A billion-dollar mirage

A rendering of the unbuilt West Side Stadium, which supporters hoped would host the Jets and the 2012 Olympics. Credit: Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates
What if the West Side Stadium had been built?

Perhaps it would’ve become one of those bits of received transportation-related wisdom that Manhattanites grow to take for granted. Don’t plan on driving anywhere fast on the East Side during the United Nations General Assembly. Avoid Penn Station during SantaCon (or preferably, altogether). Stay away from the West Side if the Jets have a home game on a fall Sunday afternoon.

Maybe future New Yorkers would have looked back on 2012 the way some now remember the 1939-40 and 1964-65 World’s Fairs, and would one day have proudly told grandchildren: I was there when Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps won gold at the New York Olympics.

We’ll never know. The West Side Stadium — a billion-plus dollar project championed by two mayors that would have served as the Jets’ home field, a massive convention hall, and the key venue for the 2012 summer Olympics — like so many other big dreams in Manhattan civic planning history, died on the vine. But despite the fact that it was never built, the stadium’s legacy will continue to be felt on the West Side for decades to come.

The idea of building a stadium on Manhattan’s West Side had its roots in the early 1990s, when Gov. Mario Cuomo floated the Long Island Rail Road train storage facility that would go on to be known as Hudson Yards as the site of a potential new home for the Yankees, whose boss George Steinbrenner was using the threat of a move to New Jersey as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the city over financing for a new stadium.

As mayor, Rudolph Giuliani flirted with the idea of a new Yankee Stadium in Manhattan as well, but later, in a surprise announcement during his 1999 State of the City address, said that a new facility on the rail yard site should be built not as a baseball park, but as a football stadium for the Jets, whose lease at Giants Stadium in the New Jersey Meadowlands was set to end in 2008. Among the administration’s selling points was that a football stadium would only disrupt traffic in the neighborhood during 10 home games each year, as opposed to the 81 regular season games hosted annually by the Yankees.

The Yankees ultimately chose to stay in the Bronx, but the Jets, under new owner Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson IV, went all-in on Manhattan. Soon after purchasing the franchise in 2000 for $635 million, the Johnson & Johnson heir turned his attention to getting a stadium built at the rail yard site. Johnson found an ally in Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who took office in 2002.

The timing dovetailed nicely with the Olympic ambitions of Dan Doctoroff, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for economic development. Doctoroff, previously an investment banker, had worked for years to catalyze support for a New York City bid at hosting the Games. A new stadium on the West Side could serve as the centerpiece of the Olympics; the Jets could provide a source of private funding.

A plan eventually emerged for a stadium that would serve not just as a home for the Jets and Olympics, but also as an expansion of the neighboring Javits Center. It called for the Jets to foot the roughly $800 million bill for the stadium’s construction, and for the city and state to contribute $300 million each to finance the platform over the rail yards that the stadium would be built upon and a retractable roof that would allow the venue to be used as a convention hall.

Architects at the New York-based firm Kohn Pedersen Fox designed the stadium, which would be bounded by 11th and 12th Avenues to the east and west and 30th and 33rd Streets to the north and south.

Chief among the architects’ goals was to integrate the facility into the surrounding cityscape. “Typically stadiums are standalone projects,” Lloyd Sigal, a principal at KPF who worked on the project, explained. A venue on the West Side called for a different approach than a stadium in a suburban parking lot. To meet this challenge, the stadium plans were rectangular in shape to fit into the city grid, rather than the more typical round footprint, and designers wagered that the incorporation of the High Line (then still in its precarious infancy as a park), large public plazas, retail and convention programming would make the area an attractive destination even on days when athletic events weren’t taking place.

The design also featured a number of sophisticated environmental elements that would become more common in the years to come, such as solar power collectors, 40-foot tall wind turbines and a rooftop rainwater collection system. “I think it was cutting-edge from a sustainability point of view and the idea of integrating more architecture and urbanism into the building,” Sigal said.

The plan was perhaps most maligned for what it lacked —plentiful parking. Planners relied on the idea that the vast majority of the 85,000 spectators traveling to the stadium for events (plans called for capacity to be reduced to 75,000 after the 2012 Olympics) would rely on public transportation. The extension of the 7 train to 34th Street in Hudson Yards was a key feature of the project, and would combine with other West Side subway lines, commuter rail service to Penn Station and ferry service from New Jersey to get fans to and from the venue. Many community groups in the area weren’t sold on the idea, and complained about anticipated gridlock in their neighborhoods on game days.

“I think people, mentally, weren’t quite there yet when we were talking about these things,” Sigal said recently, looking back. “I think after Barclays [Center, the transit-centric sports arena built subsequently in Brooklyn that is also short on parking] and after seeing the 7 line extended and seeing how that works, maybe it would have changed people’s opinions.”

Along with game-day traffic, construction-related disruptions were a key concern of groups that opposed the project. Their opposition was shared by then-Cablevision president James Dolan and his family, who owned nearby Madison Square Garden and saw the new stadium as a threat to their arena’s status as New York’s preeminent entertainment venue. (Dolan, incidentally, spoke favorably of the project years earlier when Giuliani proposed that it include the relocation of the Garden. Dolan also tried to purchase the Jets and was outbid by Johnson.)

The Dolans helped bankroll an advertising campaign against the stadium that was later countered by Johnson. “The Dolan family, with their ads, helped galvanize that opposition,” Bruce Berg, a political science professor at Fordham University who has studied the stadium case, said.

After years of planning, the formal submission of an Olympic bid, extensive public debate at the community level, and an ad battle to shape public opinion waged by billionaires, the stadium’s fate was ultimately sealed by three men in a room. The state’s Public Authorities Control Board, comprised of representatives of Gov. George Pataki, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, voted against funding the state’s $300 million share, effectively killing the deal. Pataki supported the stadium; Bruno opposed it. Silver cast the deciding vote against the stadium because he felt the plan would detract from the ongoing recovery of his Lower Manhattan district in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. New York’s Olympic bid fell short soon after, with the wind taken out of its sails by the stadium funding failure. London was awarded the 2012 Games.

The unbuilt stadium’s impact, however, lives on. The development plan and Olympic bid kick started the rezoning of the district and the extension of the 7 train line that made the eventual Hudson Yards redevelopment project possible. It’s now difficult to think of Chelsea or the Hudson Yards area without the High Line, but before the stadium plans, it was a real possibility that the old freight line could have been torn down.

“One of the good things about the stadium not being built is that it left the far West Side for other different kinds of development,” Berg said.

“That might have been all that was there,” he added. “The housing, the office buildings wouldn’t exist. That would be a shame, since the new West Side neighborhood in 10 years should be a solid piece of the Manhattan landscape.”