The Other Sports and Convention Center

By Maurice Pinzon
Yesterday’s dismissal by a New York State judge of a lawsuit that questioned the legality of the MTA’s bidding process when it sold development rights over the West Side rail yards to the New York Jets is only a partial victory for New York’s Olympic organizers. The West Side stadium still faces 3 environmental lawsuits and a major hurdle in Albany as the Public Authorities Control Board, which must approve the financing of the project, postponed today’s scheduled meeting until at least Monday.

But regardless of what happens in New York, on July 6 in Singapore it will be the International Olympic Committee that will make the final decision as to whether Paris, London, New York, Madrid or Moscow will host the 2012 Olympic games.

New York’s Olympic organizers and the Bloomberg administration have argued that the West Side stadium must be approved before then or New York will not be chosen to host the games.

But that was not always the case.

Queens Congressman Anthony Weiner, who is running for mayor, was one of the first and most prominent public officials to support an alternative site for the Olympic stadium in Willets Point, Queens. Congressman Weiner claims the proposal would have strengthened New York’s bid.

The idea is not so far-fetched because even NYC 2012, New York’s Olympic organizing committee, considered Willets Point as a possible site for the stadium.

Laz Benitez, a spokesman for NYC 2012, said that the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) requested that an alternative site be provided but Mr. Benitez indicated that the approval process by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is different in that regard. In fact Mr. Benitez explained, if New York Olympic organizers equivocate now on the location of the stadium, New York’s chances of being selected to host the games would be greatly diminished.

But back in January 2002, just a few weeks after Michael R. Bloomberg was sworn in as mayor, Christopher Glaisek wrote an NYC 2012 memo with the heading “Willets Point stadium alternatives,” and Mr. Glaisek indicated in the document that it was written at the request of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), which asked for a back-up location for the stadium.

According to the memo, “A multi-purpose stadium would differ considerably from the Mets current proposal” for a new stadium to replace Shea Stadium. Mr. Glaisek explained, “In response to the USOC request for a back-up site for the Olympic Stadium, the Facilities Team has begun a comprehensive planning investigation of Shea Stadium and vicinity.”

Mr. Glaisek considered various possibilities for the Willets Point area, including building an Olympic stadium next to a new Shea Stadium that could later be used by the MetroStars, a soccer team that has competed in Giants Stadium since 1996.

In the memo Mr. Glaisek suggested a “Downtown Flushing link,” explaining, “This alternative would link a new open-air soccer stadium built next to Shea Stadium to the ethnic population in downtown Flushing. Enhanced connections – particularly for pedestrians – would be created between downtown and the park through new residential and commercial developments.”

Mr. Glaisek stated that a less desirable but more likely scenario would be to “retrofit” Shea Stadium, although Mr. Glaisek did not provide any estimates for the cost of retrofitting a new Shea Stadium into an Olympic stadium.

Besides Congressman Weiner others have suggested building the Olympic stadium in Queens, but Mayor Bloomberg has always insisted that it was not a feasible alternative because the Jets did not want to move to Queens and there were many infrastructure and environmental costs that proponents did not consider. After newspaper reports in October 2003 pointed out that this option had been discussed, Mayor Bloomberg said, “There isn’t an alternative proposal for a stadium. There was a report in the paper and they got it wrong.”

“Somebody confused some comments, I gather, at a community board meeting. There are lots of things we’re going to try to do in Flushing [Meadows-Corona] Park. But an Olympic stadium wouldn’t go there, wouldn’t work there,” Mayor Bloomberg said.

But the Bloomberg administration has never been able to completely dispel the idea of an Olympic stadium in Willets Point. Part of the reason may be that the administration’s own development scenario for downtown Flushing has associated the development of the downtown area to Willets Point, just as Mr. Glaisek did when he prepared the memo for NYC 2012 in early 2002.

In spring 2002 Deputy Mayor for Economic Development and Rebuilding Daniel L. Doctoroff spoke with Council member John C. Liu, who represents Flushing, and agreed to consider development options for downtown Flushing.

In fall 2002, the City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for an urban planning consultant to assist in developing a master plan for downtown Flushing. The RFP set the boundaries of the development area as “32nd Avenue, Parsons Boulevard, Sanford Avenue and the Flushing River.” The EDC document went on to state, “the Focus Area for this RFP includes the Willets Point peninsula.”

The RFP described the area as a “primarily privately owned industrial area located to the west of Downtown Flushing and the Flushing River. The peninsula is surrounded by major arterials, thriving neighborhoods, Flushing-Meadows Corona Park, Shea Stadium, and the Flushing Bay.”

At a Memorial Day event last Sunday, Mayor Bloomberg explained why sports projects such as the Nets Arena in Brooklyn and the Jets Stadium had received support from his administration, while Mets fans had to wait for a new stadium.

Mayor Bloomberg said, “When I came into office there were plans for the City to build two new baseball stadiums. And I just thought we did not have the money for that.” He explained, “You can justify a new Shea Stadium, a new Yankee Stadium, if all we have to do is put the infrastructure money in. But the private money to build these stadiums is going to have to come from the owners or from the leagues.” Mayor Bloomberg added, “We’re working with both the [baseball] teams’ owners.”

But while the Mets and the City discuss a new stadium, the Independent Budget Office calculates that the City has already spent about $35.1 million at Shea since 2001. And if capital expenditures for fiscal years 2006 through 2008 are factored, total expenditures for Shea since 2001 add up to $50.1 million.

According to Matthew Monahan, a spokesman for New York City’s Department of Design and Construction, most of the $50.1 million has been or will be spent on routine upgrades to Shea Stadium, which is a 41-year-old open-air facility.

Queens Borough President Helen M. Marshall supports the Bloomberg administration’s plans for the Jets Stadium/Sports and Convention Center on the West Side of Manhattan. But according to her spokesman, Daniel Andrews, the borough president also favors a convention center in Willets Point, although he was quick to emphasize that the facility would not be intended to replace the proposed West Side Sports and Convention Center.

The idea for the convention center and hotel in Queens originated from the Queens Chamber of Commerce, which commissioned a feasibility study prepared by the HVS Sports & Entertainment Facilities Consulting last July. A study by the Queens Borough President’s office in May 1993 recommended a “Multi-use Business Center or an International Trade Pavilion.”

Coincidentally, HVS Sports & Entertainment Facilities Consulting was the same firm that issued a critical study of the Jets stadium. The HVS report written on behalf of Madison Square Garden indicated that the Jets had overestimated the economic benefits of a West Side stadium to the City.

In the study for the Queens Chamber, HVS cited the advantages of choosing Willets Point over other Queens locations, such as the large size of its undeveloped parcel of land and the area’s proximity to mass transit, expressways, and La Guardia Airport.

According to the report, “A redeveloped Willets Point would enable the site to capitalize upon significant physical assets associated with its location and provide a link between Downtown Flushing and Shea Stadium, which may also be redeveloped.”

The HVS report added: “The site[‘]s close proximity to Shea Stadium and the US Tennis Center provides opportunity for fanfest events in the exhibition center.”

On November 1, 2004 New York City’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) issued Requests for Expressions of Interest (RFEI) for Willets Point. The agency’s documents to potential bidders stated the following: “The City seeks redevelopment proposals for the District to help inform a comprehensive land use, infrastructure, and development for Willets Point” and that “proposals should leverage the locational advantage of the District with the greater metropolitan region, as well as facilitate local connections between Downtown Flushing, Corona, Shea Stadium, and Flushing Meadows Corona Park.”

When EDC issued its RFEI for Willets Point, the Queens Chamber of Commerce was ready with a proposal for Willets Point. Bill Egan, the executive vice president of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, would not comment on the specifics of the Queens Chamber’s submission to EDC, but Mr. Egan conceded that the submission was largely based on the study issued by the Chamber of Commerce for Willets Point.

According to Janelle Patterson, an EDC spokeswoman, the agency received 13 proposals and will select one proposal sometime next year. When asked if the RFEI was in any way tied to a new stadium for the Mets, Ms. Paterson said that could be addressed within the parameters of the submitted proposals.

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