If Not the West Side, What About Queens?

If Plan A for the city’s Olympics bid was the West Side stadium, whither Plan B?

Whiffs of a contingency plan, though seldom aired in public, have permeated the local planning process for at least three years. In 2002, after the United States Olympic Committee demanded that U.S. contenders produce stadium-backup strategies, NYC2012 raised the possibility of building a stadium in Queens. Now that plans for a West Side stadium seem to have sunk into the Hudson River, some New York politicians and Olympic boosters hope that those early ideas may be revived. Of course, Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t one of them.

“Well, there’s no chance the stadium could be built elsewhere and help us to the Olympics, because the rules of the International Olympic Committee are you have to submit a plan. It can’t have backups or anything,” said Mayor Bloomberg during a Q.-and-A. session in Harlem on June 7. “It can have one plan, and you have to follow that plan.”

The Mayor’s perspective, however, differs subtly from NYC2012′s official line. According to spokesman Laz Benitez, the issue isn’t that New York can’t have a backup plan, but rather that the city shouldn’t have one.

“The I.O.C. doesn’t require a backup plan,” said Mr. Benitez. “Basically, to the I.O.C., a backup plan is a sign of uncertainty. That’s not part of the bid process with the I.O.C. They want a commitment to one facility,” he added, contrasting the I.O.C.’s method with selection process of the USOC, which does require a backup plan. “We could’ve taken it upon ourselves to include a backup plan, but with that said, that would’ve been frowned upon, because it’s uncertainty.”

Mere uncertainty, however, might be considered a luxury this week. Compared with the cut-and-dried despondency of the current equation-no West Side stadium equals no Olympic bid-it’s hard to envision that simple uncertainty would feel worse. This is according to Brian Hatch, who was the deputy mayor of Salt Lake City during the preparation phase of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. Now a New York resident, Mr. Hatch is a consultant on transportation, municipal and urban-policy issues and has sparred against the idea of a Manhattan stadium on his Web site, http://www.newyorkgames.org.

“The bottom line is this: A Queens stadium is better than no stadium, and right now they have no stadium, and that is absolutely unacceptable to the International Olympic Committee,” said Mr. Hatch. “You must have an Olympic stadium, as the Mayor and NYC2012 have been reminding us for two years.”

Representative Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn, a candidate for the Democratic Mayoral nomination who would like to see an Olympic stadium in Willets Point, Queens, went out on a limb and wrote his own letter to the I.O.C. “The Olympic Committee wants a guarantee, so here it is,” he wrote on June 7. “As mayor, I will guarantee that an Olympic stadium and broadcast center will be delivered on-time at an alternative location should the International Olympic Committee select New York on July 6.” (The part about “should the people of New York select Anthony Weiner for Mayor” was left out.) Lest the declaration seem a bit presumptive, Mr. Weiner also urged his fellow Mayoral candidates to follow suit and pledge their commitment to an alternate stadium site.

So what exactly would a Queens stadium entail? Back in 2001, when the U.S. Olympic Committee demanded backup plans, representatives for NYC2012 toured several neighborhoods in Queens: Willets Point, Flushing Meadows/Corona Park, College Point and sections of downtown Flushing. According to an NYC2012 internal memo dated Jan. 22, 2002, the group concluded that the area’s best options lay in the vicinity of Shea Stadium in Flushing Meadow. The memo proposed three different models for a possible Olympic stadium: a 75,000-seat football stadium in a parking lot west of Shea Stadium; an expandable 25,000-seat soccer stadium for later use by the New Jersey–based MetroStars, in the same parking lot; or a temporary conversion of Shea Stadium, which would have involved raising the field by at least a foot and extending the outfield wall.

Two months later, NYC2012 expanded the last of these three options into a more detailed plan, complete with sketches for a “temporary Olympic retrofit” of Shea Stadium. The plan read: “Based on a preliminary review, the existing Shea Stadium could be converted to Olympic use and returned to its baseball configuration after the Games. As a multi-purpose stadium and former home of the New York Jets, the main seating bowl is reconfigurable and [considerably] larger than other single-purpose built structures.” It also noted that “the USOC does not want to discredit or jeopardize any existing stadium proposals, and therefore has not requested a formal submission” and that “the best alternative to the Hudson Yards Olympic Stadium is the Shea Stadium/Willets Point Vicinity.”

In November 2002, New York triumphed over San Francisco to win the U.S. Olympic nomination. And as the city scrambled to structure its bid for the second and final heat of the race-judged by the International Olympic Committee-earlier notions of a backup plan were left behind. Shea Stadium slipped quietly off the table.

To wit, on May 4 of last year, Jay Kriegel, the executive director of NYC2012, sent a letter to Robert Yaro, the Regional Planning Association president. “In short,” Mr. Kriegel wrote, “there is no Queens alternative. Each of these three proposed sites would not just weaken the bid but would probably be fatal to it.” Along with the earlier plans, which had mentioned Shea Stadium as a possible location, he cited two other Queens contenders: Sunnyside Yards in western Queens, which would require the construction of a massive deck over the Amtrak rail yard, and Willets Point, home of the 80-acre “Iron Triangle,” a desolate stretch of land inhabited by chop shops and an asphalt plant.

Mr. Kriegel argued that all three options would be at least as costly to build as the West Side stadium, if not more, and that none of them could be completed on the Olympic timetable. He also added that they “have no after usage and therefore run counter to the I.O.C. guidelines.”

No Alternatives

This February, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff quashed the possibility of a Queens proposal yet again. “There is no alternate plan. There never has been an alternate plan,” he told a New York 1 reporter. To be fair, in the context of the international Olympic bid rather than the domestic one, he may be right. Still, with the West Side stadium plan taking on water, local officials who originally favored a Queens stadium wonder whether it’s too late to renew the call.

“Queens already has the transit infrastructure there, so it’s accessible,” said Jeremy Soffin, director of public affairs for the Regional Plan Association. “It’s not a central business district, so it could potentially be more compatible with the uses there, which already include a stadium, obviously. And a lot of people have made the case that Queens is the natural host for the Olympics because of its tremendous diversity.” He conceded, however, that while the Olympic clock ticks on, the hour is late.

“I think their strategy was to show no chinks in the armor, in an effort to pass a project that was very complicated. That may be a risky strategy, but it may also have been the only one that could have worked. Obviously, there were many people who pushed for a backup-and you can certainly argue that when it looked like it wasn’t going to happen in time, that they could have gone to a Queens alternative. But they were committed,” he concluded. “It’s easy to question in hindsight.”