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.

 

First lawsuit is filed against Islanders arena, charging rigged bid and invalid environmental study

With the New York Islanders arena plan having received final state approval last month, the Belmont Park project is now facing the first of several lawsuits, as promised:

The Village of Floral Park has filed suit against the state to block the $1.3 billion redevelopment of Belmont Park, including the new arena for the New York Islanders, ahead of a ceremonial groundbreaking on the property expected this month.

The Article 78 proceeding, a lawsuit against a municipality, asks a judge to overturn all approvals of the project, stop construction on the site and restart the environmental review process, according to documents filed in state Supreme Court in Mineola.

Floral Park’s complaint is twofold: First, that the public bidding process was rigged because the state had already received plans for a hockey arena at the site; second, that the environmental review didn’t fully study the impact of a new Long Island Rail Road station planned to service the arena. And while the first may seem, as the Wii soccer announcer likes to tell me whenever I try a shot from midfield, “speculative to say the least,” the latter sounds pretty reasonable, at least in IANAL terms, considering that the train station plan wasn’t even released by Gov. Andrew Cuomo until the day the final environmental impact statement was being voted on.

Lawsuits to block development projects are always longshots given that developers can afford the best lawyers, among other things, but even longshots sometimes win, so we’ll see how this goes. My question: If they end up losing, will the developers have to re-plant the trees they already chopped down?

Friday roundup: When is a football stadium too old to be a football stadium?

If it wasn’t clear from the photos of devastation in the Bahamas, the death toll from Hurricane Dorian is going to get much, much worse than the official confirmed number (30, at this writing). You can find a list of some organizations raising money to help survivors here; please give generously if you can. And remember as you do that it’s the warming oceans that helped make this so bad.

And with that, on to news that’s marginally less life and death:

  • Denver Metropolitan Football Stadium District chair Ray Baker says the Broncos‘ current stadium (which just got a new corporate name, go keep track of these things on your own if you like because I can’t be bothered to remember them) should last “between 50 and 60 years,” at which point Broncos president Joe Ellis replied that “I can’t judge where entertainment venues are going to need to be in the future” and “I can’t tell you whether or not, in 10 years, the city of Denver and our seven-county region has an appetite to host a Super Bowl or an appetite to host a Final Four, which means you need a roof. Or do you need a new stadium?” The new naming-rights deal lasts 21 years, at which point the stadium will be 40 years old; please place your bets on whether it will still be standing by then.
  • RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., will not make it to its 60th birthday in October 2021, which is all well and good as nobody plays there now and it’s costing the city $3.5 million a year for maintenance, landscaping, pest control, security, and utilities. (Note: Yeah, that seems like a lot to me too for an empty stadium.) D.C. officials say they plan to build an indoor sports complex and food market on the site, but have no plans as yet for an NFL stadium, no matter how much Mayor Muriel Bowser might want one.
  • Cleveland Browns COO David Jenkins says team execs still haven’t decided whether to demand a new stadium or a renovated one, but “we’re not far from having those conversations.” Note to Denver: The Browns’ stadium is two years older than the Broncos’.
  • Forbes reports that the value of the Oakland Raiders jumped by $1.5 billion to $2.9 billion after announcing their move to Las Vegas, which is an indication that either there’s something wrong with Forbes’ franchise valuation estimates or there’s something wrong with how much rich people are willing to spend to buy sports teams, or both. Even with the state of Nevada kicking in $750 million, the team will still be on the hook for more than $1 billion in stadium construction costs, which is going to soak up most of the team’s new stadium revenue even if their plan to sell tickets mostly to tourists and visiting fans works out.
  • The Anaheim city council is still squabbling over who knew when that when they voted on a Los Angeles Angels lease extension back in January, they were actually giving team owner Arte Moreno the right to stay through 2029 if he wanted, not just until 2020. (The team owner got a one-year extension of his opt-out clause as well, but the lease is now back in place to its original expiration date set before Moreno opted out the first time last year.) One thing that’s for sure is that this was a major gift to Moreno as stadium renovation talks continue, because “the best friend of a sports team owner is time,” says, uh, me.
  • A bill making it easier for Oakland to create tax districts at Howard Terminal to help raise money for infrastructure for a new A’s stadium passed the California state legislature this week; it’s still unclear exactly how much tax money would be spent on infrastructure, or exactly what “infrastructure” would mean, or even if the stadium will be built at Howard Terminal at all, but that’s one more skid greased, anyway.
  • The new Long Island Railroad station outside the new New York Islanders arena is set to be open by 2022, which only about 90 years faster than these things usually go in New York. It helps to have friends in high places!

 

Friday roundup: News outlets everywhere get pretty much everything wrong

On a tight deadline this week, so let’s get straight to the news:

New York state okays Islanders arena lease, still won’t say how much subsidies are worth

The New York Islanders arena plan received its final(ish) signoff yesterday, from the obscure state Franchise Oversight Board, which approved the team’s lease with the state. It also revealed how much the project will be paying in payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) as part of its tax break deal with the state:

It also includes a payment in lieu of taxes agreement under which New York Arena Partners would pay $40 million to various municipalities. The PILOT would last throughout ESD’s lease for the arena, and for 20 years for a proposed hotel and 15 years for retail stores at the arena. An estimated $154 million would go to the Elmont and Sewanhaka school districts over almost 50 years, and the state would make at least $1 million per year from rent payments based on attendance.

That is a lot of numbers that don’t actually make sense together, so let’s explain them one at a time:

  • That $40 million PILOT payment appears not to be a PILOT payment at all, but rather the team’s lease payment for the state land it would be using, which we’ve covered previously. (And is also now supposedly up to $50 million.)
  • The actual PILOT payment from the arena will be that “at least $1 million per year” figure, which is certainly way below what an arena would normally pay in property taxes, though no one has revealed how much of a tax break it is.
  • Likewise, the PILOTs for the hotel and stores are actually tax breaks, not special payments to the state, since if the state insisted on the developers buying the land instead of leasing it, it would be subject to normal property taxes.

The upshot, then, is that the state is still giving the Islanders and their developer partners a sweet land deal, plus cash toward a new commuter rail station, plus tax breaks. There are so many moving parts to the financing plan, and so little transparency, that it’s pretty much impossible to put a number on the total public cost, but it’s certainly close to $100 million, and could be much higher.

As far as the approval process goes, I believe the state comptroller still needs to sign off on the deal, but that’s usually a formality. Then will come the inevitable lawsuits; whether the Islanders can meet their aggressive goal of breaking ground in September and opening the place in fall of 2021 will likely depend on whether opponents are able to get court injunctions, or if everyone will be left to calculate the public cost after the horse has escaped.

NY state spokesperson on last-minute Isles land appraisal: Ha ha, we had it for months but you didn’t ask right, joke’s on you

So this escalated quickly: Yesterday, I noted that Jack Sterne, the Empire State Development spokesperson assigned to the New York Islanders arena project, had told me that an assessment of the value of New York state land being leased to the developers for $50 million would be forthcoming before the ESD board’s vote — and indeed it was, a whole three and a half hours before. And the released documents only included the executive summaries of the assessments, which contained no details of how the land values had been arrived at, making it impossible to determine why their conclusions ($35.9 million to $41 million) were so much lower than those arrived at by looking at comparable nearby land values ($114 million to $340 million).

I immediately emailed Sterne to ask if he could provide more details. He wrote back:

Hey Neil — yes I believe the summaries are in the board materials.

If you’re looking for additional docs you are always welcome to FOIL — https://esd.ny.gov/freedom-information-law-foil

A FOIL — Freedom of Information Law request, in New York state terms — typically takes at least a couple of months to get a response to, and some state agencies have been known to drag it out for a year or more. So this wasn’t entirely helpful with a vote just two hours and change away at this point, and I noted that here in a comment. (Then the board unanimously voted to approve the plan, though the arena still has a couple more hoops to jump through before it’s finalized.)

Norman Oder, who’s been covering the Belmont arena shenanigans at Gotham Gazette, then picked my comment up in a tweet:

Jack Sterne then responded on his personal Twitter account:

And:

Sterne almost has a point: Oder, or I, or anyone else, could have filed a FOIL request months ago to get the full appraisals. (According to the dates on the executive summaries, they were submitted to ESD on December 3, 2018 and July 3, 2019.) If, that is, we had known they existed. But when I had asked Sterne previously for the documents, I got answers that in retrospect seem designed to throw researchers off the trail.

On July 8, I asked Sterne via email: “When I spoke to one of your predecessors early last year, they said that ESD would conduct an appraisal of the arena project land before the final presentation to the ESD board. Is that still happening before the final vote at the end of the month?”

Sterne answered several of my other questions in a subsequent email, but ignored this one. On July 22, I tried again: “Is ESD still conducting an appraisal of the value of state land being leased for the project, and if so is there a target date for releasing that appraisal?”

Sterne’s response:

The appraisals will be completed by the time the General Project Plan is approved by the ESD Board.

Now, this isn’t technically lying: The appraisals had already been completed, in one case for months, meaning they would indeed be completed by the time of the ESD board’s approval vote! It is at best, however, deceptive, since an honest answer would have been “No, we’re not still conducting an appraisal, we already have two in hand!”

It’s also pretty exceptional behavior from a press flack, whose job is usually to try to spin or stonewall reporters or sometimes call them up and yell at them when they don’t like what was written. (Sterne has done that, too, but I’m used to that.) All this, combined with the abbreviated last-minute release of the appraisal documents, is certainly enough to fuel suspicions that there’s something in those full appraisals that ESD — or Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who controls ESD — really doesn’t want anyone to see until all the t’s are crossed in the deal. We’ll find out once they process my FOIL request, I guess — hopefully before the new arena opens for its first game.

 

 

NY state board to give final signoff to Islanders arena plan today, still has no idea how much state’s land is worth (UPDATED)

New York’s state-run Empire State Development corporation board is holding its final approval vote on an Islanders arena development plan at Belmont Park today at 3 pm, which reminds me of something:

An ESD spokesperson contacted the Voice after publication to say that in according with its guidelines and state law, the agency will conduct an appraisal of the Islanders arena project land before the project is presented to the ESD board of directors following the conclusion of the environmental review in 2019.

An ESD spokesperson confirmed to me two weeks ago that the appraisal “will be completed by the time the General Project Plan is approved by the ESD Board.” So, they have four hours left — hope the ESD board members can read complicated land value assessments really fast!

The appraisal is important because the Islanders owners are only paying $50 million for 43 acres of state land for the project, a figure that could be as much as a $300 million discount on the land’s actual value. Or it could not! Land appraisals are hard, which is why it’s important to hire trained professionals to conduct them, well before you have to decide on whether a sale of public land is a fair deal or a complete giveaway!

(It’s maybe worth noting that the state most recently has been saying that the $50 million is really the developers’ private contribution toward a new train station for the project, which would make the actual land sale price be $0. If “actual” has any meaning here anymore.)

I emailed my ESD contact again this morning to ask to see the appraisal, but haven’t heard back. It’s altogether possible the report will appear just in time for the hearing — but that certainly won’t give any time for anyone on the board to read the report before voting, let alone members of the public.

If so, it would be only the latest in a long line of, shall we say, not enthusiastically democratic steps taken by the state in its rush to approve the Islanders plan after a year and a half of mostly behind-closed-doors talks: The initial ESD board meeting last month was held on a Monday afternoon after public notice only went out late Friday; and the Public Authorities Control Board, which is supposed to vet actions by public authorities like ESD, went ahead and gave its approval to the plan last week, despite all the final details not being in yet. Whether the final Islanders deal turns out to be a massive public money pit or not too bad, it looks like we won’t know for sure until after the deal has been decided — the phrase “no way to run a railroad” comes to mind.

UPDATE: The ESD board meeting materials have been posted, and they include two separate appraisals — one dated December 3, 2018, the other July 3, 2019 — that estimate the public land value at between $35.9 million and $41 million. The first provides no information about its methodology at all; the second says it bases its figure on the future income that the site could produce, but says nothing about how it calculated that projected income. Lots of questions here, obviously, which will almost certainly take more than (checks clock) three hours and 10 minutes to answer.