Cuomo allows sports venues to reopen on February 23, because money

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared yesterday that sports and music venues that hold more than 10,000 people — both outdoor stadiums and indoor arenas — will be allowed to reopen to fans at 10% capacity starting February 23. Each building will first have to have its ventilation systems approved by the state department of health, but once that’s complete, the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, New York Mets, and New York Yankees could all soon be playing before paying crowds.

The announcement came as a bit of a surprise in a state that, even with falling coronavirus rates, still has the fifth-highest positive test rate in the country, as new more transmissible variants threaten to create a renewed surge in coming weeks. But Cuomo said that with reduced capacities, improved ventilation, requiring mask wearing, and requiring a negative test result in the previous 72 hours, he could “get this economy open intelligently and in a balanced way.”

All that is well enough — if you’re going to start putting fans back in seats, it’s clear, keeping them masked and distanced is key. But the negative test certification — which Cuomo called “the key” to reopening — is what begins to paint this as hygiene theater: As we learned last year during the Miami Marlins fiasco, 40% of people will still test negative four days after being exposed to the virus, and 20% will test negative even three days after symptoms have started. Plus there’s the problem of people who get tested on a Monday and then contract the virus by Thursday. As one infectious disease expert put it to the New York Times:

“A test 72 hours prior to a game will help identify some cases, but that’s also three days in which an individual can become infectious,” [Saskia Popescu, an epidemiologist from George Mason University,] wrote in an email.

Coming just one week after Cuomo announced that restaurants would be allowed to open to indoor dining, something that can’t be done while masked until chefs develop food that can be absorbed through diners’ skin, the sports reopening is a clear signal that New York state is prioritizing “getting the economy open” over actual safety concerns. As the Times editorial board wrote just hours before Cuomo’s sports announcement:

Too many leaders — not just Mr. Cuomo — are ignoring that call. Massachusetts and New Jersey are allowing businesses, including restaurants, to expand capacity for indoor services, and Iowa just lifted its mask mandate. The impulse behind these moves is understandable. Restaurants and the people who earn their living through them are in dire straits because they have not received sufficient government assistance. State and local economies are hanging by a thread, and everyone is exhausted by restrictions and desperate to return to some semblance of normal life.

But the number of people who get sick or die from Covid-19 in the coming year will depend on the outcome of a desperate race that’s underway, between human vaccination and viral mutation. … By relaxing restrictions now, state and local leaders are undermining their own vaccination efforts. To get a sense of what this looks like to scientists and public health experts, imagine a military general leading the fight against a foreign enemy — and then selling that enemy deadly weapons on the side.

Meanwhile, food critic Ryan Sutton of Eater came out against the restaurant reopening, noting that choosing Valentine’s Day weekend to resume indoor dining “feels chosen less for any health milestones and more for the fact that it is historically one of the biggest nights for restaurants.” While restaurant workers will soon be allowed to sign up for vaccinations, the slow pace of vaccine production means they could be waiting for appointments well into the spring or summer. (Cuomo didn’t say whether stadium and arena workers will be added to the vaccine priority list.)

Speaking as a New Yorker and a Mets fan eager to see how the team will screw up its winter of big-name acquisitions, I’m dying to get to a ballgame as much as anyone. But “dying” only metaphorically: If allowing a couple thousand lucky fans to witness the Knicks and Nets firsthand leads to an uptick in cases that allows new viral variants to take off, sickening and killing people across the city who have no interest in basketball, Cuomo’s sports reopening move could go down as one of the most poorly timed decisions in governmental history. And even if we get lucky and limited-capacity indoor sports turn out not to become superspreader events, seeking a “balanced” reopening — presumably between the full reopening many businesses would want and the continued shutdown of indoor activities that scientists recommend, meaning between profits and deaths — is, let’s just say, a telling reminder of how most elected officials see where their bread is buttered.

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WTF is up with that “vote” on a new Madison Square Garden: an investigation

Checking back in on a Friday afternoon because I have a bit more information about that new Madison Square Garden proposal that, according to a very bad website, “the City Council voted [on] this week in a Community Board Five meeting,” which is not a sentence that makes any sense.

Turns out the vote had nothing to do with the New York City council, but rather was of the Land Use, Housing & Zoning Committee of Manhattan’s Community Board 5, which is a just slightly less significant body. (Community board consideration is a required piece of the city’s land use process, but their votes are just advisory.) The meeting took place on Wednesday on Zoom, and can be watched in its entirety here.

The board’s unanimous vote was actually on several things, including endorsing including this project in the environmental impact study for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Penn Station expansion project, and also allowing for a shorter extension of MSG’s operating permit — you know what, let me just quote myself here by way of explaining what that is:

Madison Square Garden itself is privately owned, but an obscure section of city zoning law (Section 74-41, if you’re playing along at home) requires any arena of more than 2,500 seats to obtain a special permit from the city. MSG’s initial permit was issued in 1963, and for whatever reason was set to expire after 50 years; when that date rolled around in 2013, the city council, bowing to the wishes of Penn renewal advocates, granted only a ten-year extension, ostensibly to give the Garden’s owners time to make plans to decamp to a new site. (Technically, MSG could stay put, but only if it reduced its capacity to 2,500 seats—the arena can currently pack in over 20,000 spectators, depending on the event.)
Since 2023 is right around the corner, and it would almost certainly take years to get this mammoth project approved and built, CB5 has now formally endorsed the idea of a short-term extension to let the Knicks and Rangers hang out for a few more years at the current MSG in the meantime.

What happens next is not much, at least immediately. Committee member E.J. Kalafarski said during the meeting that a draft scope of the project, which is the very first step in the land use process, was “published on the internet this last week”; I haven’t been able to find it yet, but will keep digging. In any case, after that it needs to have a draft environmental impact statement done, and then it goes back to the community board for consideration, then to the borough president, then the city planning commission, and finally the city council. (If the state takes over the property, it would go through a different approval process — as the Brooklyn Nets arena did — but would still take a while.) So, nothing final for a year or two at least, but this is the beginning of the beginning.

As far as how much this would cost or who would pay for it, none of that is even remotely sketched out yet. And the design documents published by New York Yimby are just some sketches done by former Manhattan city planning director and current local resident and architect Vishaan Chakrabarti, which may or may not be adopted by whatever developer may or may not be interested in building this monster.

So, this is still very early days, but it does seem like there’s at least a little momentum for “clear out the current MSG space to make for better Penn Station access by building a new MSG a block away something something something.” This is very much worth keeping an eye on, but it’s also very likely that nothing much will be happening immediately, especially what with no one knowing whether big urban office buildings have a future anymore or not. More news as events warrant.

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Friday roundup: Jacksonville doubles down on $200m+ Jaguars subsidy, MSG replacement vaportectured, Norfolk arena sabers rattled

So, yeah, some stuff happened this week, and is continuing to happen now. But let’s not let rampaging Viking cosplayers distract us from the fact that the new year has also brought a resurgence in sports subsidy activity, with a whole lot of news that normally I might write individual posts about if I hadn’t been up too late refreshing Google News, so instead you’ll have to bear with me through some long bullet points:

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NYC Mayor de Blasio: Sure, wealthy sports owners should pay their taxes, I guess

As I mentioned in my Gothamist article last week, a group of New York city councilmembers have called on Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to start making the city’s sports teams pay property taxes on their stadiums and arenas, which none of them currently do. (The Yankees and Mets and Brooklyn Nets all pay “payments in lieu of taxes” that are really their own construction debt payments, funneled through the city as a tax dodge; the Knicks and Rangers don’t pay taxes on Madison Square Garden because somebody accidentally gave them an eternal tax break in 1982 and no one can be bothered to repeal it.) And the campaign got a boost yesterday when de Blasio sorta kinda endorsed its call for team owners to pay their fair tax share:

De Blasio, a Democrat, was asked at his daily press briefing to respond to a letter last month from nine lawmakers on the New York City Council who called for the Garden, Yankee Stadium, the Barclays Center and Citi Field to pay property taxes. The mayor said he hasn’t seen the letter and was unfamiliar with the legal specifics, but supported the concept of requiring New York’s local teams to increase their contributions.

“Let’s be clear – sports franchises have gained incredible value over the years,” de Blasio said. “They clearly have the resources. I think the history in this city and pretty much all over the country was stadium deals were not good deals for the public, by and large. Some of the more recent ones have been better, but mostly they haven’t been that good. Everything should be reevaluated especially at a point when the city is going to need resources for our recovery.”

That phrasing puts the “blah” in de Blasio, but “everything should be reevaluated” is fightin’ words compared to the usual approach to sports tax breaks, which is for elected officials to shrug their shoulders and say whatchagonnado? And the mayor also responded to a call by 161st Street Business Improvement Director Cary Goodman that the Yankees be forced to pay property taxes just as other businesses in the neighborhood do:

“We all hope and pray that next year baseball will resume in person at some point in the year and the fans will come back and the businesses will thrive, but of course the Yankees should help them through and I assure you they have the money.”

Okay, so none of this is exactly laying down the law, and de Blasio has previously called for Madison Square Garden to pay taxes before shrugging his shoulders and saying whatchagonnado? But it’s still more than we’ve seen before, and is certain to encourage both the councilmembers and Goodman and his South Bronx business owners. The latter has a rally outside Yankee Stadium coming up this Thursday at noon, plus a Change.org petition, and with that and a long enough lever you never know what can happen.

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NY Rangers played a “home” game in Toronto without losing their MSG tax break, because reasons

Last week I was talking to a source for a story (mostly) unrelated to sports stadiums when they asked me a question: How come the New York Rangers‘ August “home” playoff game in Toronto as part of the NHL’s bubble didn’t count as a violation of the team’s tax exemption for Madison Square Garden, the one that reads:

If one or both of said teams [the New York Knicks or Rangers] shall cease to play their home games in said property at any time, the tax exemption provided herein shall cease immediately and such property shall immediately be restored to the tax rolls and thereupon become subject to taxation and shall be taxed pro rata for the unexpired portion of the taxable year.

Sure, it was just a single game, before the Rangers were unceremoniously bounced from the playoffs by the Carolina Hurricanes. But still, that clause had been enough of a concern that Rangers owner James Dolan made sure that for outdoor games at Yankee Stadium and Citi Field in 2014 and 2018, the Rangers were designated as the road team. So should that one-game sojourn in Toronto have triggered the automatic return of the Garden to the tax rolls, after $555 million in skipped tax payments?

The answer at first appeared to be “no one knows,” but further research revealed that it was actually “everybody says they know, but nobody can agree on an explanation,” which is far more entertaining. As I reported for Gothamist on Sunday:

The explanation from New York state is that “cease to play their home games in said property at any time” doesn’t mean what you think it means. State tax department spokesperson James Gazzale tells Gothamist, “The law is clear that the exemption continues until either team ceases to play home games at MSG—meaning a permanent stoppage, not a temporary relocation due to a global pandemic.” Asked why the Rangers then chose to play Winter Classic games as the road team, Gazzale declined to comment further.

Madison Square Garden officials, meanwhile, had a different explanation for why the Toronto trip was okay: Ed Koch said it would be. Garden officials confirmed a brief note in this New York Post article from July that an “original agreement” between the city and MSG excluded relocations due to Acts of God from triggering the tax renewal clause, but did not provide further details.

The actual agency that would be in the position of deciding to return MSG to the tax rolls, meanwhile, is the city Finance Department, which didn’t get back to me on any of my questions.

As I wrote for Gothamist, this would be a pretty picayune basis on which to make a decision worth hundreds of millions of dollars — but then, that’s exactly how the Garden ended up with its tax break in the first place, when someone neglected to include an end date even though it was intended to expire after a decade. Thirty-eight years later, the tax break is still going strong, and many New York officials are calling for it to be repealed. Just not on a technicality — that wouldn’t be cricket.

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Cuomo’s Penn Station expansion plan could cement MSG’s $550m-and-counting tax break in place for eternity

With New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo again proposing an expansion of Manhattan’s Penn Station — this one with an estimated $8 billion price tag, to be funded mostly by ¯_(ツ)_/¯ — Gothamist asked me to look into the state of the eternal tax exemption for Madison Square Garden, the arena that sits atop the train station, which the state accidentally put into place in 1982. The answer: The tax break has now cost New York City a total of $550 million and could hit $1 billion by 2030, legislation to repeal it keeps going nowhere, and Cuomo’s Penn funding plan could write it into tax law forever.

Cuomo’s Penn Station expansion plan (which is at least the sixth iteration of an expansion plan since one was first floated by then-Senator Pat Moynihan in the early ’90s) proposes another massive tax kickback, siphoning off untold billions of future property-tax dollars — technically payments in lieu of property taxes, or PILOTs—from an undisclosed area around the train station to pay for expansion of the transit complex. It’s the same mechanism that was used to partially subsidize Hudson Yards, accounting for just over $1 billion of the city’s $5.6 billion total tab.

The governor’s Powerpoint presentation on his plans includes a diagram on page 51 showing a “development district” that would include Penn Station and several blocks around it. Cuomo’s office referred questions to the state Empire State Development corporation, which indicated that this would be both the size of the new project and the size of the PILOT diversion district, though “the exact boundaries and parcels have yet to be finalized.”

If Madison Square Garden does end up within the area carved out to pay PILOTs, notes Kaehny, that could have the effect of cementing MSG’s tax break in place — or at least limiting the amount of future taxes Dolan and his successors pay, and ensuring that the proceeds go to the governor’s redevelopment project, not to city coffers.

There are a lot of question marks here, to be sure — it’s not even certain whether Cuomo’s PILOT district will be approved by the city council, or if the expansion will ever get off the ground at all — but Kaehny isn’t wrong to worry. Though the way things are going in Albany, even getting a thin sliver of tax payments that immediately get dumped into building a new auxiliary-station-plus-upscale-mall might be preferable to just letting the tax break ride forever.

And speaking of letting the tax break ride forever, here’s what an MSG spokesperson said when asked why that was really necessary:

“We appreciate that people have their opinions about our location, but the truth is that Madison Square Garden’s tax abatement pales in comparison to the billions in public benefits received by the other New York sports venues.”

All the other kids’ parents let them get away with even more! Someday I really want to see the industrial-strength vats of chutzpah that PR professionals bulk-order to keep under their desks.

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New York City probably won’t evict MSG in 2023, but it sure would be fun if they tried

Madison Square Garden’s 10-year extension of its operating permit — designed ostensibly to give the arena time to find a new home that’s not atop Penn Station — is halfway over with no sign of the Garden departing, leaving the possibility that New York City might have to evict the New York Knicks and Rangers come 2023. What would that actually look like? I did a deepish dive for Gothamist, and came up with this:

“We cannot think of other examples of special permits for building use with expiration dates,” Department of Buildings spokesperson Andrew Rudansky tells Gothamist. “Hypothetically, if a building’s special permit expired, causing the use of that building to be contrary to zoning, the Department may take enforcement actions to compel the owners to return the building to a previous Code and zoning-complaint use.”

The typical enforcement actions available to the DOB, Rudansky explains, include imposing civil penalties or fines. In cases of more routine violations, the department maintains a Padlock Unit that, true to its name, is authorized to padlock a premises and issue criminal charges against anyone who enters. (Cue visions of the Rangers being hauled off to The Tombs in full uniform and pads.)

To be clear, everyone I spoke to was pretty firm that they don’t expect this to happen: Lots of people may want the Garden gone to make way for a new above-ground Penn Station (either modern or retro), but that doesn’t mean anyone on the city council wants to be the target of headlines about forcing the Knicks and Rangers to leave town. (Not that they would leave town, since they’re the centerpieces of a New York–based cable network; the levels of gamesmanship here go all the way down.) But the threat of being able to shutter the garden if they wanted to has to be a part of negotiations for MSG to relocate, if those ever get started. (Neither council officials nor MSG officials would so much as tell me whether talks have even taken place.)

The concern here, obviously, is that MSG will come back with, “It’s going to cost us around $2 billion to acquire land and build a new arena, and we’re going to need city help with that, plus we need to be able to take our $50 million a year tax exemption to any new site,” and that the council will feel obligated to listen to make the Garden leave quietly. Not that they would be obligated to listen — they do have the hammer here of applying padlocks — but the fear of nasty tabloid headlines could end up putting New Yorkers on the hook for billions of dollars in new arena costs, which would be an extremely bittersweet way of undoing the city’s original sin.

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New York Rangers to play home game as road team to protect $50m-a-year tax dodge

In what I suppose is a tax dodge but is actually kind of hilarious, the New York Rangers are going to be playing a game in New York City as the road team against the Buffalo Sabres, all because they don’t want to spoil the eternal property tax break they were accidentally gifted 35 years ago:

When the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers square off in the 2018 NHL Winter Classic in Queens, the Sabres will be the home team despite being headquartered 385 miles away…

Madison Square Garden, the privately owned Manhattan home of the Rangers and the NBA’s New York Knicks, would risk a lucrative property-tax exemption worth more than $40 million a year if either team plays home games in New York City outside the iconic arena…

“If one or both of said teams shall cease to play their home games in said property at any time, the tax exemption provided herein shall cease immediately and such property shall immediately be restored to the tax rolls,” New York’s Real Property Tax Law states.

You can see why the state legislature wrote the language that way back in 1982: They didn’t want to give the Knicks and Rangers a massive tax break and then have the teams leave town anyway, as they were at the time threatening to do without the subsidy. (Though the bill’s crafters also either neglected to notice or intentionally snuck in language that made the tax break extend indefinitely, something that’s now cost the city government more than $400 million.) But apparently they didn’t notice the loophole of the teams playing home games and calling them road games — it’s not like the NBA or NHL would really abet the teams’ tax dodge by designated all of their games as road games, I don’t think, but…

Anyway, all of this subterfuge, and the now $50 million annual cost of the tax break, could be avoided if the state legislature would just pass a bill to rescind it after 35 years. (Mayor Ed Koch claimed he thought he was approving just a 10-year tax break at the time.) Such a bill is annually introduced to the state assembly by Manhattan assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, and for the fifth year in a row is sitting in committee with no action. With government watchdogs like these, NHL-abetted loopholes are all MSG’s owners need to keep raking in the dough.

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MSG investing in new Islanders arena on Long Island is so crazy it might just be crazy

There are rumors, and then there are rumors that lead to eyebrow-raising headlines:

A supergroup of New York sports executives, including owners of the New York Rangers and the New York Mets, is lining up to invest in a new arena just outside of Queens for the National Hockey League’s Islanders, according to people familiar with the discussions…

The new arena proposal is a joint venture between the Islanders, Oak View Group and Sterling Project Development, said the people, who asked to be anonymous because the talks are private. James Dolan’s Madison Square Garden Co., which controls the Rangers, long the Islanders hated rivals, is an investor in Oak View Group, the private equity group run by Tim Leiweke and Irving Azoff. The Wilpon family, which owns the Mets, controls Sterling Project Development.

Much of this isn’t new: Bloomberg News reported last summer that the Islanders owners were looking at the Belmont Park racetrack site as a potential backup to building an arena next to the Mets‘ stadium in Willets Point, and apparently (according to those “people familiar with the discussions”) it’s now moved up to being Plan A. The new bit is the involvement of Oak View, the company run by former AEG exec Leiweke that has also expressed interest in renovating Seattle’s KeyArena, and which includes Dolan’s Madison Square Garden Co. as an investor.

Let’s start with the ways this makes some sense: Belmont Park is close to the Islanders’ old fan base, it has decent transit and highway access, and the state has been looking for a way to redevelop the site for years to no avail. And if you’re going to look to build a whole new arena in an already-glutted market, who better to turn to than Leiweke, who is desperate enough to make a splash in the arena game that he could well be willing to take on plans that more established arena operators might consider too risky.

On the other hand … this makes no damn sense. The New York City area already has arenas in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Newark, and Nassau County — it just had to close one in New Jersey because there weren’t enough concert acts to go around, and it’s now apparently being used as rehearsal space. Adding another arena would just put one of the existing ones on the brink. And it really makes no sense for MSG to want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to compete with itself — unless Dolan thinks he’s better off owning two arenas to try to drive Mikhail Prokhorov’s two arenas (Brooklyn and Nassau) out of business, which would be a strange kind of loss leadering, but then, Dolan is after all an idiot.

There’s also always the possibility that the Islanders owners, Mets owners, and Oak View could try to demand public money to sweeten the pot: Bloomberg reports vaguely that “New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken part in the proposed arena talks and is seeking to attach infrastructure improvement projects to it,” and we know that Cuomo is big on building things that he can call “infrastructure,” especially when he can do so via a combination of tax breaks for private developers and Ida Know. There’s also always the possibility of going back to Nassau County voters to see if they’d be more amenable to funding a new arena now, or maybe seeing if Islanders fans on Long Island would buy commemorative bricks or something to stop having to trek to Brooklyn to see games.

All of which is to say that there are way too many unknowns here to say whether this story could have legs, or is mostly just the Islanders owners trying to leverage Prokhorov into giving them a lease extension in Brooklyn that lets them keep their guaranteed-income deal and/or renovates the Barclays Center to be a less sucky place to watch hockey. I’m in an optimistic mood today, so I’ll say I hope that this is another indicator of a burgeoning arms race within Big Arena that sees billionaires throwing money at new venues without demanding big public subsidies, just because they’re trying to drive each other out of business. It couldn’t end well — anybody remember the Borders-Barnes & Noble war? — but at least the only casualties would be some private corporation’s bottom line.

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NYU study: Relocating MSG would cost $5B, give it a rest already

Certain sectors of the New York City policy world (the Municipal Art Society, the New York Times editorial board) have been calling for a while for the relocation of Madison Square Garden, so that a new, grand Penn Station could be built in its place. (The old, grand Penn Station was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the current Madison Square Garden, the fourth building to bear that name.) NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management released a study last week of how much it would cost to do this, and came up with … do I hear $5 billion?

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 8.23.17 AMThis isn’t really all that surprising: A billion and a half for a new MSG sounds about right given that just renovating the old one cost a billion, and acquiring new land could easily cost half that in this market. (The Rudin report looks at the price of buying up the annex to the Farley post office building across the street Morgan post office annex a couple of blocks to the southwest, but other sites would be priced similarly, if you could even find any.) And almost $3 billion for building a new Penn Station is already the price tag established by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his plans (which would leave MSG intact but build lots of new stuff under it).

It’s also important to consider the political context, with Cuomo’s plan to expand Penn Station with MSG in place (to be paid for by some as-yet-unidentified private developer — applications were due two weeks ago, but if any have been revealed it’s news to me) going up against the MAS and Regional Plan Association’s insistence that MSG really needs to be kicked out. Given that Rudin director Mitchell Moss has already endorsed Cuomo’s plan, and his report’s conclusion is “It’s time to move on,” it’s easy to see some political gamesmanship going on here.

Still, this whole mess is a reminder that as easy as it is to envision redesigning your city to undo past mistakes (tearing down one of the greatest public spaces ever, building a kind-of-ugly sports arena in its place), there’s something to be said for actually existing architecture, both in that it’s already paid for, and in that the city has grown up around it to accommodate it. Not to say that nothing should ever get built or torn down, but it’s important to look at the true costs of doing so, and whether the money could be better spent mitigating the effects of your last mistakes.

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