Seattle arena developers find loopholes to evade coronavirus construction ban

The increasingly worldwide suspension of nearly everything has finally started to hit stadium and arena construction: New York’s order on Friday banning “non-essential” construction put a halt to work on the Islanders‘ Belmont Park arena, and Austin’s “stay at home” order has shut down activity on Austin F.C.‘s new stadium. It’s reasonable to expect that more construction bans will follow in coming days and weeks, especially since the U.S. curve is decidedly not flattening yet.

Each of these rulings comes with exceptions, though — for example, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s order exempts “roads, bridges, transit facilities, utilities, hospitals or health care facilities, affordable housing, and homeless shelters,” something that has drawn criticism given that tons of housing construction in New York City is now required to include a percentage of affordable units (or “affordable” units, since the formulas used mean that some apartments require tenants to earn $120,000 a year to qualify). And the renovations of the Seattle Center Arena (formerly KeyArena, and still widely known by that name despite Key Bank’s naming rights deal having expired years ago) for the city’s new NHL team have apparently found such a loophole:

The only exceptions are construction related to essential activities like health care, transportation, energy, defense and critical manufacturing; construction “to further a public purpose related to a public entity,” including publicly financed low-income housing; and emergency repairs.

KeyArena construction is exempt under the last two carve-outs, Leiweke said. The arena is a public facility, and time is short to reattach the arena’s 44-million-pound roof to its permanent support posts. The roof has been held up by temporary posts since late last year.

I am not an engineer by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s hard to see how leaving the roof sitting atop temporary posts for a few extra weeks qualifies as an emergency. (If the temporary posts are really so rickety that they’re on the verge of collapse any day now, that seems maybe not entirely safe regardless?) A spokesperson for NHL Seattle called it a “delicate and precise undertaking” involving an “intricate compression system,” but neither of those phrases actually says that delaying the work would make it any more “delicate” or “intricate” or what have you.

And as for the arena being a “public facility,” yes, it’s owned by the city of Seattle, but it’s being renovated and will be operated by the private developers Oak View Group, who are even making payments in lieu of property taxes on it because it’s so clearly a private project using public property. It’s a “public property,” in other words, but not really a “public purpose,” but then we’ve already seen how far governments are willing to bend the definition of public purpose when it suits them.

What all this means is that Seattle’s NHL team will likely be able to launch in its new home in 2021, while the Islanders’ new arena is now even less likely to be ready by then. This is not a huge deal in the long run — teams can easily enough move a few games to alternate sites while construction is completed, especially in a world where moving teams temporarily to whole different cities is being seriously considered — but it’s worth noting if you’re an Islanders or Seattle NHL or Austin F.C. fan, if any of those exist in large numbers. (Just kidding about the Islanders. Mostly.)

Islanders to play at Nassau Coliseum while waiting for new wine bar to open

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Saturday that the Islanders will play all home games at Nassau Coliseum for this year’s playoffs and all of next season as they await their new Belmont Park arena’s opening in 2021. Thus brings to an end the Brooklyn Islanders experiment, which everyone knew was a terrible idea at the time as the Brooklyn Nets‘ arena was designed to be too small for hockey and also Brooklyn is not in Nassau County where the Islanders’ fan base lives, but everyone also pretended it made total sense because then-owner Charles Wang wanted to give a middle finger to Nassau County for not approving his arena plans there, revenge really isn’t the best way to run a railroad, is it?

(And yes, it’s a little weird that the governor announced this, but also not that weird, because Cuomo has a long history of swooping in to show up in places where he can take credit for changes of plans. We should probably be glad that the announcement wasn’t made by Billy Joel.)

The state of New York has provided $6 million toward an $8.5 million renovation of the Coliseum to make it more NHL-ready for its single season as sole home ice, because, as the state said at the time, this will “build momentum and excitement for the transformational redevelopment of Belmont Park,” and why should either the Islanders or the Coliseum’s owner, Nassau County, or operator, Mikhail Prokhorov, pay for that when taxpayers in Buffalo can foot the bill?

Anyway, all this is leading up to today’s news, which is that some new renderings of the Islanders’ planned Belmont Park arena have dropped, and they are, um, interesting:

Now, I know we’ve been over how the artists paid to draw renderings are just pulling from a bucket of clip-art “entourage” people, but these people are exceptionally odd. The ones in the lobby image appear to be on their way to job interviews, and they’re almost all choosing to take the nearly-empty stairs over the even-more-empty escalator. The people in the other images at least include a few Islanders jerseys, but everyone seems far more interested in chatting and drinking than watching hockey (there is, in fact, no hockey to be seen anywhere except on video screens). And everyone is preternaturally young and slim, which have you seen what actual Islanders fans look like? The whole scene looks more like a high-end wine bar with an odd hockey theme, except of course at a bar way more people than this would be looking at their phones.

Maybe it all means nothing more than the mood the renderer was in that day, but it’s hard not to come away from these images with a sense that somebody is trying to sell a new hockey arena as hip and trendy and not a place where people go to drink beer and shout at people on ice skates. I have no idea who the audience for this might be — stores that might want to locate at the mall being built nearby? people who’ve heard about this “hockey” thing but never gone to a game because they didn’t think it was Instagrammable enough? — but clearly somebody signed off on it. While I’m generally a fan of Hanlon’s Razor, sometimes reading too much into things is the only way to make our own fun.

Friday roundup: Panthers owner donated to Charlotte officials during stadium lobbying, St. Louis MLS didn’t need $30m in state money after all, and what time the Super Bowl economic impact rationalizations start

Happy Friday, and try not to think about how much you’re contributing to climate change by reading this on whatever electronic device you’re using. Though at least reading this in text doesn’t require a giant server farm like watching a video about stadiums would — “Streaming one hour of Netflix a week requires more electricity, annually, than the yearly output of two new refrigerators” is one of the more alarming sentences I’ve read ever — so maybe it counts as harm reduction? I almost linked to an amusing video clip to deliver my punchline, wouldn’t that have been ironic!

And now, the news:

New York state reveals $27.6m in Islanders arena tax breaks, more still hidden?

Big news, everybody! Just over five months after I filed a Freedom of Information Law request asking how much in property tax breaks the state of New York is providing to the new New York Islanders arena at Belmont Park, I finally got a reply! And the documents provided are:

No explanation was provided for why it took five months to send one page of a document — In New York state, FOIL requests are supposed to be fulfilled within 20 days, unless the agency receiving the request has a good reason to take longer — but never mind! We now finally have some more information about the size of the tax breaks being handed out to the arena developers, and they total about $27.6 million in present value (see the numbers at the bottom) over the next 20 years, as the level of payments in lieu of taxes slowly rise to the full property-tax rate.

Except! You’ll note that this is just the tax breaks on the hotel, retail, and office space part of the complex. The arena itself, it’s previously been reported, will pay a “guaranteed minimum annual payment” of $1 million, based in some unexplained way on ticket sales, and escalating each year, again by an unexplained percentage. The state Empire State Development FOIL office didn’t provide projections for these arena PILOT numbers or how much of a discount they’ll represent from normal property-tax rates, so we really still have no idea how much of a total tax break the project will be getting, except that it’s at minimum $27.6 million and potentially a whole lot more than that.

If you’re scoring at home, this now leaves us with a total state subsidy of:

  • $41 million in grants and the value of a no-interest state loan for a new train station to service the arena
  • $27.6 million in tax breaks for the retail/office/hotel development
  • ??? in tax breaks for the arena
  • –$50 million in upfront lease payments from the developers for the land
  • +??? for whatever the land is actually worth, which the state says is $35.9 million to $41 million, but other estimates show could potentially be anywhere from $80 million to $300 million higher than that (I have another FOIL request pending on the land appraisal)

So add it all up, and it’s at least $54 million, and likely a good bit more, though whether “a good bit” means a few tens of millions or hundreds of millions is anyone’s guess. And as that’d make the difference between “not the worst arena deal in the world in terms of public subsidies” and “actually, maybe one of the worst arena deals in the world in terms of public subsidies,” we’re really going to have to wait until those two sets of questions marks above are filled in. Hopefully soon! Or at least before the arena is scheduled to open in October 2021, which looks pretty unlikely given that that’s only 21 months away and right now the arena site is still mostly a mud pit, but we’ll see!

Friday roundup: Helicopter rides for rich fans, pricey bridge prices, and why Deadspin mattered

In case anyone hasn’t been following this week’s Deadspin drama, pretty much the entire staff has resigned over the past two days, following Tuesday’s decision by CEO Jim Spanfeller to fire acting editor-in-chief Barry Petchesky because the staff had responded to Spanfeller’s edict to “stick to sports” by posting a ton of excellent non-sports content. A few last posts have gone up the last couple of days, some to burn off features that were already scheduled to run and some to take classically Deadspinesque digs at management for burning down a popular website seemingly out of spite for continuing to do exactly what it had been doing for years before they bought it.

This is very bad news for journalism and America and humanity, and not only if you, like me, will miss the site’s potshots at our Big Wet President. There’s a popular notion that sports is just a fun diversion where the “outside world” of politics has no place — and that, as I hope the entire 21-year history of this site has made abundantly clear, is an extremely dangerous notion, because it means that concerns over what taxpayers are being charged for places to play sports or what athletes are being paid to play sports or who is allowed to speak out on what issues involving sports are dismissed with a Can’t we just watch the game? But games are serious — and lucrative — business, and can’t be divorced from the greater culture, any more than we should be just watching movies as pure entertainment without attention to the bigger issues involved. Deadspin was dedicated to erasing those lines and allowing its writers to address whatever they felt needed addressing at the moment, whether it was the meaning of who you’re seen sitting with at a football game or what we’re getting stuck in our rectums each year, and until and unless a successor emerges to pick up the torch, the world will be a sadder, dumber place.

(Already yesterday I read about Josh Hamilton’s arrest after his daughter said he threw a chair at her — a phrasing I owe to this excellent Deadspin non-sports article, incidentally — and wished I could read Deadspin’s analysis of it. Then I read about John Wetteland’s arrest for reportedly sexually assaulting a four-year-old child, and thought I wonder if maybe men’s sports should just be banned altogether at this point given the kind of behavior it encourages and realized Deadspin was probably my best bet for reading that take, too. It’s going to be a long however many weeks or months until something arises from Deadspin’s ashes, if that ever happens.)

Anyway, on to the weekly muddling of sports and politics:

  • The Indiana Pacers‘ arena will still be named after the bank that stopping paying for naming rights in June until the team has found a new naming-rights sponsor, which seems weird at first but actually makes total sense: It costs money to change the signage so why do it twice, and also the value of naming rights goes down with each new iteration of a corporate moniker that dilutes the name’s image for the public — quick, tell me what the Oakland Coliseum’s official name is these days — so calling it “Pacers Arena” or whatever for a few months might get fans to start calling it that permanently, and we can’t have that. And if you’re wondering why the Pacers get to sell naming rights to a building that was built entirely with public dollars and is owned by the public: It’s Indianapolis, Jake.
  • St. Louis’s new MLS stadium finally has a site picked out — Market Street near Union Station, if you’re scoring at home — and new renderings as well, though they look pretty much like the old renderings except for the one that is just a closeup of a kid riding on his parent’s (?) shoulders. The state of Missouri has received approval to sell 22 acres of land for the stadium to the city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority, which will then lease it to the MLS team for … oh, that doesn’t seem to have been reported. Just look at the pretty pictures and don’t worry your head about that nasty money business.
  • A public city database in Atlanta is indicating that the city’s $23 million pedestrian bridge for the Falcons actually cost $41.7 million, but the city insists it’s really just that they entered the same checks multiple times. I’m not sure “spent $23 million on a pedestrian bridge for a football team and also can’t do basic bookkeeping” looks much better, honestly.
  • The San Antonio Spurs — whose mascot is for some reason a kangaroo, is that a kangaroo? — have installed four new helipads so that fans can buy helicopter rides to games, which really tells you everything you need to know about 1) who sports teams are interested in marketing to these days and 2) just how ridiculously much money rich people in America have to burn these days.
  • Fresno FC owner Ray Beshoff has declared he “will almost certainly be relocating the team” because he hasn’t been provided with a new soccer-only stadium, unless “in the next two or three weeks if people come to the table with ideas or suggestions that we think are tenable.” This will come as a huge shock to fans who’ve been dedicated followers of the USL team since (looks up team on Wikipedia) March of 2018.
  • The San Francisco 49ers are raising ticket prices by 13% but giving season ticket holders free food and soda, which I guess means 49ers fans will be spending most of games from now on pigging out on all-you-can-eat nachos instead of watching the action on the field. Also, you can’t get the free food if you buy tickets on the secondary market, only if you’re the original season ticket holder. Or, I guess, borrow the season ticket holder’s free-food card? Or have a season ticket holder go up to the counter for you and get your nachos? I don’t live anywhere near Santa Clara and hate football, but I am very excited at seeing how fans figure out how to game this system.
  • Still nobody is sure which minor-league teams MLB will threaten to eliminate as part of its plan to restrict minor-league affiliates, or what criteria MLB will use for deciding who shall live and who shall die or whether MLB is even serious or just trying to scare minor-league players into not demanding they be paid minimum wage. I really should write about this for Deadsp — crap.
  • It rained at the Buffalo Bills game last weekend, so a local country music station ran a poll asking listeners: “Would you be in favor of a roof stadium or no?” Not included: any mention of what a roof would cost, or what WYRK has against the word “roofed.”
  • The corporate newspaper that helped gut a free daily by selling it to people who immediately laid off most of the editorial staff ran an article this week asking if the new New York Islanders arena will make it harder for the nearby Nassau Coliseum to draw events, but I’m not going to link to a union-busting-enabling outlet that put the article behind a paywall anyway, so let me just answer the question here: Duh, yes!
  • A former assistant to Inglewood Mayor James Butts has changed her testimony in the lawsuit against the Los Angeles Clippers‘ proposed arena, and Inglewood officials are asking that her revised testimony be rejected because they say she’s in “cahoots” with Madison Square Garden, which opposes the arena because it doesn’t want competition for its own arena nearby. Elephants, man.
  • The DreamHouse New Mexico Bowl has been canceled, because alleged film production company and title sponsor DreamHouse turns out not to exist, but rather to be a scam perpetrated by “a relentless self promoter who lies about nearly everything he says he does.”
  • A giant water droplet named Wendy has made a video suggesting that Washington’s NFL team should move back within city limits. Sorry, Sean Doolittle, this is actually the most 2019 Washington thing ever.
  • The Sunshine Coast Pickleball Association is seeking funding from the city of Sechelt for a new pickleball stadium. I don’t actually know where Sechelt is and am only dimly aware of what pickleball is, and I’m not going to ruin the perfect sentence above by looking either thing up.

Could same parkland issue that blocked Mets mall trip up Islanders arena?

I was a little bit dismissive of the lawsuits against the proposed Belmont Park New York Islanders arena when they were filed last month, mostly because lawsuits claiming that the state isn’t following its own rules don’t exactly have a glorious record of success in New York, since courts have largely allowed the state to define its rules as it sees fit. But as the fan site Eyes on Isles reports, there’s one element of the suit that could be more effective:

The lawsuit sets out four pages of its petition/complaint discussing Public Trust Doctrine and how that process was ignored in this case.

New York State Franchise Oversight cannot usurp the Elective Official Authority to transfer or lease public park/state land without a legislative act. -Halop et al v. Empire State Development Corp. et al. pg.13

What is Public Trust Doctrine? Essentially, it’s the idea that the parkland can’t be sold without the authority of a legislative body, in this case, the New York State Legislature.

So why does that argument have legs? Well, it’s been used before, quite recently and it won. The same argument was used against the construction of a mall at Willets Point and it won.

That isn’t quite right — the proposed mall, though named Willets West, was actually proposed for the Citi Field parking lot — but the gist is correct: The land involved was mapped as city parkland, so the legislature was required to vote to de-map it first, and they hadn’t, so the project died.

The big question, then, is: Is Belmont Park mapped parkland? That’s not as easy a question to answer as one would hope: It’s owned by the state and run as a park, but this is all about what the official designation is — the Citi Field land had been used for parking for decades, but it was still officially parkland, so building a mall on top was ruled out of order. The state Empire State Development agency wrote in its response to Request For Proposals questions in 2018 that “No part of the Site is considered parkland that would require Legislative approval for alienation purposes,” but then, New York City insisted that the Willets West land wasn’t really parkland that would require legislative alienation, and it was. And while a hockey arena could conceivably be considered a “public purpose” that would be allowable on parkland (as the Mets’ stadium is), the rest of the surrounding development would be way more dodgy.

So, in short, dunno, but I’ll keep researching it. Of all the last-ditch attempts to block the Islanders arena, though, the parkland issue legally has the most teeth, so it’s worth watching. The next court date is set for December 6, so if nothing else, hopefully we’ll get some more info then.

Friday roundup: How Kansas City evicted a team for rent non-payment and ended up costing itself $1m, and other stories

This week’s recommended reading: Girl to City, Amy Rigby’s just-published memoir of the two decades that took her from newly arrived art student in 1970s New York to divorced single mom and creator of the acclaimed debut album Diary of a Mod Housewife. (Disclosure, I guess: I edited an early version of one chapter for the Village Voice last year.) I picked up my copy last week at the launch of Rigby’s fall book tour, and whether you love her music or her long-running blog (guilty as charged on both counts) or enjoy tales of CBGB-era proto-gentrifying New York or coming-of-age-stories about women balancing self-doubt and determination or just a perfectly turned punchline, I highly recommend it: Like her best songs, it made me laugh and cry and think, often at the same time, and that’s all I can ask for in great art.

But first, read this news roundup post, because man, is there a lot of news to be rounded up:

Unnamed “backers” want Islanders arena to lead to redeveloping Aqueduct with casinos and other crap

The New York Islanders‘ new arena at Belmont Park — or The Stable, as some people on Twitter are already trying to get you to call it, which must make the people in charge of selling its official naming rights just thrilled beyond belief — won’t open until 2021 at the earliest even if it survives its multiple legal challenges, but that doesn’t mean its too soon to start planning how it will become the linchpin of a massive strategy to close Aqueduct Racetrack to horse racing and build new casinos and maybe other development there. Allow Newsday to explain:

Redevelopment backers have a grand vision of Belmont becoming a “sports destination” that goes like this:

• Consolidate downstate horse racing by ending it at Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, and moving all racing to Belmont. Then promote Belmont as a destination with hockey, horses, hotels and shopping.

• Authorize three new downstate casinos by 2023, or sooner.

• Allow Aqueduct, which already rakes in money from thousands of video slot machines, to become a full-fledged casino, and maybe do the same for Yonkers Raceway.

• Consider selling to developers the acreage at the sprawling Aqueduct facility that won’t be part of a casino. The state owns the land and the horse racing business is just a tenant.

All of which makes some sense, even if the only “redevelopment backer” actually named is the Long Island Association, a business lobbying group: Horse racing isn’t exactly a thriving pastime, and Aqueduct is potentially valuable property, though whether state-run casinos are really the best use of it is extremely arguable.

More to the point, though: What does any of this have to do with a new arena at Belmont? I am far from an expert on horse racing (I owned a horse racing board game at around age 10, I recall), but it seems to me that if Aqueduct and Belmont’s racing schedules can be merged effectively, that can happen with or without a hockey arena next door. The new train station that the Islanders’ developer group is helping to pay for but absolutely not paying for without taxpayer money should help, sure, but is it really vital to the plans, or just a way for these Aqueduct redevelopment advocates, whoever they are, to get the attention of Newsday?

And speaking of which, how did this article end up in Newsday anyway, given that it seems to be just the grand vision of one business-lobby spokesperson accompanied by a bunch of reaction quotes from local elected officials? There’s definitely something happening here, but what it is and who’s pushing it still ain’t exactly clear.

How a falsehood becomes a fact (New York Islanders groundbreaking division)

The New York Islanders owners held a groundbreaking for their new arena yesterday as promised, and because this mostly meant a bunch of politicians (and Ralph Macchio) scooping ceremonial dirt with shovels with hockey-stick handles, many publications sensibly enough chose to skip the event and instead run wire service copy from the Associated Press.

Unfortunately, the unnamed AP reporter wrote this:

As part of the work, developers have agreed to pay to build a new Long Island Rail Road station nearby.

No. No, they have not. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo may have claimed this in a press release, but state officials later revealed that the developers are putting in $30 million up front and the state $75 million, with the developers additionally making $67 million in payments, without interest, to the state over the next 30 years. How much of a subsidy that is depends on how you calculate the discount rate on future payments — I previously got a figure of about $41 million in state costs — but clearly this train station will be costing state taxpayers something, even if the developers will eventually pay for most of its price tag. (Assuming there are no significant cost overruns, anyway.)

Now, this may seem trivial: Does it really matter if newspapers report that developers “have agreed to pay to build” a new train station or “have agreed to help pay to build”? But yeah, it really does. Because the way that fact-checking works in journalism today — to the degree that journalism conducts fact-checking at all — you’re just checking to see that some other news outlet has reported the claim in question, and then you can mark it as confirmed. And so a falsehood can become an officially confirmed fact, for all time.

I’ve contacted the AP asking for a correction; I’ll update this post if I get a response. Meanwhile, at least a few outlets didn’t use the AP story, such as CBS New York, which had this to report on the governor’s statements:

“A new transportation terminal, a great economic development vehicle and a great new sports stadium. Three things all together in one project. The technical term for that is that is a hat trick, my friends. Congratulations,” Cuomo said.

No, a hat trick is when you get three of the same thing. Getting three different things is a trifecta. Jeez, people, do I have to do everything around here?

Islanders arena to break ground today right after getting hit with second lawsuit charging it’s illegal

A groundbreaking is expected to be held today for the planned $1.3 billion New York Islanders arena project at Belmont Park, and the team celebrated on Saturday by getting hit with its second lawsuit challenging the project’s legality.

The previous lawsuit, you’ll recall was filed by the neighboring village of Floral Park, and charged that the bidding for the site was skewed toward the arena developers and that the environmental impact study was insufficient. The new lawsuit, filed by a bunch of community groups in neighboring Elmont, doubles up on claims that the EIS is faulty, while adding that the state Empire State Development agency shouldn’t be allowed to conduct the project at all because it’s only allowed to arrange for the development of blighted properties, and Elmont isn’t blighted:

“In order to use the UDC Act you have to have the prerequisite of blight,” [Elmont civic leader Aubrey] Phillips said. “Over the years, Elmont has been the brunt of mischaracterization. It is totally inconsistent with statistics. Elmont is a firm middle-class community.”

Argument #2 first: It’s absolutely true that the UDC Act only authorizes ESD (the descendent of the 1960s-era Urban Development Corporation) to act on blighted property. It’s also true, however, that courts have let the state define “blighted” as pretty much anything it wants — just take a look at the Islanders’ current home, the similarly ESD-masterminded Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the state agency fulfilled a requirement that the project target a high unemployment area by creating a gerrymandered district weaving for over a mile through different neighborhoods which journalism Norman Oder dubbed the “Bed-Stuy Boomerang.” So while it may or may not be “wrong” or “illegal,” this sort of thing is definitely standard practice for New York development agencies.

As for the EIS complaint, the new suit charged that the state’s study “did not properly address major issues like traffic, ‘cumulative impacts’ and the safety of local residents,” according to Long Island Business News. Again, you can make this case — as the previous suit noted, the state’s traffic and transit analysis was written before the state even added in plans for a new commuter rail station near the arena, with shuttle buses to take fans from there to games — but the number of lawsuits trying to overturn EISes as insufficient are few and far between, in New York, anyway.

The plaintiffs in this suit have former New York Civil Liberties Union director Norman Siegel as their attorney, and he previously represented Brooklyn residents in their years-long but ultimately fruitless battle against the arena project there, so I guess at least he knows what not to do? Predicting lawsuit results is almost as hopeless a task as predicting sports results; let’s just call this an “uphill battle” and leave it there.