the $100 million offered before this fight got underway this winter. The rest would come from six major real-estate developers once they were allowed to purchase the remaining development rights over the rail yards. In other words, if the rail yard zoning permits 30-story buildings, and the stadium takes up only 12 of them, the developers want to transfer the rights to those unused 18 stories and add them on top of other buildings nearby. What the details are, and how long it will take to change the zoning to accommodate the developers, is unknown.
The Jets got two boosts for its offer Tuesday. For one, the Rev. Al Sharpton had decided, according to Democratic sources, to publicly support the Jets stadium, the most visible minority leader to do so to date. For another, an NFL advisory committee recommended awarding the 2010 Super Bowl to New York-so long as the West Side stadium gets built first.
It was just a year ago Friday that the M.T.A. agreed, in a non-binding memorandum of understanding, that it would “cooperate” to sell or lease the air space above its West Side rail yards to a state entity that would then rent it to the Jets. Since then Cablevision, fearing that its property, Madison Square Garden, would lose revenue from concerts and major events to the new stadium, staged a series of television commercials attacking the stadium’s financing, which requires a $600 million city and state contribution. Finally, the Madison Square Garden subsidiary and threw in its own offer for the land, for $350 million, plus the cost of a platform over the rail yards. The Jets had offered but $100 million.
The M.T.A. decided to open up the rail yards to everyone and anyone, and set Monday as the deadline. Stadium opponents complained that the terms still favored the Jets-they were the only ones to have the correct zoning in place. Now, the public is left knowing what one plan is going to look like and how much the other one is worth, but government watchdogs were fairly surprised that the Mayor’s stadium has been set back as far as it has.
“[Mr.] Kalikow is a developer, and when the Jets offered $100 million, he was insulted,” said Gene Russianoff, an attorney at the Straphangers Campaign, an advocacy group for mass transit riders. “I think clearly his actions at a minimum have gotten the Jets to up their ante, although we do not know the details or what they have in mind or what Cablevision has in mind. Clearly he has jerked a lot of chains.”
The M.T.A. is under pressure from some state legislators as well as its own capital budget to get the most money for its land, at the same time that the state’s top two politicians are pushing for the stadium-though the Mayor has much more invested in the stadium than the Governor.
“I think the Governor has hitched his star to the revival of downtown,” Mr. Russianoff continued. “If there’s a choice between the West Side and the downtown revival, the Governor is much more biased in favor of downtown. Sometimes the fix is in-and if it was, I would tell you, because I have seen it all too often. This one is more complicated.”
A third bid by TransGas Energy also came in, for $700 million cash plus $350 million worth of capital improvements to the M.T.A.’s power supply. The TransGas bid is another hostile offer, since the company is trying to construct a power plant in Brooklyn where the Bloomberg administration wants to build a park. The deal, company president Adam Victor explained, would only go through, however, if his company did win approval from the state for the power plant, and would also require the M.T.A. to purchase power from the plant for the next 40 years.
Two other bids were thrown out immediately, because the developers failed to enclose the $25,000 nonrefundable entry fee.
The M.T.A. said it may provide more details of the bids, but it has not committed itself to doing so. Its impartiality was again called into question once Newsday reported that the top executives at a real-estate company it has hired to review the bids made at least $100,000 in contributions to the committee that is trying to get the Olympics to come to New York.
Also, last June, Newmark Chairman Jeffrey Gural sent a letter to the state siting board advocating for TransGas’ application for the power plant because of the city’s need for extra power. At that point, TransGas had just offered to put its power plant underground, and build the mayor’s park on top. “As you proceed with your consideration of aesthetics, parkland and subterranean engineering issues, please do not forget the critical need to keep both our fuel supplies and power generators reliable and close to the customers that depend on them,” he wrote.
M.T.A. spokesman Tom Kelly said that both issues would be examined but that the Olympics contribution did not appear to pose a conflict of interest. Newmark was hired as a technical advisor, he said, and would not be recommending one bid over the other.
“They also told us that the chairman and C.E.O. would not have anything to do with the technical assistance the company is providing,” Mr. Kelly said. “I don’t know who you would pick to provide us with technical assistance who didn’t have some connection to the Olympics or some other group that may have something to do with the bidding process.”
In the five weeks since the M.T.A. opened up its bidding process, the competitors clearly tried to patch up the holes in their offers. Since the Jets were offering to buy just a third of the development rights originally, it was fortuitous that they were joined this time by six real-estate companies that would take over the other two-thirds-though these developers will pay the M.T.A. only once they do win the necessary zoning approval.
As for Cablevision, derided for having no major development experience, it offered up the names of a few partners, among them Jones Lang LaSalle and HRH Construction. Cablevision executives also invoked the names of urbanophiles Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford-a sign of how much the company is positioning itself as a friend of the little guy, even though the towers on display were clearly 30 or 40 stories tall at a minimum. If they had thrown in Holden Caulfield to boot-after all, he once passed through the very same foyer-they would have had a trio of underdogs.