The Javits Center Saga: No End in Site

Almost from the moment it was completed in 1986, conventioneers and city and state officials realized the Javits Center was too small to satiate the demand for New York-based trade shows, expositions and conventions, and the facility would need to grow. But in the two decades since, the Javits expansion has turned into a never-ending snafu, as countless barriers—ballooning costs, a failed Olympics bid, dissent from the convention industry—have imperiled any sort of measurable progress.

The latest and most visible victim has been Governor Eliot Spitzer, who, just days into his new job last year, heard Javits’ siren call and promised a world-class expansion, scrapping his predecessor’s plan only to see the venture explode in his face with hundreds of millions in unexpected costs.

Recently ditching the $5 billion convention center of his dreams for a $1.6 billion plan of mostly renovations, Mr. Spitzer has been hit with a cacophony of dissent from elected officials and industry executives, who claim the governor is making poor long-term decisions in favor of feeding his revenue-hungry budget with related land sales.

Almost 14 months after coming into office, Mr. Spitzer is still unsure as to whether there will be any expansion at all, though he has pledged to sell two parcels of adjacent land, igniting criticism from City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others. Depending on the path the Spitzer administration chooses in selling the land, both officials could block any needed zoning changes the state would seek as part of its plan.

Ms. Quinn, who is said to be considering a mayoral run next year, seems to have put the issue at the top of her agenda, as she spoke candidly about the Spitzer administration’s plan in her State of the City address on Tuesday.

“Let me be clear—until we as a city decide to officially give up on the Javits Center, I will fight any shortsighted effort to sell those two adjacent properties,” said Mr. Quinn in her speech.

The most contentious aspect of Mr. Spitzer’s plan seems to be his proposal to sell a block of land north of the Javits Center in an attempt to raise about $400 million for capital programs in New York City and elsewhere. An expansion is far too expensive on that site, he has said, so there is no reason to hold onto the land when other programs need funding.

But Ms. Quinn, Mr. Bloomberg and others have cried foul, saying that selling the land slams shut the door on any future expansion. Further, critics contend, the decision to sell the land has come before the final plan for the Javits Center is fully sorted out.

While the state has been floating a price tag of $1.6 billion for its plan, state officials have not yet decided on how much space they will add in their latest plan, or, for that matter, whether the center will expand at all. A spokesman for New York’s Empire State Development Corporation, Warner Johnston, said such decisions are still being made.

The land sale to the north would require a change in zoning to be of any value to developers, a point at which either Mr. Bloomberg or Ms. Quinn could have great leverage. A standard zoning change would go through the Council, where Ms. Quinn could stop it. The state could alternatively choose to override city zoning, though it has traditionally sought consent of the mayor to do so. Without any change in zoning, the land could not be developed into a large residential or commercial project, and is unlikely to bring in the dollar amount the state is seeking.

Adding still more pressure has been Senator Charles Schumer, who in a statement criticized the modest expansion plan, saying it “will not get nearly enough bang for the buck.” In her address Tuesday, Ms. Quinn announced a joint effort with Mr. Schumer to reexamine Javits.

In an ironic turn, the plan has received caustic criticism from the very people who urged the governor to poke at the hornets’ nest in the first place and drop the Pataki administration’s expansion plan: the conventioneers, exposition firms and contracting companies that host, manage and rent out the Javits Center.

“I think it’s almost unanimous that everybody thinks this is a bad idea,” said Mark Scheinberg, the president of the Greater New York Automobile Dealers Association and the host of the New York International Auto Show.

These users are particularly incensed by the removal of the truck marshalling yard on the block between 33rd Street and 34th Street just south of the center. Without the yard, which essentially serves as a truck parking lot for over 150 empty trailers during shows, the time needed to prepare and close down a show would jump, raising costs and forcing out longtime conventions, the users claim.

“It really is toxic to trade show business going forward in New York City,” said John O’Connell, an executive at the trade show producer Freeman.

The Javits Center Saga: No End in Site