Unscientific survey results trump actual testimony in Bronx soccer stadium reporting

Friday is catchup day! (Not catsup day. That’s a whole ‘nother thing.) First in our order of business is this article earlier this week from Capital New York’s usually excellent Dana Rubinstein, who reported that according to “a survey of 168 participants at a recent town hall meeting” about the proposed NYC F.C. stadium in the Bronx, “three out of four survey participants agreed that the stadium is ‘a good idea for River Avenue,’ according to the BID’s executive summary of the meeting.” The headline was even more definitive: “Survey: Bronx stakeholders like soccer stadium.”

This, you may recall, is the meeting organized by the 161st Street Business Improvement District that I attended, and estimated that testimony was roughly split down the middle on whether the stadium was a good idea. A local radio reporter, meanwhile, said it was tipped toward being in favor, but only slightly. So what’s with this survey showing three-quarters support? I have the press release sent out by the BID that was the basis of the Capital NY article (PDF here), and all it says is: “Three out of four participants believe that the stadium, ‘is a good idea for River Avenue.’ (Question #4 in the survey).”

I don’t remember getting an actual survey at the event, so one possibility is that most of them were grabbed by early arrivers, who were predominantly construction workers who got there two hours early to grab seats. And in any case, the headline is misleading as many people at the meeting were not “Bronx stakeholders,” but rather other interested parties (including Manhattan-based youth sports teams that have gotten donations from the Yankees, NYC F.C.’s part-owners).

All of which is well and good — the article does spell out that these are unscientific survey results from a single town meeting. But then why on earth write an article that’s 100% based on a single press release from an interested party (the BID’s Cary Goodman has been vocal about supporting a stadium, with the right conditions) without any independent research, or even checking news reports on who spoke at the meeting? (Neither Rubinstein nor anyone else from Capital New York was in attendance.) I know the hamster wheel is a harsh mistress, but does that really mean that every pronouncement on fancy enough letterhead deserves an article? Nobody’s asking you, Chuck Todd.

Bronx residents at NYCFC stadium meeting: We like soccer, but what’s in this for us?

I arrived at last night’s scheduled town hall meeting on the proposed Bronx NYC F.C. soccer stadium 15 minutes before the appointed 7:30 pm start time, and was greeted by a man informing a crowd of residents, elected officials’ representatives, and press that the doors were closed. “We’re at capacity,” he explained. “A hundred construction workers got on line at 5:30.”

Eventually, enough room was found in the basement community room/cafeteria to squeeze in about 300 people, for what turned out to be an open-mic session presided over by 161st Street Business Improvement District director Cary Goodman. Speakers were roughly split down the middle between pro and con — WINS reporter Holli Haerr said opinion was slightly in favor, while I thought it was slightly opposed, especially if you discounted people from outside the Bronx who’d been invited by NYC F.C. and theYankees — with passions running high, though the only time they actually boiled over was when one local delivered a confused rant about how “capitalism is bullshit” and ended up dragged off by off-duty police officers.

Some highlights of the testimony:

  • Several elected officials or their representatives showed up (including one person from council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office, but no one from the mayor’s office unless I missed it), but most chose only to listen. One exception was Javier Lopez, district director for U.S. Rep. José Serrano, who declared: “The Congressman will not support a stadium deal that includes any public subsidies whatsoever. That includes tax loopholes, that includes PILOTs, that includes anything where the city of New York loses tax dollars to build a stadium. In addition, the Congressman will not support a stadium proposal that is not going to be fully transparent from beginning to end, and not have a community participatory process.”
  • Representatives of several youth sports teams and other groups that get funding from the Yankees testified what a great partner the team has been, with one talking about how they’ve helped fund local school programs even as the city has cut budgets, and how important soccer is to local kids. There was a bit of a quid-pro-quo vibe to much of this, though, especially when Chad Roberson, vice-president of the New York Urban League Young Professionals soccer league, said, “The New York Yankees organization has been an esteemed partner with the New York Urban League for many decades now. They have given over $20 million to fund our causes,” then added: “All that we ask is that everyone in this room continue to be honest as well as extremely thoughtful with regard to this particular benefit.”
  • A couple of speakers countered that a pro soccer stadium wouldn’t actually do much to benefit soccer-loving locals. In response to several speakers who argued that the stadium should be approved “for the children,” Reynaldo Punzalan, who lives down the street from the proposed soccer site, said, “What makes you think that your kids are going to be allowed to practice in the stadium?” And a board member of the Uptown Soccer Academy across the Harlem River in upper Manhattan (possibly this guy, though his name was hard to hear) declared that while he’s a “huge soccer fan,” “the stadium is a terrible idea for soccer fans and all New Yorkers. … Do you know how many soccer fields you could build instead of a 30,000-seat soccer stadium? [My kids] don’t need a soccer stadium; they need soccer fields to play on.”
  • Several speakers pointed to the recently announced Kingsbridge Armory ice center project as a better model for development. “The most important question, I think, is is this the best possible use of a piece of city-owned property?” said local resident Killian Jordan, noting that the Yankees stadium project provided a community benefits agreement with dubious benefits: “The only attraction that I can see is the appeal of community benefits, and I don’t think that will have a happy ending. Fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice…”
  • Greg Bell, a local community activist who was initially opposed to the Yankees deal but later came to support it, offered less ambitious preconditions for supporting a stadium, saying the community should “use the stadium as a wedge to say, look, you have missed some things that we deserve to have,” naming in particular the long-delayed 153rd Street bridge across a railyard to replace one demolished in the 1980s, plus a “world-class restaurant” so “a man can take his lady out to dinner.”

In all, it was certainly enough opposition for the elected officials who’ll be deciding on this project (which decidedly does not include Rep. Serrano) to say it shouldn’t go ahead as announced if they want, or enough support for cutting a deal for them to push forward in that direction if that’s what they prefer. A third option, which seemed to have a decent amount of support in the room, would be to pursue other possible uses of the land (currently occupied mostly by a 1970s-era Yankees parking garage), and see what looks like the best deal for the city and the neighborhood.

One advantage here over the rushed-through Yankees stadium project is that here there’s time to do that kind of research: The only actual plan that’s been developed is a draft document that supposedly is circulating in the city’s Economic Development Corporation, but which I’ve yet to find anyone who’s actually seen. Even NYC F.C. CEO Ferran Soriano has indicated that things aren’t close to fruition in the Bronx, saying last Friday that a deal is “not close” and if we could play in the Bronx, it will be perfect. But we have other ideas and other opportunities.” That could be partly a scare tactic to try to frighten Bronx officials into grabbing whatever deal they can; but if last night is any indication, many residents are concerned that any redevelopment of the garage site to be done right, not that it be done for pro soccer by any means necessary.

 

Crunching the Bronx soccer numbers: Total city subsidy now at $206.5m

I finally tracked down some figures for the value of the 99-year property tax break that New York City F.C. is looking to get as part of its Bronx soccer stadium deal, and the good news is that it’s not quite as spendy as I’d initially estimated. According to calculations by Ana Champeny of the New York City Independent Budget Office, the lots currently occupied by the triangle garage building and the GAL Manufacturing elevator parts company building have a market value of about $32 million, and an assessed value of about $14 million. This would make their annual property tax liability about $1.4 million currently, which, if you assume it will grow about 3% a year and apply a discount rate of 5%, comes to a present value of about $60 million for the 99 years of lost tax revenue.

(Note that most of the property in question — the garage — doesn’t actually pay property taxes, as it’s owned by the city. But there would be no reason not to charge property taxes if it were used for a private soccer stadium. Actually, there’s no reason for it not to pay property taxes now, but that’s a separate issue.)

Under the deal being proposed by the team (worked out with the administration of now-no-longer-mayor Michael Bloomberg), the project would also get $21.5 million in other tax breaks, plus 38 years of free rent — since we know how much the team would have to pay just to buy the property outright, we can probably assume the present value of fair market rent would be worth slightly less than that, say $25 million. That puts the total value of the tax and rent breaks for NYC F.C. at $106.5 million. If you add in the $100 million in garage rent IOUs that the city would be tearing up, we get a total subsidy of $206.5 million.

Even if a large chunk of that is admittedly money the city would likely never see regardless, that’s still a pretty hefty housewarming gift to be handing over to a project that’s only expected to cost $350 million to build. It’ll be interesting to see if this gets raised at Wednesday’s town hall, or if the focus remains solely on what’s in it for the Bronx.

Sports subsidy critic wins top spot on NYC council

Melissa Mark-Viverito was elected speaker of the New York city council yesterday — over the objections of the New York Post and the carriage horse industry — which means she will now have even more sway over projects like the proposed NYC F.C. soccer stadium deal that she was already going to have plenty of sway over thanks to it being in her district. As I said the other day, this doesn’t put an end to that project by any means, but it does make it more likely that NYC F.C. and the Yankees will face some tough bargaining on the other side of the table.

And speaking of what that bargaining is likely to look like, Cary Goodman of the 161st Street Business Improvement District will be hosting a town hall meeting next Wednesday, January 15, at 7:30 pm at 900 Grand Concourse (corner of 161st Street) to discuss what neighborhood residents and business owners think of the plan, and what they’d like to get out of it. I’m planning on going, so I’ll report back here afterwards on how it goes.

New council speaker could be formidable foe for Bronx soccer stadium

The proposed NYC F.C. soccer stadium adjacent to new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx already was facing “real concerns” from new mayor Bill de Blasio, demands for community benefits from local residents, and a rising subsidy price tag, but it just hit what could be an even more formidable obstacle: Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, the current frontrunner to be city council speaker, just saw her district lines redrawn to include the proposed stadium site, and is not happy with the current form of the deal, according to Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein:

[Mark-Viverito] believes the incentives reportedly negotiated as part of a possible deal between the Bloomberg administration and the New York City Football Club are too generous, according to two sources familiar with her thinking.

It’s worth noting that in addition to being co-chair of the council’s Progressive Caucus, Mark-Viverito also has a record of skepticism about stadium subsidies: During the council’s rubber-stamping of the Yankees‘ own stadium plan in 2006, she was one of the few members to ask tough questions about the deal, and was one of only two members to vote against the team’s now-collapsing garage financing plan (though she voted for the stadium itself). While it’s unlikely she’d oppose an NYC F.C. stadium on ideological grounds — especially if local community leaders end up backing it — she’s certainly likely to drive a hard bargain.

Of course, it’s still possible that Mark-Viverito’s speaker campaign will fall apart: Already this week she’s been charged with failing to report income from apartments she owns on city disclosure forms, accused of having her allies threaten councilmembers with retribution if they didn’t vote for her, and sued for having a santeria chicken head painted on a rival’s building. (Her rival Daniel Garodnick just has the real estate industry casting aspersions on his behalf.) Even if she’s not speaker, though, as local council representative for the stadium site, she’ll have huge pull in deciding what happens to the project. And suffice to say she’s not likely to be a Maria del Carmen Arroyo.

Absolving Yankees garage debt could raise NYC’s Bronx soccer arena subsidies to more than $250m

New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez reports on an until-now overlooked piece of the proposed $350 million NYC F.C. soccer stadium deal in the Bronx, which is that it would require the city to give up its future rent payments from parking garages built for the Yankees:

Under the bailout plan approved Dec. 18 by Bronx Parking’s board of directors and the holders of its debt, the reorganized company would pay no rent until 2056 for more than 20 acres of city-owned land where its other stadium garages are located.

The Yankees garages, which received $70 million in state funding, were supposed to be paying $3.2 million a year in rent to the city (initial reports had it as $2.3 million, but the city Independent Budget Office confirms that it’s actually $3.2 million), but when the garages went all but bankrupt, city officials effectively gave up on ever collecting on its debt, given that there are a whole lot of angry bondholders in line ahead of them. So the city could argue that it’s just burning some IOUs it’s never going to collect on.

For the garage company, though, it’s still getting out from under debt, even if it’s debt it was planning on skipping out on. Gonzalez notes that the city is already owed about $50 million in back rent; the IBO, meanwhile, calculates that tallied up through 2056, the forgiven rent payments would add up to about $150 million, though in present value it’d be closer to $50 million. So if we count the forgiven garage rent as $100 million total, and add in probably another $150 million or so in tax breaks and free land for the stadium, we’re now looking at the city — if new mayor Bill de Blasio goes ahead with the deal started by his predecessor Michael Bloomberg — providing more than $250 million in subsidies for a project that only costs $350 million to build. Now where have we seen this before?

NYCFC drops deadline plan for Bronx soccer stadium

New York City has a new mayor, and contrary to expectations Bill de Blasio does not have a ticking time bomb of a soccer stadium deal to rule on in the first month or two of his administration, as NYC F.C. and outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg failed to agree on a memorandum of understanding for the project before the end of the year.

In retrospect, this actually makes a fair bit of sense for team owners Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the New York Yankees: Setting a deadline wasn’t going to be much of a threat (“Approve our stadium money or else we won’t ask for it!”), and was only likely to upset the local elected officials and community members who right now seem to be collectively taking a “we wouldn’t mind a stadium, we just want one that has something in it for us” approach to the whole deal. So brinksmanship is apparently off the table for the moment, and haggling is in.

The bigger question now is if NYC F.C. does succeed in placating local interests by, say, ensuring that schoolkids can use the facility, will de Blasio sign off on the tax breaks that Bloomberg offered for the project, which could end up costing the city more than $150 million? Or does his expression of “real concerns” mean he’ll renegotiate that as well? Somewhat controversially, De Blasio did retain Bloomberg’s Economic Development Corporation chief, but he’s also perfectly capable of giving him new marching orders if he wants to. With a deadline now off the table, this may take several more months to play out, but it’s going to be extremely interesting to watch.

Still no agreement for Bronx soccer stadium as clock ticks down

Inauguration day for incoming New York City mayor Bill de Blasio is just one day away, which means today is D-day for outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $350 million Bronx soccer stadium plan for NYC F.C. The project got slammed yesterday in an op-ed in the New York Daily News by Good Jobs New York’s Bettina Damiani and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Veronica Vanterpool, which noted that not only could the plan pile more tax subsidies on top of those that were handed out to the adjacent Yankees stadium project, but could cost jobs as well, by displacing an elevator-parts company that “has more than 350 employees, and last year was awarded New York State financing to install one of the city’s largest solar panel arrays.”

Meanwhile, the timetable for a decision on the project could be getting longer: Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz told a private meeting yesterday (and his office confirmed to me today) that as of this moment, there’s still no memorandum of understanding between the city and the Yankees (who are negotiating on behalf of their partners at NYC F.C.) on a stadium plan. Since Bloomberg’s whole scheme was reportedly to dump an agreement in de Blasio’s lap with a deadline — approve it within a month or two, or the deal’s off — this raises the likelihood that the Bronx community activists who are pushing for some community benefits from the stadium will have time to get their say. Unless Bloomberg has an MOU in his desk drawer that he’s planning on revealing at the stroke of midnight, of course — something that would be not entirely unprecedented in New York mayoral history.

Bronx activists say NYC F.C. should let local kids use city-funded soccer stadium

Speaking of deciding what to demand in exchange for support for a project, local activists who’ve raised concerns about the proposed $350 million NYC F.C. Bronx soccer stadium have started to drop hints at what they’ll be looking to get out of the deal:

Killian Jordan, who actively protested [the New York Yankees' new stadium] … hopes for a better deal this time around, and is looking at the nearby Kingsbridge Armory deal for inspiration. In that deal, approved this month by the City Council, the developers of what will be the world’s largest ice rink center agreed to a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) in which they promised to hire locally, provide a 50,000-square-foot community space and fund local skating lessons.

Allowing locals inside the stadium on non-game days may prove crucial in winning community support. [161th Street Business Improvement District director Cary] Goodman suggested an indoor fitness center as something locals could rally around.

“If they are going to build this stadium, they should let our kids in,” Jordan said. “They need to open it up so the people here can set foot in it.”

The Kingsbridge Armory CBA was hammered out after years of squabbles with community leaders and Bronx elected officials, and includes provisions on living-wage jobs, community use of the space, and other concessions to benefit the Kingsbridge neighborhood. Something similar could certainly be required for a Bronx soccer stadium — though it wouldn’t address new mayor Bill de Blasio’s expressed concerns about the project, which is all the city tax and rent breaks it would receive (possibly as much as $150-200 million, according to my back-of-the-envelope guesstimate).

Of course, it’s not clear yet what any eventual community coalition will look like, or whether Jordan and Goodman would end up the main residents who city officials would be seeking to placate with a CBA. Or whether city officials are even going to be the placators and not the placatees, once de Blasio takes office. It’s still very early in the game here, and people are still jockeying for position — but remember that especially in the Bronx, setting your payoff price is the name of the game.

Bloomberg mulling $100m-plus in tax breaks, dubious tax-exempt bond plan for Bronx soccer stadium

When Rudy Giuliani finished up his time as New York mayor, his parting gift to the New York Yankees and Mets was a last-minute deal for new stadiums to be built with the help of public money alongside their old homes in the Bronx and Queens. And though his successor Michael Bloomberg immediately tossed out those promises, saying it was “just not practical this year,” he ultimately agreed to new deals that were just as lucrative — and the Giuliani deal allowed the two teams to cash in $50 million in city kickbacks to pay for executive salaries, hired lobbyists, and other stadium “planning” expenses along the way.

With Bloomberg now one foot out the door at City Hall, we could be seeing a repeat of sorts, at least of the last-second stadium announcement that gets dumped in the next mayor’s lap. Reports Capital New York:

The New York City Football Club, a consortium backed by the Yankees and Manchester City owner Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, has been working with the Bloomberg administration to hammer out the broad outlines of an agreement to build a soccer arena just south of Heritage Field, the site of the old Yankee Stadium…

According to the terms of the rough-hewn agreement, the New York City Football Club would pay to purchase the elevator-company building and relocate the business to a new site. The team would also pay an unspecified sum to the unlucky folks holding $240 million in underwater debt on the underutilized, city-subsidized parking lots built in conjunction with the new Yankee Stadium…

The city, in turn, would demap a portion of 153rd Street, take over the GAL site and give the team a 99-year lease. Only after 38 years would the team pay the city fair market rent. The city would also agree to issue tax-exempt bonds to finance the $350 million project, and it would grant the team $21.5 million in other tax waivers.

Capital New York says the city wouldn’t lay out any cash, but this would still be a significant non-cash gift. If the city takes over the site, that presumably means it wouldn’t pay property taxes; a similar exemption for the earlier proposed NYCFC soccer stadium site in Queens was estimated to be worth about $100 million. Add in $21.5 million in other tax breaks (probably exemption from construction sales tax and the like) and 38 years of free rent, and you could easily be talking about $150-200 million in city subsidies.

Then there are those tax-exempt bonds, which have been a Bloomberg specialty for sports projects. Longtime readers of this site will recall that while tax-exempt bonds are not usually allowed for private projects, New York City used a clever workaround to exempt sports teams from property taxes, have them put their bond payments in a box marked “property taxes” (or actually “payments in lieu of property taxes,” or PILOTs) and then claim that the bonds were being paid off with public tax funds, as the tax law requires.

The IRS later partly closed this loophole — requiring, for starters, that the box marked “property taxes” contain an amount that varies year to year like property taxes do, making the bonds less alluring to buyers. But the New York Post reports that NYCFC thinks it has a way around that:

The club would make pilot payments through a 35-year deal and guarantee bondholders revenues from suite sales, naming rights and the like, a source said.

BZZZZZZT! That’s not legal under tax law: suite sales, naming rights, etc., are private payments, which means the entire bond offering would be ruled taxable. Unless NYCFC is talking about selling some tax-free bonds to be paid off with PILOTs and some taxable bonds to be paid off with venue revenues, which would be kosher. If the entire $400 million cost of the stadium ends up getting tax-exempt bonds, that could easily cost taxpayers another $80 million or so in lost tax revenue — though most of that would end up hitting the federal government, so it’s really folks in the rest of America who’d end up stuck with that bill.

In any event, it seems like we can expect some kind of announcement in the last two weeks of the year, probably on New Year’s Eve from the tarmac of whatever airport Bloomberg is about to take off to Bermuda from. That will leave the ultimate decision in the hands of incoming mayor Bill de Blasio, who has a reputation as a nemesis of the rich but who notably endorsed the Brooklyn Nets‘ arena subsidies (which included a similar PILOT tax dodge) and is tight with Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr., who is likely to be endorsing this soccer project because he’s all about building stuff in the Bronx, whatever the public cost. It’s gonna be an interesting new year.