Olympics bid at heart of new West Side story

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The Independent US

There are reasons Manhattan does not have an outdoor stadium in its midst. It occupies a small and intensely crowded island. And mighty arenas already surround it in New York City's outer boroughs - the hometown baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets, have fields in the Bronx and in Queens.

There are reasons why Manhattan does not have an outdoor stadium. It occupies a small and crowded island. And mighty arenas already surround it in New York City's outer boroughs ­ the home baseball teams, the Yankees and the Mets, have fields in the Bronx and in Queens.

But there is a obsession in the US with abandoning perfectly decent sporting venues and building new ones. Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit have all done it recently. New York doesn't want to be left out. And something has been rankling with the city for years ­ its American football franchise, the New York Jets, currently has its home across the Hudson river in New Jersey.

And so today ­ in what some critics describe as urban madness ­ the city is expected to unveil plans for a $1.4bn (£760m) super-stadium for the Jetsin Manhattan, never mind the inevitable traffic congestion.

This is no humble scheme. The plan ­ to be outlined today by the Mayor, Michael Bloomberg ­ calls for a 75,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof on the far west side of Manhattan above 30th Street. The stadium will sit atop what is now a massive railyard, adjacent to the Jacob Javits Convention Centre. It promises to be one of New York's most ambitious redevelopment projects, second only to the $12bn rebuilding effort in lower Manhattan where the twin towers once stood.

The closing roof means that, outside football season, the stadium will be available for conventions spilling over from the Javits, which itself will be doubled in size as part of the plan. Also envisaged is a cluster of high-rise office towers trailing down 11th Avenue from the stadium as well as extensions to the New York subway system.

The neighbourhood, admittedly, is bleak today. But why the hurry, some people are asking, in determining that a stadium is the best way to revive it? Economic studies have shown that sporting stadiums rarely bring long-term benefit to urban areas. There is a clear explanation for the rush to build the Jets its field of dreams. It is called the Olympics.

At the end of May, the Olympic Committee is set to start sifting through the nine candidates to stage the Summer Games in 2012. New York and London are among the group. The proposed stadium is the centrepiece of New York's Olympic proposal, slated to serve as the main venue. Thus, it desperately needs to have a deal for its construction tied up within the next two months. Otherwise its Olympic dreams will founder.

But how to pay for all this? The Jets are set to contribute $800m for the stadium ­ a record amount by any American franchise. The city and the state will try to raise $300m each, mostly through bonds. Meanwhile, a new hotel tax will be imposed on tourists and business visitors to raise an additional $500m.

Opponents of the plan fear displacement of tenants to make way for the construction. And political leaders in Queens are set to campaign to have the stadium built in their, far less crowded, borough instead.

"What's a football game without a tailgate party?" asks a flyer from one group opposing the stadium. The answer, of course, is: "A New York Jets game at the West Side Stadium." In American football, it is part of the ritual on game day to set up the barbecue grill behind your car to make hot dogs and drink beers. You can't do that on 11th Avenue.

The city and the Jets reply that people have tailgate parties because there is nothing else in the suburbs where most stadiums are located. In Manhattan, there are bars and restaurants. The city insists that the new stadium and the expansion of the convention centre would bring in an extra $75m in tax revenues annually.

David Oates, who is leading the effort to take the Jets to Queens, foresees disaster. "Their current plan for a stadium on the west side is going to bring down the Olympic bid," he growled. "How are they going to deal with all the congestion?"

Several prominent New York politicians similarly dislike the stadium blueprint. "All the research indicates that sports stadiums are not a significant stimulus to the local economy," said Adriano Espaillat, a member of the New York legislature whose district is in Manhattan. "I think it'll be a traffic nightmare for everyone."

The Broadway owners are concerned that the stadium would dominate Times Square and discourage tourists.

Gerald Schoenfeld, chairman of the Schubert Organisation, which owns several Broadway theatres, said: "We should not be rushing to decide its fate."

However, the Jets and Mr Bloomberg have won over the most important forces in the city. Leaders of major unions rallied behind the project last week, citing the number of jobs that it would create.

Last week David Weprin, chairman of the finance committee on the city council endorsed the stadium, calling it "great for the city".