Another Town Hall Where Locals Mostly Rail Against Casinos in Manhattan

Five developers are currently vying to land a casino license to operate in Manhattan. While building trades want them, NYS Sen. Senators Liz Krueger and Kristen Gonzalez appear dead set against one on the East Side. Sen Brad Hoylman-Sigal–whose district has two developers seeking licenses on the West Side–seems more willing to listen buts says he wants to assure there is community input first.

| 26 Feb 2024 | 08:39

The Legislature signed off two years ago on licensing three casinos in or around New York City, delegating only the question of where these casinos should be, but not whether they should be.

But that seeming decision did not deter several experts on gambling from telling a town hall in Manhattan Feb. 22 that casinos are a really bad idea that don’t deliver their promised revenue, undermine property values and end up exploiting local residents.

“I oppose casinos and gambling in general,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, who convened the town hall. “I find it to be a tax on desperation, with no societal benefit and real prices to be paid. As I often say, only the house wins.”

Not withstanding the Legislatures action, it is still possible to stop approval of any of the five casinos proposed in Manhattan, the town hall was told.

Krueger, of the upper East Side, said she organized the town hall in part because “all five sites are lobbying very hard to convince us of just the opposite of my opinion.”

Indeed, even as Senator Krueger was preparing her town hall, major developers allied with big name gaming companies, polished their multibillion proposals for casino complexes on some of Manhattan’s largest undeveloped sites.

One of the city’s biggest developers, Related Companies submitted its proposal to deck over the eastern end of the Hudson rail yards, where once it promised six apartment buildings, to build a casino and hotel tower with Wynn Casinos.

The submission was a request to the city planning commission to replace its earlier plan for those six apartment buildings with a plan for three buildings – the casino and hotel, an office tower and school, and one apartment building with as many apartments as the earlier six buildings.

The changes would also allow for improved green space the size of Bryant Park.

Similarly, the Soloviev Company which wants to team up with Mohegan Sun, has revised its plans for a casino on the former Con Edison substation site it owns just south of the United Nations, trying to make the idea of an East Side casino more attractive to the neighborhood by including five acres of public park land.

“Freedom Plaza has garnered support from more than 10,000 Manhattan residents, community groups, and 250 local small businesses in favor of the plan, which–in addition to the gaming area, which will be intentionally placed below-grade and concealed from the street–will bring much-needed public landscaped open space, 513 units of affordable housing, thousands of jobs, and an annual commitment to revenue reinvestment in the community,” said Michael J. Hershman, CEO, Soloviev Group in a statement.

“We discussed with the developers what the community needs and what this proposal is,” State Senator Gonzalez told the town hall about the discussion with Soloviev, whose site is in her district. “And while in this presentation we heard about some of the things this community has been fighting for for years–like good union jobs and green space and affordable housing–what we heard from the community was even bigger. That the public goods we deserve to live really high-quality lives in this part of Manhattan shouldn’t be dependent on the development of a casino.”

But with the legislature’s blessing and the general support of the Gov. Kathy Hochul and the Mayor Eric Adams, can a casino in Manhattan be stopped, one participant in the Town Hall asked?

To answer that Sen. Krueger organized a painstaking description of the complicated process the legislature created to locate the three casinos it had authorized. As part of that approval, the legislature gave local elected officials what amounts to a veto of having the casino in their districts.

Here is how it works. While three new casino licenses have been authorized, the location of those casinos must be approved by local Community Advisory Committees composed of Representatives of the Governor, the Mayor, the Borough President, and the local assembly member, senator and council member.

It takes four votes to approve, meaning any three of the four local elected officials could scuttle the plan.

Which is why all of the potential casino developers and operators are drawing up lists of benefits they plan to offer communities in exchange for approving a casino.

“We are excited to continue engaging with stakeholders across the local community as part of the city land-use process for the undeveloped railyards,” said Related’s spokesman, Jon Weinstein. “The opportunity to bring a world-class resort to Hudson Yards will catalyze the master plan for the broader Western Yards and $12 billion in total investment. As the state’s parallel [casino licensing] process moves forward, we look forward to unveiling our full proposed plan which will provide thousands of jobs, billions in revenue and community benefits, a new park, affordable housing, a school and more.”

Meanwhile, at the town hall, an attendee asked if all five proposals for Manhattan could be rejected?

“If in New York City none of the applications are approved by the community advisory commissions, we cannot consider them for a license,” explained Vickie Been, who is a member of the state’s casino siting board.

Interestingly, The State Senator who will actually vote on the Hudson Yard’s proposal, Brad Hoylman-Sigal, seemed more open to considering a casino then either Senators Krueger or Gonzalez, who have other Casino proposals in their districts.

“We do need to center the community and insure community members have the opportunity to have their voices heard,” Hoylman-Sigal told the town hall, “I’m going to be using my involvement with the community advisory do just that: insure that the proposals–and there are two of them in my district on the west side of Manhattan–are first and foremost beneficial to and desired by the community around it.”

Related Companies and their casino partner, Wynn Resorts, said they would address this.

“We have spent more than a year meeting with New York community service organizations and philanthropies to map out a carefully considered plan of community benefits and support,” said Weinstein and Wynn’s chief spokesman, Michael Weaver in a statement. “We look forward to presenting that plan as part of our RFA submission.”

RFA stands for request for application, the Gaming Facility Location Boards acronym for the applications it is soliciting to build three downstate casinos.

“Because of our unparalleled location, brands, and project scale that will attract global attention and generate maximum revenue, Wynn New York City will generate more direct jobs, taxes and benefits than any other bid,” Weinstein and Weaver said.

The siting board is still answering questions about its selection process, so the total number of applicants won’t be known until that is completed and the window is closed for applications.

But as of now there are the five proposals in Manhattan (the other three are at Times Square, Saks Fifth Avenue and 11th avenue and 39th street), as well as proposals for the old Nassau Coliseum, Citi Field, Coney Island, the former Trump golf course in the Bronx and two currently operating “Racinos,” at Yonkers and Aqueduct racetracks.

Many experts presume that two of the three licenses will go to those existing racino’s, since they can ramp up faster to full casinos and are already accepted, or at least tolerated, in their neighborhoods.

But that is not a done deal, and some of the forces pushing for casinos, like the building trades, want the biggest development projects possible. Related said it’s Hudson Yard plan would cost $12 Billion and Soloviev but the price tag for its project at $18 Billion.

Vickie Been noted that the state siting board would consider overall revenue, which meant among other things looking at the effect each new casino would have on the other two. Which suggests bidders may push for some competing plans and against others.

For example, the operators at the racetrack sites would almost certainly prefer to have the third casino in Manhattan rather than closer to them in, say, Queens and the Bronx.

One argument proponents make for a Manhattan casino is that it would be an added tourist attraction. But at the town hall experts debunked this argument.

“Those who love to gamble and who love to go to casinos, they wouldn’t necessarily come to New York City,” said Lucy Dadayan, an expert on the gaming industry from The Urban Institute and Brookings. “They would go to Las Vegas which offers tons of casinos, and they can jump from one casino to another. And those who travel to New York City, they travel for all other reasons, including the museums that New York City has, the Broadway shows and all other attractions.”

Which means, said Les Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, that the main clientele for any New York area casino will be local residents.

“They create more gambling addicts then they do jobs,” said Bernal. “They’re jobs come at someone else’s expense. This is a key part of their business model...More than half the gambling profit in a casino comes from citizens who’ve been turned into gambling addicts. The casual gambler? They’re irrelevant to the business model.”

“I find it to be a tax on desperation, with no societal benefit and real prices to be paid. As I often say, only the house wins.” NYS Sen. Liz Krueger
“The opportunity to bring a world-class resort to Hudson Yards will catalyze the master plan for the broader Western Yards and $12 billion in total investment.” Jon Weinstein, spokesman for the Related/Wynn casino’s bid.
”Freedom Plaza has garnered support from more than 10,000 Manhattan residents, community groups, and 250 local small businesses in favor of the plan.” Michael Hershmann, CEO of Soloviev which seeks and East Side casino license.