June 10, 2005

Big Apple: The death of the big idea

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

An obscure New York state panel decided this week to reject New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plans to build a football stadium on Manhattan's West Side and, with it, dealt a severe blow to New York's bid to host the 2012 Olympic Summer Games.

That has many New Yorkers breathing a sigh of relief-and many others furious.

At the heart of the debate over the stadium for the New York Jets (who currently play in New Jersey) was whether or not building a $2.2 billion athletic arena that might only be used once a week for 16 weeks of the year (the length of the National Football League's season) made sense for the most coveted piece of real-estate in the Western hemisphere.

Those in favor of the stadium-namely, the mayor, the governor and construction unions-argued that without it New York would lose its bid to host the 2012 Olympics, that the stadium's construction would create tens of thousands of jobs and that the presence of a stadium/convention center on the West Side would revive an under-used Manhattan neighborhood and generate untold revenues in tax dollars for the city.

The stadium's opponents-most importantly, two powerful state officials and a coalition of community groups-argued that the plan to use at least $600 million in public money to finance what would have been by far the most expensive athletic arena in the country was absurd, that the stadium would have been a boondoggle discouraging office tenants and residents from setting up shop nearby, and that the stadium's construction would have diverted funds needed to redevelop Lower Manhattan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

At a meeting Monday of the little-known Public Authorities Control Board, New York State Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver, the Democrat and Orthodox Jew who represents Lower Manhattan, directed his board representative to vote against the stadium. So did Joseph Bruno, a Republican and leader of the state's other legislature, the State Senate. The mayor's plan required unanimous approval by the board.

Bloomberg cannot be blamed for lack of effort. The stadium has been his signature vision for the city, and he has promoted it indefatigably for months as a linchpin of New York's Olympics bid. Once it became clear that Silver's opposition to the plan represented its greatest hurdle, the mayor lost no opportunity to cultivate the assembly speaker.

Bloomberg, who is Jewish, went to a kosher Manhattan restaurant to spend time with Silver at a Chanukah party, attended the bris of two of Silver's grandsons and even paid the speaker a shiva call when his brother died, according to the New York Times.

When Bloomberg lost, it was a bitter pill to swallow. He decried the defeat of the stadium plan as the death-knell for big ideas in the Big Apple.

"I think it was a major blow to this city," Bloomberg said at a press conference in Harlem on Tuesday, according to news reports. "We've lost a little bit of our spirit to go ahead and our can-do attitude. If you adopt this kind of policy, we never would have built Carnegie Hall, we never would have built Radio City Music Hall, we never would have built the airports or the Triborough Bridge or Central Park."

But Bloomberg is mistaken. New York is still the city for big ideas-just not the wrong ones.

If the mayor spent half as much time and effort promoting the plan to build a second subway line on Manhattan's East Side as he has pushing for the stadium, that essential project-which is far more important to the daily lives of most New Yorkers and the economic well-being of the city than the sports arena-could be well under way. Many of the same people who stood to gain employment from the construction of a football stadium could be employed building the new subway.

Indeed, if Bloomberg helped the Metropolitan Transportation Authority sell the parcel of land it owns on the West Side on the open market rather than push for its sale to the Jets at a price some $800 million below market value, the MTA might have the money it needs to start the subway project. Instead, transit riders are facing yet more fare increases from the cash-strapped MTA.

Bloomberg says that without his stadium New York has little hope to secure the Olympics in 2012. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that he could have avoided this whole problem if he proposed building the Olympic stadium in Queens, Bloomberg is right-and it's just as well. One need only look at Athens' vertiginous debt following last year's Olympics, due in part to hefty security costs, to understand that hosting the Olympics in New York, where security would cost much more, could have been disastrous for the city.

Nearly ignored in all this discussion is the fact that, nearly three years after terrorists killed 3,000 Americans and destroyed the World Trade Center, there is still a gaping hole in Lower Manhattan.

Constantly changing architectural plans for the site notwithstanding, New York still has not been able to put together a real action plan for restoring this essential and symbolic part of the city. This concerns not only New York, but all people dedicated to democracy, freedom and the defeat of global terrorism.

Mr. Mayor, it's time for your next big idea.