A loser at Aqueduct

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Feb 5, 2012

Cuomo looks to wrong place for a convention center

In every governor’s State of the State address, there must be one idea, one project, that stands above all. The one that the public and press will remember when comparing the governor and his “vision thing” with what actually was accomplished.

Let the Chronicles of Planet New York forever reflect that on Jan. 4, 2012, 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.

The state convention center we have now, named for the late revered Sen. Jacob K. Javits, was obsolete the day it opened a quarter of a century ago. Plans for expanding or demolishing it have been discussed ever since.

I participated in more than a decade of those deliberations as a member of the Javits board from 1995 through 2006.

New York is notorious for building inadequate massive public works, such as the convention center, highways on Long Island and the Tappan Zee Bridge. That vital span over the Hudson, incredibly enough, was built to last only 50 years, through 2007.

Cuomo wants to raze Javits and construct a 3.8 million square foot facility at Aqueduct, mainly with capital supplied by Malaysian gambling giant Genting. The Javits site, on Manhattan’s West Side, would be redeveloped so it could host smaller 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 plans for the Javits site.

Among those was a new Yankee Stadium, with adequate mass transportation promised sometime in the future. Another was a stadium ballpark for the Jets to play in eight days a year and a grossly unsuitable convention space for the other 357.

Andrew’s plan is also an opportunity for him to 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 the Javits management were part of the Pataki administration’s successful cleanup of Cuomo’s mess.

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 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 his 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 available everywhere. It acts 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 has never needed a convention center in order to be the economic, information and cultural capital of the world. It has world-renowned theatre, dance, music, museums, shopping, food, sports, history and commerce.

While Javits loses some conventions too big 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. But building a mammoth convention center in a part of Queens remote from Manhattan and attempting to sell it as a New York City experience is the tourism equivalent of bait and switch.

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.

It has a finer Frederick Law Olmstead Park than the one he designed in Manhattan. It has the largest and best collection of Frank Lloyd Wright structures. Buffalo has world-class art museums, music, theatre, major league sports teams, two of the Great Lakes and the Chautauqua Festival and Niagara Falls nearby.

Of course, Buffalo needs more first-class hotel space and more frequent and reliable service to its airport. Construction and mass transportation infrastructure and the jobs that go with them are part of any plan for any massive convention center.

A truly visionary governor would transcend the parochial boundaries of his Queens roots and see the map and future of New York from a bolder and loftier vantage point.

Lloyd Constantine is a Manhattan lawyer. He was a senior adviser to Gov. Eliot Spitzer and is author of several books, including “Journal of The Plague Year” about the Spitzer administration.



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