Stadium At Center of NYC Olympic Bid

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A proposed stadium is the centerpiece of New York's Olympic bid - and of Mayor Bloomberg's bid to overhaul the far west side of Manhattan. Faced with a possible wave of change, area opponents hope to repeat earlier successes at defeating large-scale development. WNYC's Fred Mogul has more.

From above, the MTA rail yard near the Javits Convention Center is a silvery pond of commuter trains, in a gritty, low-slung industrial neighborhood. The 10-acre super-block and surrounding environs are an urban Rorschach test. Local workers see this whole area as an indispensable part of the city's industrial past, present and future. Residents simply see it as their home. And developers and city officials see it as a new central business district -- a glitzy skyscraper zone that expands midtown west, opens access to the river, and lets the info-tourist economy flow out of the convention center, heading north and south.

Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff is spearheading the city and state's efforts to transform the area. He has been giving speeches like this one for most of the last two years.

DD: We have to develop an aggressive plan to transform this area, from Manhattan's last frontier, which it is today, to a place that can be one of New York's great places....This is an investment that we can't afford not to make.

Doctoroff, and the city planning department, and an independent agency called the Empire State Development Corporation want to cap the rail yards and build what they call a sports and convention center and what everyone else calls a stadium. It would also serve as an annex for the convention center, which they say needs to expand to compete with other cities. Officials have held dozens of meetings in the affected neighborhoods - Clinton, Hells Kitchen and Chelsea. They say they have made numerous, substantial changes to the plan to accommodate local neighbors. But still, few people who live or work in the area seem to support it.

Various residents: It's gonna really change the character of this neighborhood, and not for the better...I think it would congest the area too much. It would be nice to redevelop and have some parks and beautiful housing, but I just don't think a stadium isn't what we need...Yes, it should be in the city, yes we should have the Olympics in 2012, but the stadium should not be in Hells Kitchen..A lot of sports. Too many sports. The whole society is too sports oriented.

The city says the stadium - which would be built with 800 million dollars from the New York Jets and 600 million dollars worth of municipal bonds -- would only displace a handful of people. Residents and critics say the problem is only partly the stadium, its massive size and the traffic it would attract. They are concerned with Doctoroff's grand vision for a new Midtown West, created through re-zoning and billions of dollars of risky bond sales. There is an alternative proposal, developed by a neighborhood group called the Hells Kitchen-Hudson Yards Alliance. Assemblyman Richard Gottfried presented it at a recent conference.

RG: There would be residential and/or commercial towers which would accommodate a large part of the desired bulk of the area and to the north and the south there would be an opportunity for additional development.

The alternative plan has the backing of many local city and state legislators. Instead of a stadium, this plan would expand the convention center south and underground, placing on its roof a 10-acre park about the size of Washington Square. It would develop some high-rises, but they would be fewer and shorter than those in the city plans, and they would be more housing than offices. But that's too much development for the West Side Coalition, a different group of stadium opponents. Sitting in the Cheyenne Diner on 9th Avenue, Coalition leader John Fisher says the alternative plan authors are like astro-turf - they're fake grass roots.

JF: It's a question of when do you compromise, and do you have a position of strength. When you give away the neighborhood at the get-go, you have nothing more to compromise with, and that's the difference between us and the fake opposition or astro-turf group, is that they've already given away the neighborhood.

Fisher says the West Side Coalition is comprised of dozens smaller groups and block associations. He doesn't have an alternative plan,' and is not allied with any local elected officials. There is some precedent for pure renegade resilience carrying the day in this part of town. Fisher hopes to follow the lead of Marcy Benstock, who crusaded against the Westway project for much of the 1970s and 80s.

MB: We were all told at the beginning, You can't stop this - the people who want Westway are too powerful.' Nevertheless, we fought, and it took 11 years, but in the end, we won.

Westway was to have been New York's version of Boston's Big Dig - the expensive tunneling of much of the West Side Highway. Benstock and others who launched the bitter fight said the project was fueled by real estate developers who wanted Battery-Park-City-style development all the way up the West Side. Supporters of Westway said it was the chance of a lifetime to create a substantial rivers edge park, rather than the narrow ribbon now snakes along the Hudson. Donald Elliott helped conceive a prototype of Westway in 1969, as chief planning commissioner under Mayor Lindsay.

DE: You have to weigh the immediate impact on a local community with the impact on the city as a whole. My experience has been that local citizens are very often willing to undergo a lot of pain if they think the long-term result is going to be a good one.

Maybe with other projects, but not with this one. Benstock prevailed because Congress decided federal transportation funds would be better spent improving the city's mass transit system, and because a judge ruled Westway would damage the environment and violate the Clean Water Act. Benstock says one lesson for her would-be successors is to cultivate allies, and sometimes unlikely ones - in her case, competing real estate developers, fiscally conservative Republicans, and New Jersey legislators eager to preserve their share of the federal pie.

MB: We won because the world is a complicated place, where good things come out of the blue to help you, but also because so many of us worked together to do what we thought was right.

The city has learned a lot from Westway, too. Deputy Mayor Doctoroff says the city's soon-to-be-released Environmental Impact Study of the stadium will be the most thorough EIS of all time. John Raskin from the Hells Kitchen Neighborhood Alliance -- the group that opposes the stadium but supports some development envisions different interest groups using the 6-thousand-page EIS to stage a multi-pronged attack.

JR: It's going to be a hugely complicated statement once it comes out, which means that different groups around the city will say, Huh, I think that part runs counter to our interest ...I don't think the Environmental Impact Statement adequately plans for pollution. I don't think it plans for transportation problems. There are a ton of elements in there that different groups will be interested in litigating about.

Doctoroff says if the International Olympic Committee chooses New York for the 2012 game next July, the pressure to build quickly will fast-track the stadium and other projects. Opponents also want the IOC to play a decisive role. They hope if they raise their voices loudly enough, they will scare the IOC away and postpone a stadium and other development indefinitely. But stay tuned. The games have just begun.