Rudy Goes for the Gold

Some 100 members of the city’s power elite gathered in the pews in the old Board of Estimate room at City Hall on March 14 to plot the grandest and most ambitious public works project in more than a generation.

Ostensibly, the meeting was a coming-out party for the advisory board that Dan Doctoroff, a little-known money manager, has assembled in a bid to bring the Olympics to New York City in the summer of 2012. But really, the gathering was an invocation–an attempt to raise the spirit of Robert Moses.

Mingling at City Hall with various former Olympians and civic dreamers were Stephen Ross, the Columbus Circle developer; Howard Rubenstein, the public relations czar; Jed Bernstein, theater union boss; Tom Bernstein, the Chelsea Piers developer; Kevin O’Connor, the chief executive of Doubleclick Inc.; Lewis Rudin, the developer; Robert Nederlander, the theater owner; and, of course, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who has yet to launch a major capital project but whose talent for sweeping aside naysayers and nigglers nonetheless energized the audience.

Their excitement grew as they watched a slide show of architectural renderings and fantastical maps, depicting a city transformed by new ferries, trains, stadiums, parks and neighborhoods. And their enthusiasm was understandable, considering that this was the biggest bid to reconfigure the face of the city since Moses, the master builder and original power broker, remade New York in the middle of the last century by giving us Lincoln Center, the United Nations, Stuyvesant Town, Lincoln Center and a host of highways, byways, beaches, dams and bridges.

Of course, it is no longer possible for one man, no matter how enormous his personality or ambitious his vision, to even attempt capital projects of such breadth and magnitude. The Moses phenomenon aroused such intense opposition that for over a generation it has been considered impossible to translate grand schemes into concrete.

But now, in his spirit, a convocation of the city’s power brokers has taken it upon itself to impose its vision for a massive public works project on a city that in recent years has settled for incremental, market-driven change. This group is in effect a hundred-headed Robert Moses–inspired by the economic boom, frustrated by decades of political paralysis and determined to rescucitate the long-vanished art of getting things built on a grand scale with brute political force. If they do get it done, after all, their legacies will be secured well into the 21st century.

“In every profession, people are always looking for those mega events that allow people to define themselves,” said Fred Siegel, a professor of history at Cooper Union. “This falls into that category.”

What was lost on these men and women, as they gathered in the Board of Estimate room, that relic of Tammany horse trading, was the fundamentally retrogade nature of their Olympic fantasy. As futuristic and captivating as their grand schemes might seem, this proposal is intrinsically old-fashioned–in its view of how power operates in the city, in its adoption of long-orphaned ideas, and in its retrograde faith in civic virtue and central planning. The idea is just so … 20th century .

The plan for a New York Olympics came to life over breakfast.

“Bob, I’ve got a crazy idea, but just listen to it for a minute. I think New York ought to host the Olympics.”

Dan Doctoroff, who manages money and buys companies for the Bass family of Texas, was speaking to Robert Kiley, the head of the New York City partnership. They were at the Drake. It was 1996.

Mr. Doctoroff rocked back in his chair a bit. Mr. Kiley raised an eyebrow.

Mr. Doctoroff launched into his vision for bringing the world’s athletic competition to the world’s most cosmopolitan city. Within an hour, Mr. Kiley, a fixture in the pantheon of the city’s permament governement, had signed on.

In the years since, Mr. Doctoroff, with Mr. Kiley’s help, has been selling his crazy idea to anyone who will listen. The plan, as now constituted, includes an Olympic Village in Queens, athletic sites dotting the East River waterfront, a host of public transportation improvements, including a ferry system across the East River to Manhattan and running from the Bronx to Staten Island, and a West Side football stadium that would be expanded–literally pulled on rollers–one block south for Olympic use.

Mr. Doctoroff claims that the Olympics–which he has scheduled to open on July 27, 2012–will pump something like $10 billion into New York’s economy. He hopes the games will leave public sports facilities and economic development behind when they’re gone. And he says the games can be completely run with private money–he’s working with a $1.3 billion budget to build and renovate new venues. That doesn’t include infrastructural improvements–diverting train lines, extending the No. 7 line west, running a ferry service around the city.

Right now, Mr. Doctoroff is running N.Y.C. 2012 on a $4.6 million budget (he hopes to raise $7 million before he’s done). Its 600-page bid must be submitted to the United States Olympic Committee in December. As of now, he said, his planners have timed the arrivals and departures of fantasy ferries down to the minute.

If the city beats out its seven U.S. competitors, it will go on to compete before the International Olympic Committee, which will announce a final decision in 2005.

For Mr. Doctoroff’s advisers, who have been honing their plans out of sight, the Olympics offer a chance to retouch the map of the New York, remaking it, in many cases, along lines they’ve contemplated for years. This is one of the chief selling points for his plan: The Olympics are a “catalytic event,” he said, that spur the completion of all sorts of languishing projects.

“We haven’t had this kind of large-scale planning in this city in a quarter of a century, and when I talk to people about it, their reaction is that they’re almost thirsty for it,” said Alex Garvin, the bid’s planning director.

For example, the rejuvenation of the East River waterfront. The Olympic Village would sit on industrial waterfront in Queens, across the East River from the United Nations. Athletes would travel to and from events by high-speed ferries and special trains.

On the Brooklyn waterfront, there would be venues for diving, water polo, volleyball, archery, beach volleyball and cycling. In Queens, at Robert Moses’ old World’s Fair grounds, those two wretched lakes would be dredged and reconfigured as one 2,000-meter-long rectangular rowing course. There would be boxing at the 369th Regiment Armory on the Harlem River Drive, and equestrian events on Staten Island, in La Tourette Park.

After the Olympics, organizers said, they would leave the athletic facilities to the community. They hope the Village can be repackaged as a 5,000-unit middle-income apartment complex (that’s a lot of apartments, folks). The ferry system would keep running.

“The waterfront will begin to fill in with new jobs and new housing in the same way that that has happened in Silicon Alley, the same way it’s happenend out in Flushing,” Mr. Doctoroff said. “That legacy could last for 100 years after the Olympics.”

The plan’s centerpiece, however, is a massive new sporting complex on the West Side, on the railyard site where Mayor Giuliani desperately wants a sports stadium.

The plan is heavily dependent on the city reaching an agreement with the Jets to move there. New owner Robert Wood Johnson IV has said he does not want to stay at the Giants Stadium after the team’s lease runs out in 2008. If the team makes the jump, Mr. Garvin is ready with a stadium design that would allow the south end of the stadium to move down a block for the Olympics’ use.

“We’ve figured out how to convert a football stadium into an Olympic stadium,” said Mr. Garvin. The technology, he said, is relatively low-tech–the same roller system was used to move a Times Square theater last year. “The engineers have figured out what’s involved.”

Thinking bigger and bigger, organizers would like to build an entire complex surrounding the stadium, with an expanded Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, an office building, a hotel and a new Madison Square Garden surrounding an eight-acre Olympic Square. Why not get the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to extend the No. 7 subway line to run beneath the complex, and reroute commuter rails to stop there, too?

“The next place to expand is the West Side, and there’s no way to get there,” said Sandy Lindenbaum, a prominent land use attorney who serves on the facilities advisory committee. “I’m talking about Ninth Avenue, 10th Avenue. That’s gotta happen.”

Chelsea Piers developer Tom Bernstein, who also serves on the N.Y.C. 2012 committee, placed the plan for the far West Side in the tradition of the great public projects of an earlier era.

“There was Rockefeller Center, there was Lincoln Center,” Mr. Bernstein said. “This is one last opportunity in New York to take a totally derelict part of New York and do something fantastic with it.”

“And obviously,” he added, “it makes a lot of sense for me at the Piers. It’s a stone’s throw from here.”

Give these guys credit for a beautiful idea. But there is no escaping it: Many of the people involved in the Olympic bid stand to gain something for themselves. A transportation hub on the West Side would boost property values in the old Garment District and along the Hudson, where developers have been gobbling up buildings at bargain rates. Politicians are jumping on board, hungry, no doubt, for a bit of reflected Olympic glory (not to mention projects for their districts). For hoteliers, there is the promise of the event of a generation. And maybe, just maybe, the plan would jump-start plans, long pushed by the hotel industry, to expand the Javits Center, which is jammed up and losing business to other cities.

“Certainly, that would be a major selling point in bringing larger and more groups to our city,” said Jonathan Tisch, president of Loews Hotels, a N.Y.C. 2012 supporter.

For New York City Central Labor Council president Brian McLaughlin, who serves on the N.Y.C. 2012 facilities advisory council, it’s a matter of more jobs–union jobs. “We’re trying to put [a number] together, but obviously, it’s in the thousands if you just took the construction process alone,” he said.

And what of Madison Square Garden? It obviously benefits if it relocates with a little help from taxpayers. Garden president David Checketts has been involved with the committee since 1996. Garden vice president Robert Russo currently serves on the facilities board. Garden officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, say those who have joined the bid, what really inspired them to sign on was the infectious enthusiasm of Mr. Doctoroff himself.

“I watched him at work, and saw that he was a human dynamo,” Mr. Bernstein said.

Mr. Doctoroff, 41, is N.Y.C. 2012’s youthful face, the nobody holding all the somebodies together.

“Dan sort of came out of nowhere,” said Mr. Bernstein.

“I hadn’t even asked him for money for Lincoln Center yet,” said Nathan Leventhal, the center’s president, an early backer. “My God, I was falling down on the job.”

Mr. Doctoroff grew up outside Detroit, and followed his wife to New York as a law student in 1983. He took a job at Lehman Brothers. After three years, he left to join Robert M. Bass as a partner in a firm specializing in leveraged buyouts and high-yield securities.

Mr. Doctoroff traced his love of the Olympics back to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics: “I vividly remember my brother and I sharing a room–I was 10, he was 8–and pretending that we were Bob Beamon setting the world long jump record by two feet.” (Today, Mr. Beamon, a native of Harlem, serves on his advisory board.) Mr. Doctoroff said the idea for the New York Olympics came to him while attending a World Cup match between Italy and Bulgaria at the Meadowlands in 1994.

“I thought it was the most passionate sporting event, including the Rangers [Stanley Cup final] I had ever been to in my life,” he said. His idea, originally, was to make a play for the 2008 games. After two years of quiet preparation, Mr. Doctoroff was ready to take his idea public. The key was gaining the ear of members of Manhattan’s business elite–whose political influence and deep pockets would make or break any bid. That was where Mr. Kiley came in.

In April 1996, Mr. Kiley and Mr. Doctoroff won over the Partnership’s executive board, including the chief executives of Chase Manhattan Bank and Met Life and the publisher of the New York Times. Mr. Doctoroff showed the board charts, figures and inspiring scenes from past Olympics and the city of New York.

Many of the chief executives at that meeting later went on to give Mr. Doctoroff the seed money to begin the bid preparations. N.Y.C. 2012 lists 15 individuals, corporations and foundations as “major supporters.” Among them are Chase Manhattan Corporation, Merrill Lynch & Company, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company, the Real Estate Board of New York, Time Warner Inc., Bloomberg L.P., the Hearst Corporation, the Daily News and the New York Times Company.

Mr. Doctoroff assembled a core team of supporters, including developer Daniel Rose, Mr. Rudin, Mr. Betts, Mr. Bernstein, Mr. Leventhal and then-Deputy Mayors Fran Reiter and Randy Levine. A key to their early success was winning over Mort Zuckerman, whose newspaper, the Daily News , relentlessly promoted the project.

Things seemed to be moving right along. Then the United States Olympic Committee put the brakes on. The committee, figuring it was unlikely that the International Olympic Committee would choose another North American host so soon after the 1996 Atlanta games, decided to pass on bidding for the 2008 games. Mr. Doctoroff was crushed. He thought about giving up his dream.

But early last year, he began reaching out to old allies, putting back together his advisory boards and reconstituting the planning team, including Jay Kriegel, a former Lindsay administration deputy mayor who is serving as the bid’s executive director. Seven other U.S. cities are preparing bids: Baltimore-Washington, Cincinatti, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and a Florida proposal which includes sites in Tampa and Orlando. At a March 14 press conference, Mayor Giuliani surprised everyone present by pointing out that New York’s competitors “all have significantly more crime.”

The first test for N.Y.C. 2012’s plans will come over the next few months, as they are tested against the $1.3 billion budget they figure the can finance strictly from Olympic economic benefits. Mr. Doctoroff has said he thinks the games can come off with no public investment, though some of his advisory board members are calling for city and state funds to support them, if they come.

If the city does win the I.O.C.’s nod in 2005, the city will have just seven years to decide whether they want to go along with Mr. Doctoroff and his big-city version of a chamber of commerce. The infrastructual improvements alone would require a massive coordination of the city and state agencies–and a huge investment of public cash.

“We’ll really have to rise above all the sorts of regulations and development issues that might ordinarily sort of deter and slow down projects like this, and say ‘New York wants to do this,'” said Mr. Bernstein. “It’s the equivalent of a declaration of war.”

Mr. Bernstein may be onto something. Perhaps mindful of the inevitable opposition, the bid’s boosters have done everything possible to line up support before the plan gets tossed to the usual pack of antidevelopment groups, pandering politicians and skeptical citizens. All the power breakfasts and City Hall slideshows are just a prelude to the real challenge: persuading New Yorkers that the Olympics, and all its trappings, is worth the trouble.

“This is something that’s already a fait accompli among the ruling elites in the city,” said Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia. “It’s not even discussed anymore–it’s just a question of putting the bid together. So the question of whether we should do it never happened in a serious way.”

Rudy Goes for the Gold