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West Side Stadium Plan to be Unveiled

The NYT reports that the New York Jets, Governor Pataki, and Mayor Bloomberg will unveil plans tomorrow to build a new stadium for the Jets on the far West Side of Manhattan. The stadium would be sited between 11th & 12th Avenues, and between 30th and 34th Streets, over the MTA rail yards.

There has been no professional football in Manhattan since the New York Titans lost to Buffalo on December 14, 1963, at the Polo Grounds. The Titans (later renamed the Jets) moved to Shea Stadium the following season, and to the Meadowlands home they now share with the Giants in 1984. The Jets' lease expires in 2008, and construction would need to get underway promptly if they're to have any hope of moving by then.

The stadium is also critical to the city's long-shot bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The IOC is to choose a host city by next summer, and New York wants to demonstrate that promised infrastructure is already well underway. Recent troubles in Athens, which is struggling to complete construction for the 2004 Summer Games, will probably make the IOC skittish about vaporware subway lines and stadiums that exist only on paper.

Yet, the Bloomberg Administration needs to be careful not to couch these projects as solely an Olympics play, because a majority of New Yorkers don't seem to want the games. The City thinks its West Side projects will more than pay for themselves in increased property tax revenues, even if, as most observers expect, the 2012 Olympics go elsewhere. (The IOC has already awarded the 2010 Winter Games to Vancouver, and generally the IOC voters don't award consecutive Games to the same continent.)

The far West Side (8th to 11th avenues, 27th to 42nd Streets) is the last great urban renewal opportunity in midtown. The Jacob Javits Center was supposed to herald the area's rebirth when it was built in the 1980s, but it never happened. That's partly because the Javits is too small to host many larger conventions (it is only the 18th largest convention center in the U.S.), and partly because the West Side is not easily reachable by mass transit. Today, the Javits stands alone, surrounded by tenement housing, derelict space, and the MTA rail yards.

The gorgeous watercolor rendering on the NYT site shows a West Side reborn. A new 75,00-seat stadium with a retractable roof would be built over a deck covering the MTA rail yards. The Javits would be extended two blocks north, to 40th Street. New hotels, office towers, restaurants, and park space would transform what is now Manhattan's least desirable neighborhood south of Central park.

The Javits extension is a no-brainer; virtually no one opposes it. There are dozens of conventions every year that New York can't even bid for, because the Javits is outgunned by larger convention centers in other cities. For New York to lack a competitive convention center is simply unacceptable.

The Jets stadium, however, is more controversial. America has been on a stadium-building orgy for the last twenty-five years, much of it with public money. Many studies question whether the investment is worth it, particularly for pro football stadiums, which are used for only ten dates a year. Anticipating criticism, the City describes it as a multi-use facility, which could host rock concerts, conventions, and big-ticket sporting events like the Super Bowl and the Final Four. (Of course, the City already has Madison Square Garden, which can host many of these events now, although obviously not a Super Bowl.)

The other problem is traffic. The City believes that most Jets patrons would reach the stadium by mass transit, but not everyone is convinced. Given that most people use their cars to reach the Meadowlands today, the skepticism is amply justified. Expect the environmental impact statement to receive plenty of scrutiny.

To give the Jets credit, they are offering to put in $800 million of their own money. In this respect, the Jets stand apart from the mine run of sports team owners that have threatened to take their teams elsewhere unless lavish stadiums were built for them. Still, the project (including the Javits extension) will require about $2.0 billion in public money, which the state and the city will need to raise from various sources, not all of which have been identified.

As I've mentioned previously, the city intends to fund the project, in part, through a device known as tax increment financing. The basic idea is that the city borrows the money and pays it back through increased property tax revenues later on. Although the technique has worked in other communities, it has never been attempted on anything remotely approaching the scale required here.

I remain intrigued by the West Side development project, but agnostic on whether the numbers add up. I am also concerned about whether office towers on the Far West Side would impair Lower Manhattan's rebirth as a competitive as a business district. Stay tuned.

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