A Frenzied Bid: The Once and Future Queens

Up at Harvard for his 25th reunion Friday night, Daniel Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and founder of New York City’s 2012 Olympics bid, cavorted in a blazer-slung-over-shoulder kind of way down Massachusetts Avenue between events. The next day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg performed the ceremony at the wedding of his daughter, which was held at Mr. Bloomberg’s Westchester home.

But back at their respective offices, the two men’s aides were pulling all-nighters to put together a labyrinthine exchange of money, land and favors that hasn’t just saved the city from Olympian disgrace, but may well have moved its chances up a notch or two.

Later, Mr. Doctoroff would cheeringly liken the affair to the one that brought the United Nations to Turtle Bay 59 years ago.

“I think we actually have beaten the record for speed here, compared to the 96 hours that it took to put the U.N. deal together,” Mr. Doctoroff said on June 12. “Here we are at 72 hours.”

Shea Stadium has been there all along, of course. And as The Observer reported on June 8, the Olympics committee had looked at a plan to use Shea Stadium as the centerpiece of its Olympics bid years ago-though that plan involved renovating the present stadium to make it large enough to host the opening ceremonies and some Olympics events.

But the plan was abandoned for its complexity, and for myriad other reasons, before any serious probative conversations could begin.

It was just a few days ago that Mayor Bloomberg sounded defeated-“We have let down America”-even as he talked about New Yorkers’ resilience and persistence. Right after state legislative leaders rejected his plan on June 6 for a football stadium on Manhattan’s West Side that would one day hold the opening ceremonies, the Mayor wouldn’t say whether New York would pursue its bid at all.

But the United States Olympic Committee, which chose New York over seven other cities to compete for the 2012 Summer Games, made sure that he didn’t back out.

So, starting on Wednesday, staffers for the bid committee, NYC2012, along with Bloomberg’s top aides, started exploring the possibilities, knowing that they needed to come up with an alternative before all the blood in New York’s bid dripped away.

The question remains whether the Olympic-stadium charette was only a bid to save face with the International Olympics Committee, which has devoted so much time to the New York bid.

Mr. Bloomberg never seemed to like the idea of locating the stadium in Queens-or at least not the idea of retrofitting Shea. Asked about it in February, he said, “Shea Stadium is not of the same order of magnitude or grandeur that the other cities have promised to either build or already have.”

Better Odds?

Still, it’s possible that the deal will actually aid the 2012 bid.

It turns out that the rest of the world really doesn’t care what area code you have. The 115 I.O.C. members may actually prefer the Queens site. None of the other five 2012 finalists has bothered situating its main stadium anywhere near its center-Paris, the front-runner, is proposing that it be just on the other side of the city wall. And while Flushing is further away from midtown hotels, where the spectators will stay, it will be no further than they are from the stadiums of London, Paris and Madrid. Already, the betting odds for New York have gone from about 60 to 1 before the West Side stadium fell through to about 40 to 1 on Tuesday, according to BestBetting.com. (Paris is still the clear leader.)

There’s good reason for the increased odds in New York’s favor. By getting rid of the West Side stadium, NYC2012 will create a more compact Summer Games. The main stadium will move from the westernmost edge of the so-called Olympic X right next to the venues hosting tennis, rowing and three other sports, which are also planned for Flushing Meadows. And the International Broadcasting Center, once a 41-story monster on 10th Avenue, will turn into unimpressive low-rise buildings in Willets Point that will make European members of the I.O.C. feel right at home.

“What they are proposing may even be better than what they had on the West Side,” said Ed Hula, the founder and publisher of the Olympic news Web site Around the Rings. “It probably should have been in the bid from the beginning.”

When NYC2012 last looked at moving the stadium to Queens, in 2002, it determined that it would be best to build just to the west of Shea Stadium, thinking that the Mets would build separately on the eastern side. In the ensuing years, Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Doctoroff have pooh-poohed a Queens stadium. Five years ago, NYC2012 had already signed on to the idea that its partner would be the New York Jets, who would build the bulk of the stadium. “We’ll go wherever the Jets, at the end of the day, decide to go,” Mr. Doctoroff told the Daily News in December 2000. And the Jets didn’t want Queens, because Queens would never command the kind of prices for luxury skyboxes and seat licenses that the football team would need to build what has become a $2.1 billion stadium. What investment bank, what law firm, what advertising agency would pay so much to send its clients to Flushing Meadows?

The Mayor and Mr. Doctoroff became married to the West Side because the Jets were married to the West Side. Somewhere along the line, the stadium became the nation’s premier multi-tasker: a solution for the Olympics, a home for the Jets, spillover space for the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center next-door, and a spur to get developers to erect office buildings and apartment towers. When community groups and local politicians objected, the two of them just dug in deeper. It apparently never occurred to NYC2012 that another sports organization might want to collaborate. It was always a Jets stadium, never merely an Olympic stadium. “We’re not going to spend that money for 17 days,” Mr. Doctoroff told Newsday in May 2004.

But once Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno annulled that marriage, the city left Jets president Jay Cross to fend for himself. Now the Bloomberg administration is dealing with Mets owner Fred Wilpon.

The Mets deal requires the city and the state to chip in $180 million for infrastructure so the baseball team can move to the parking lot next-door to its Flushing Meadows home. The Mets will get to play on city parkland without paying rent or taxes and, according to sources cited in The New York Times, will even get to keep the first $7 million annually in parking revenues. If the Olympics come hither, another $250 million in public and private money will elongate the field and add seats to the stands so that the next FloJo can burn the quarter-mile track.

The Mets arrangement is not necessarily much better for the city’s treasury, but if the West Side stadium was the scrum that everyone wanted to dive into, the Mets deal is the Gatorade that civic groups, Mayoral candidates and Speaker Silver are sipping coolly on the sidelines. New York City won’t get those tax revenues that the Jets are funneling to New Jersey, where the team now plays. Nor will city residents get the 2,400 jobs that were supposed to have sprouted because the West Side stadium could be turned into convention space. The new stadium will also turn what was supposed to be a largely privately financed Olympics into one with a substantial public subsidy-but at this point, who cares? The International Olympic Committee will vote July 6 on who will get the pleasure of hosting nine million sweating spectators and 11,000 really sweaty athletes seven years from now.

“What’s frustrating is why the site wasn’t in the plan from the beginning,” said Don Porter, the president of the International Softball Federation, which has one of its board members on the I.O.C. “It’s hard to say if the late change will be held against New York. I.O.C. members view things very differently. Each city has its own problems.”

Silver Lining

Meanwhile, the M.T.A. and a host of developers who are keenly interested in the West Side, with or without the stadium, are wondering what will happen next. The key to development is a package of tax incentives that would apply to the 42-block area recently rezoned for commercial and residential uses. According to an analysis by the Independent Budget Office, a nonpartisan research arm of city government, commercial property owners wouldn’t have to pay real-estate taxes. Instead, the I.B.O. determined that they would be liable for payments in lieu of taxes that would cost between 15 and 20 percent less than regular taxes would. In fact, developers would get extra bonuses for starting early: as much as an additional 40 percent off in 2010. On top of that, developers would pay a substitute sales tax on construction materials that would be just about 3 percent, according to the I.B.O.

The incentive package was scheduled for a vote by the Industrial Development Agency, an arm of city government that handles tax breaks, on Tuesday. But on May 31, right when the agency would’ve had to release the details of the tax breaks, the city took it off the agenda. These were the incentives that led Mr. Silver to dunk the stadium, even though it was the incentives, and not the stadium, that would have posed the gravest threat to office development at Ground Zero, which is in his district. The I.B.O. analysis projects that the Hudson Yards development would put one million square feet of new office space on the market a year starting in 2010, right about the time when Larry Silverstein will be trying to build and fill about one million square feet of office space a year at Ground Zero, in Towers 2, 3, 4 and 5. We will truly be faced with an embarrassment of riches.

The other bait that the Mayor laid for developers was a $2 billion extension of the No. 7 subway line, which he wanted to pay for with all these substitute real-estate tax payments that the West Side would bring in. Mayor Bloomberg still wants to build it, according to spokeswoman Jennifer Falk. But his good friends in Albany are giving him a chance to reconsider. The project is now included in a $21.1 billion five-year budget that was to be reviewed by the M.T.A. Capital Program Review Board by June 1, but now doesn’t have to be approved until the end of the month.

The M.T.A. review board is another of those obscure panels, like the Public Authority Control Board which doomed the West Side stadium, that attains occasional moments of glory, and its moment may be approaching. Like the PACB, the board is made up of three voting members, appointed by the Assembly Speaker, the Senate Majority Leader and the Governor. Mayor Bloomberg appoints an additional member who votes on city projects. And like the PACB, any single member can veto a resolution.

The board can look forward to a couple of good fights. First, how much of an anticipated $2.5 billion does each member get for his pet mega-project: Mr. Pataki is pushing for $400 million for a rail link from downtown to Kennedy airport; Senator Dean Skelos, Mr. Bruno’s appointee, wants to give his constituents on Long Island a way to get from the Long Island Railroad terminal at Penn Station to Grand Central Terminal; Mr. Silver is pulling for a Second Avenue subway.

And Mr. Bloomberg has his No. 7 extension, which isn’t officially a part of the $2.5 billion but would have to be approved by the same board. This is where Mr. Silver could put the kibosh on anything that might draw tenants away from Mr. Silverstein’s office towers at Ground Zero. Mr. Silver’s spokesman, Charles Carrier, would say only that the Speaker is reviewing the M.T.A.’s proposal. In addition, Mr. Bloomberg will have to convince the board’s other members that development on the West Side is going ahead and is going to generate enough money to pay for the No. 7 without help from the state.

“That appears to be in a great deal of flux right now,” said Tom Dunham, the director of communications for Mr. Skelos. “We have a very limited pot of state resources and need to spend them wisely.”