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Opinion Thursday, February 24, 2005
Thrown for a loss in the arena of logic

Neil deMause is co-author of the book "Field of Schemes" and runs a stadium news Web site by the same name. He lives in Brooklyn.

February 24, 2005

A few weeks ago, as the war over the proposed New York Jets stadium intensified, Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought back at his critics on his weekly radio address. Noting that the city is also mulling new homes for the Nets, Yankees and Mets, he charged: "If you didn't do the stadium with the clear economic benefits, how are you doing these other projects? It's going to be a big problem."

But is it? So far the West Side dustup has hogged the headlines, with the battle of billionaires (Cablevision vs. the tag team of Woody Johnson and Bloomberg) even taking a central role in the mayoral race. But as New York City prepares to launch into another round of stadium-building, it's worth looking at the lessons to be learned from the ongoing Jets squabble.

First up is the Nets project, which at first glance looks nothing like the battered Jets proposal. Instead of a megalithic NFL stadium, Nets owner Bruce Ratner has proposed a multi-use arena topped by a mix of residential and office towers. As proponents point out, as far as "clear economic benefits" go, a 365-day-a-year arena plus 4,500 desperately needed new apartments offer a much better bang for your buck than 10 football games a year and a handful of conventions.

The closer one looks, though, the more parallels emerge. Like the Jets plan, the Nets arena would sit atop an MTA rail yard - and like his football counterparts, Ratner wants development rights to the site without having to endure an open bidding process.

For an agency facing repeated fare hikes just to keep the trains running, this is worrisome, and Assemb. Richard Brodsky (D-Hartsdale), who has demanded that the MTA get a fair price for the West Side yards, has expressed similar concerns about the Nets deal.

Likewise, the Jets plan has come under fire for the extraordinary end run that it would take around democratic decision-making. To come up with the city's share of the $600 million in public money the Jets have demanded, Bloomberg has proposed siphoning off payments made by developers before they reach the city treasury - effectively setting up a slush fund that he could spend on pet projects without seeking city council approval.

If he's successful, that's money Bloomberg would almost certainly dip into for the Nets plan - especially because, a year after first proposing it, he still hasn't revealed how it would be paid for. (For that matter, it remains a mystery how much public money would be needed, though reports have put the price tag somewhere between $350 million and $600 million.)

And the similarities continue. As with the Jets plan, Gov. George Pataki plans to grant the Nets the power to bypass ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Procedure), the city process that allows for public hearings and community input on city land-use decisions.

And in both cases, the mayor's obsession with sports complexes means alternative uses for the sites - mixed-use developments put forth by the Regional Plan Association in Manhattan and by the UNITY coalition in Brooklyn - haven't even been allowed into the public debate.

The Nets project, meanwhile, is just one of several city-funded sports projects stacked up like planes over LaGuardia, waiting for the final Jets shoe to drop.

Next on deck are George Steinbrenner's Yankees, who are expected soon to announce a plan for a new stadium in the Bronx, which will come with its own $300 million in public mystery money. Beyond that, only the dimmest outlines of a new Mets stadium are visible, but the one sure thing is that they'll want the same number of zeroes on their check as George gets.

All raise the same questions:

Should the city be subsidizing sports teams at a time of billion-dollar budget gaps?

What's the best use for scarce city land?

And, perhaps most important, should the mayor and governor be able to single-handedly approve these projects, regardless of what the public and their elected officials think?

Let's hope that it won't take a Cablevision throwing its money around to get a similar hard look at the next billion dollars' worth of stadium projects to come down the pike.

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