The State of the State address gives the governor the opportunity to survey New York and put forth priorities for the new year. While the substance of the governor’s intentions is contained in the annual budget speech, the State of State spotlights what President Bush 41 quizzically called “the vision thing.” It is the governor’s moment to rally support for the most important and loftiest objectives. And among a handful of projects the governor can mention in a speech of less than an hour, there must be one proclaimed first, implicitly the most important, which media will focus upon and remember when comparing the governor’s vision with what was accomplished.
Let the Chronicles of Planet New York forever reflect that on Jan. 4, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared that the state’s most vital need was to build the nation’s largest convention center in Ozone Park, Queens, on the site of Aqueduct Racetrack. New York’s current state convention center, named for the late revered Sen. Jacob K. Javits, was completed barely a quarter century ago and focuses attention on the lack of vision and wisdom of previous governors. Javits was obsolete the day it opened. Plans for expanding or demolishing it have been discussed from date of inception. The Weekender participated in more than a decade of those deliberations as a member of the Javits board from 1995 through 2006 and during that last year helped derail an ill-conceived and excessively priced expansion.
The Empire State is notorious for building inadequate massive public works, such as Javits, the major highways on Long Island and the Tappan Zee Bridge. That vital span over the Hudson incredibly was built to last only 50 years, ending in 2007.
Governor Cuomo’s convention center plan is to raze Javits and construct a 3.8-million-square-foot facility at Aqueduct, mainly with capital supplied by Malaysian gambling giant Genting. The Westside Manhattan Javits site would be redeveloped for a variety of purposes, including hosting small to medium sized conventions. This plan involves two of the most misused plots of real estate in New York City. It also gives Andrew the opportunity to add his bad idea to the long list of grandiose but awful prior plans for the Manhattan parcel.
Among those was a new Yankee Stadium on Manhattan’s Westside with adequate mass transportation promised sometime in the future. Another was a ballpark for the Jets to play in eight days a year and during the other 357 to serve as grossly unsuitable convention space. Andrew’s plan is also an opportunity for him to physically and symbolically erase the shameful history of the Javits Center during his father’s tenure as governor. Under the stewardship of a Mario Cuomo-appointee and close family friend, the center was dominated by organized crime interests. My appointment and those of former Organized Crime Task Force Chief Ronald Goldstock and former mob investigator Gerry McQueen to leadership positions on the Javits board and management were part of the Pataki administration’s successful cleanup of the Cuomo mess at Javits.
Andrew’s big plan is also another chance to pursue the Cuomo family folly: That state sponsored gambling is an engine for economic development, regardless of state constitutional barriers. In 1984, Attorney General Robert Abrams opined, as was his legal responsibility, that Mario Cuomo’s plan for Vegas-style sports betting was unconstitutional. After that the governor tongue lashed Abrams, reduced his departmental budget and threatened to move the Attorney General’s offices from the courthouse area of lower Manhattan to the docks in Brooklyn. Twenty-eight years later, casino gambling of the type Andrew proposes for the Aqueduct convention center is increasingly available everywhere and primarily acts as a highly regressive form of taxation on working and middle-class local gamblers. The “1 percent” high-rollers will continue to place their bets in venues more scenic than the Belt Parkway.
New York City rose to become the economic, information and cultural capital of the world without a convention center. Until 1986, the small New York Coliseum, built in the 1950s, sufficed. The city’s tourist trade thrived because unlike many other major cities in the nation, New York does not need conventions to fill its hotel rooms and restaurants. It has world-renowned theater, dance, music, museums, shopping, food, sports, history and commerce which make it hard to book a room or a table at hundreds of spectacular establishments. Savvy citizens applauded when the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics failed. Cities that want and should get such extravaganzas are those screaming (as New York City once did) “look at me” or those like London who fear that the world has passed them by. While the need to stimulate tourism rationale for a largest in nation convention center in New York City holds no water, conventioneers who really want to hold an event there don’t mean Ozone Park. They might as well be in Atlanta or Cincinnati. Conventioneers who want access to the things Manhattan has will find the Southeast Queens site unsuitable and an avoidable bait and switch.
While Javits loses some conventions it is too small to accommodate, it also is true that other exhibitions that really want to be in Manhattan put up with the limitations. Smaller shows fill Javits for the vast majority of available dates. If a well conceived plan for razing Javits and redeveloping the site for multiple uses complementary to the adjacent neighborhoods and plans for Moynihan Station and Hudson Yards can be formulated, then that part of the Cuomo proposal makes sense. The part that is silly is building a mammoth convention center in a part of Queens remote from Manhattan and attempting to sell it as a New York City experience. The people who hold conventions have maps and GPS devices.
What is proposed is a New York state, not city, convention center. Better to build it in Buffalo, a place almost as convenient to Manhattan as Ozone Park. However, unlike the area surrounding Aqueduct, Buffalo has things conventioneers should be introduced to. Buffalo has a finer Frederick Law Olmstead Park than the one he designed for Manhattan’s center. It has the largest and best collection of Frank Lloyd Wright structures and, therefore, could become for America what Wright and Barcelona have become for Spain and Antoni Gaudi, that country’s iconic architect.
Buffalo has world class art museums, music, theater, major league sports teams, a Great Lake and the Chautauqua Festival and Niagara Falls nearby. Of course, it needs more first class hotel space and more frequent and reliable service to its international airport. Construction and mass transportation infrastructure and the jobs that go with them are part of any plan for any massive new convention center. A truly visionary governor of the entire state would transcend the parochial boundaries of his Queens roots and see the map and future of New York state from a bolder and loftier vantage point.