Touchdown on 34th Street

For a long time, the far West Side of Manhattan was ignored by city planning. It developed into a neighborhood of low-rise houses, businesses, and factories. But in the past few years, the city has turned its attention back to that part of town, seeing it as the best way to expand midtown. While the entire proposal has stirred controversy, one aspect of it, a planned stadium for either the Olympics or the Jets, has been particularly divisive.

“City and state leaders have had their eye on the West Side for some sort of a stadium for a long time. I do not know their rationale,” said Jonathan Bowles, research director at the Center for an Urban Future.

New York’s decision to build a stadium simply does not fit with three reasons cities usually give for building stadiums. First, cities think that having a major sports team boosts their status. When games are held, the city gets free television publicity through panoramic shots of downtown. A team is a symbol that the city is important, and when a city loses a team it is as if it has lost prestige. Many cities like Milwaukee have built stadiums because they are afraid that losing a team will make them less attractive to tourists and businesses. This logic may work for a city like Milwaukee, but it does not work for New York, the country’s already-important center of culture and finance.

Second, a sports team can bridge social and economic divides as a city’s residents come together to cheer for it. People can follow the team in the local media and discuss it at work and on the subway. But in the case of New York, residents should take the same pleasure in watching the Jets whether they play in northern New Jersey or western Manhattan.

Third, cities often hope to reap the economic benefits of a stadium by luring visitors. Those who come in to watch games will also stay and spend money, multiplying the effects of the stadium. But optimistic city officials and sports teams often overestimate the number of tourists that a stadium will attract, as well as their multiplier effect. In New York’s case, arguing for economic benefits makes even less sense. Even without a stadium, tourists will come to New York City, and while tourists do not usually explore the downtrodden far West Side, the city already has a large plan to revitalize the area.

Yet the city of New York actually does not make any of the usual arguments for building the stadium. “This plan is a key component of the city’s Olympic bid,” explained Robyn Stein, spokeswoman for the Department of City Planning. Even without the Olympics, however, New York still plans to build the stadium. In this case, it would be part of a “convention corridor.” The Javits Center, New York’s convention center, has only 900,000 square feet of office space, making it the 17th largest convention center in the country. Without more space, “we are unable to compete effectively for large exhibitions, trade shows, and conventions,” explained Stein. The city already plans to expand the Javits Center northward by a block, but the stadium would be a connected multi-use facility for even bigger events.

Many are not buying New York’s argument. While Bowles believes that some parts of the project, such as infrastructure improvements, make sense, he says the stadium does not. “It is not a good investment of city resources, particularly when the city and state are in financial trouble.” Members of the community have already joined together to fight both the stadium and the larger project. John Fisher, head of the Clinton Special District Coalition, a group dedicated to stopping the redevelopment of the West Side, told me that “[the stadium] will not be built because we will stop it.”

Fisher explained that since so many smaller cities have convention centers, counting on tourists coming for conventions is no longer a viable option. “They are pulling on a convention market that is a shrinking market,” he said. He is also concerned that taxpayer money will be used for an unnecessary project. Traffic is another issue. “Traffic in the neighborhood is on gridlock already,” he explained. A new stadium will only exacerbate the problem. Fisher hopes that as his coalition expands to other parts of the city, people will be able to pressure the City Council to vote against the new stadium. Moreover, his group will file lawsuits in order to try and stop the project.

Bowles pointed out that the city has not yet done a formal study of the particular benefits of this stadium to the West Side. It is not yet clear, then, what the impact of a new stadium would be. No matter the result, the community should have a voice in the plans for their neighborhood. The local community is often on the defensive on these types of planning projects, forced to engage in bitter fights. In this case, the city has set up public meetings, but ideally, the community could be involved in every step of the process.