Demolishing Javits Would Mean Disrupting a $1B Economy

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Javits Center (Jim Henderson/Wikimedia Commons)

Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed allowing a private developer to build the nation’s largest convention center at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens. In turn, the state would tear down the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side. But Javits has become the anchor of a nearly $1 billion economy fuelled by convention-goers who don’t necessarily want to convene in Queens.

Judi Rush, an exhibitor showing handwriting tools at the recent Toy Fair held at Javits, didn’t mince words about what the demolition of the convention center would mean to her.

“I think that would be a travesty,” Rush said. “I love coming to New York. It’s a highlight of my year to be able to come and be in the hustle and bustle of the city.”

Many visitors expressed disinterest or distaste for the proposed 3.8 million square foot convention hall at Aqueduct, which would include restaurants and thousands of hotel beds, but which would be far from the excitement of Manhattan.

“Sounds like it would have everything except character,” said Andrew Lawson, a game inventor from Melbourne, Australia.

Economic Impact: Pro and Con

In his January State of the State Speech, Governor Cuomo lamented that Javits is only the 12th largest convention center in the nation (encompassing 760,000 square feet). A bigger hall could attract larger conventions, Cuomo reasoned. Javits mainly hosts smaller trade and consumer shows, which bring in less money to the center.

But Javits has a few things going for it, from an economic standpoint:

  • A 2009 Pricewaterhouse Coopers study found Javits brought in $949 million billion in direct spending on hotels, restaurants, transit and entertainment, supporting 12,000 jobs.
  • An internal PowerPoint presentation made to the members of the board that runs the Javits Center, and obtained by WNYC, found the Javits Center had a 68 percent occupancy rate in 2009, the second-highest in the nation.
  • On January 1, 2012, New York State made the final payment on the bonds used to construct the Javits Center, so it no longer is a burden to taxpayers.
  • In 2009, Javits began a $390 million renovation and expansion financed by a $1.50 per room surcharge on hotel stays in New York City.

A Convention Hall Without Many Friends

Nevertheless, Governor Cuomo’s call to get rid of Javits was met largely with silence from elected officials and even the midtown business community. This reflects widespread sentiment that Javits has been a bit of a disappointment.

“It's been a financial failure,” said Richard Ravitch, a former lieutenant governor who was instrumental in planning for Javits.

Most years, Javits makes just enough money to cover the cost of operations, but has never been able to repay the bonds issued to build it, forcing taxpayers to foot the bill, which has now been paid in full.

In retrospect, Ravitch regrets his recommendation in 1977 to then-Mayor Abe Beame that the new convention center be located in the West 30s.

(Photo: Former Lt. Gov Ravitch. Ilya Marritz/WNYC)

“I think it’s a wonderfully designed space, I think it wasn’t the right place to put the convention center,” Ravitch said.

Once a desolate neighborhood, the area is now humming with activity as workers extend the number 7 train line and build a new neighborhood above the Hudson Yards. The Regional Plan Association, a think tank, believes developers would pay close to $4 billion for the 18 acres Javits now sits on. 

Ravitch believes the land is now too valuable to host a convention hall that merely breaks even. And, as the area becomes more dense, there will be complaints about the truck traffic caused by visiting shows.

If Javits Leaves…

“Our New York City Marriott Hotels don’t want Javits to go away,” said Kathleen Duffy, Market Director of Public Relations for New York City Marriott Hotels. With hotel guests already paying for the rehab and renovation of Javits through a surcharge on their bills, Duffy said it would make little sense to tear down the building.

Duffy estimates 18-20 percent of group bookings at the Marriott Marquis at Times Square are made up of Javits Center visitors.

It seems unlikely the convention center proposed for Queens would send the same volume of guests to the midtown hotels as Javits. Aqueduct is over an hour from Times Square by public transit, and the developer, Genting, wants to build most of the guest amenities on site.

That may make practical sense, and it may even be a good business proposition. But convention attendees staying at Aqueduct would miss the kind of chance encounters that have kept Judi Rush coming to New York for 30 years.

Rush recalled sitting down with her husband in restaurant they hadn’t tried before. When the waitress brought the menu, the Rushes realized the specialties of the house were caviar and champagne.

“And she said it wasn’t unusual for someone to come in and spend $5,000 for a meal.” Surprised but undaunted, the couple ordered food and drink to fit their budget. “So we had a really interesting evening. That’s what we like about the city. The unexpected, the adventure.”

Ilya Marritz/WNYC
Judi Rush exhibits at the Javits Center and likes visiting Manhattan.
Ilya Marritz/WNYC
Convention goers sitting by the windows of the center.
Ilya Marritz/WNYC
A view of midtown Manhattan from Javits.
Courtesy of Arquitectonica
A rendering of the proposed convention center in Queens.
Courtesy of Arquitectonica
Rendering of the inside of the proposed convention center in Queens.


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Comments [12]

Daniel from Hell's Kitchen

Ilya, the idea that Javits is failure because its income didn't cover its construction bonds is bogus. Direct income was never intended to cover those bonds; they were justified by tax revenues on visitor expenditures. While the 34th Street location made sense in 1977, the site has recently become more valuable for other uses.

Meanwhile the City and State tried but failed to expand Javits to attract more valuable meetings and conventions, as well as larger trade shows. It's clear that expansion in Manhattan is too expensive, while a new and larger facility in Queens may be feasible. But visitors may not want to go to be stuck in Queens.

One solution is to build the long-sought rail link to JFK, stopping at Aqueduct, which was the originally proposed occupant for Moynihan Station. Then users of the Aqueduct convention center could get back and forth to Manhattan in twenty minutes. If that happens the entire city will benefit

Feb. 23 2012 02:28 PM
Harriet from Upstate NY

The taxpayers will get nothing but financial zips from such a project. The only people making money on this deal will be Cuomo and the contractor. I'd love to see the hands of NYC visitors who delight in the prospect off spending their time in outer Queens. The more I see of this guy, the less I like him. This is his 2nd worst idea next to fracking New York citizens; or maybe this is just another version of it.

Feb. 23 2012 12:36 PM
Bill from UWS

I work in the trade show business, and I can see benefits this proposal. The trade show business is dying, being replaced by smaller meetings, webcasting, virtual and hybrid events that can easily be accommodated by hotels and other facilities around the city. It's smart for Cuomo to get NY out of the trade show business. If Javits goes away, someone in the private sector will step up with 500k net square feet in a manhattan facility somewhere. Many Javits shows can already be accommodated at the Hilton or Marriott.

At the same time, there will always be large trade shows like "World of Concrete" currently held in LV. These are the events that might move to NY. The question we should ask is not whether showgoers would rather be in midtown or Queens, but if they'd rather be near Orlando or Manhattan.

The best comparison for this facility is Paris Villepinte, which is located near the airport. The host a lot of big shows. Nobody really likes the location, but it's a 30 minute ride to central Paris and most are willing to make the commute.

Feb. 23 2012 12:22 PM
Mkatz from BK

Thank you for covering this story. Personally, I've never liked the looks of Javits, but if the place is paid for and people use it and like it well enough, leave it alone. The sudden push to replace it in this economy doesn't make sense. And no offense to Queens, but I think a Queens location would be less desirable for exhibitors and attendees. What would be built in the giant hole left behind? More luxury condos/Trump Towers?

Feb. 23 2012 12:21 PM
Sonne Hernandez from Chinatown

I cannot believe that at this time in our economy that an idea like this would even be up discussion. It is absolutely infuriating that every politician that comes into office cannot seem to stop spending on projects that are unnecessary while cutting on projects we actually need......leaving the taxpayer, and more importantly the middle class as usual to bear the burden socially and financially.

Feb. 23 2012 11:06 AM
emjayay from Brooklyn

OK, Javits is claimed to be too small and is kind of out of the way. The 7 subway connection will make it faster and easier to get to and maybe will increase the bookings.

But why would any company want to go to a no doubt expensive Aqueduct location? They probably pick NYC for NYC (Manhattan). No conventioneer wants to take a very long subway ride to the convention, or a long trip on some bus. The only thing that makes sense is to stay at an Aqueduct hotel. Which doesn't make any sense because it's not in Manhattan. It could be anywhere, except the hotel and convention space will cost twice as much as Des Moines or somewhere. So why convene in NYC then?

Feb. 23 2012 10:57 AM
Heather from Brooklyn

I go to Jacob Javits every year. I don't want to go to Queens for my yearly events. Javits is tradition. Even being a local I don't want to treak to Queens. And what about all thiose businesses over there? Tearing it down all so this developer can make money? Why is this guy so special?

Feb. 23 2012 10:56 AM
electra from Manhattan

The Aqueduct proposal would do nothing for exhibitors or for visitors or for economic development, which is the only real value of convention centers. It will do a lot for the mega-developer and its partner, an overseas gambling mogul poised to capture the attendees as casino customers with no place else to go. All the red, blue, and green in those nice circular charts will go to the insider few - overpriced retail and restaurent chains rich enough to pay tribute to the developer and the casino operator. Let the show management industry be heard - it will be delighted to have the state and bondholders put up money for a bigger facility - but then ask how many shows they would book there. Trade shows are booked 8-10 years in advance; at 68% occupancy in 2009 (what about more recent years?) and the industry declining, this project will not begin to support itself much less pay off the debt. Be sure that it will have its hands in our pockets before it is half finished - and all this to feed an offshore gambling empire. As your interviewees suggest, attendees do not come to NY to be trapped in outer Queens. As to size, a footnote: the Javits Center was designed and financed to be considerably larger but one bay was eliminated during construction to save money. Who decided that? Gov. Cuomo pere.

Feb. 23 2012 10:52 AM
terry mck from dover nj

this story baffles me. when first announced, i was sure the press would condemn Cuomo for obvious corruption... which it is. this was purely an insider deal that makes his developer backer happy. as someone who travels to mid-town, sorry Queens ain't midtown!

Feb. 23 2012 10:34 AM
Kressel from now of Rockland County

Oh, I hope they keep it where it is. I was in high school when it first opened, and I sang with the All City High School Chorus at the dedication. Afterward, I just hung around, checking out the building, overwhelmed by its size. I met the current governor's father that day. And then, a few years later, I went back to the Javits center for a publishing convention, handed out resumes and got myself a summer internship. I sure hope they don't tear it down, especially since they made the final payment recently. I grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and I agree - why make a convention center THERE?

Feb. 23 2012 10:22 AM
Michael Finegan from Clifton, New Jersey

This is insane; like we have all this money to throw to wind. I am surprised that the Governor would even consider this wacky idea.

Feb. 23 2012 10:18 AM
Wally Balloo from Westchester

I have been to many events at Javits and never liked the place. Some say modern, I say sterile. And nothing was included along the building's street facades, furthering the dehumanization of the area around it. Just a cold, ugly building to me. Funny, I just remembered driving by when it was under construction - wasn't there a problem with the design, and there were support columns sticking out of the ground for months?

Feb. 23 2012 08:43 AM

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