President’s Letter: May 2024

Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

May 31, 2024

Memorial Day weekend is both a time to recognize lives lost in service and the start of summer. For me, it is time for informal summer barbeques and hanging out with friends.

My weekend started with a ballgame, Mets against the Giants. The tickets were a generous gift from a dear friend. Citi Field wasn’t full the night I was there, but you wouldn’t know that from the people streaming off the 7 train at Willet’s Point Station. It was a stunning night, and an amazing game with upsets and turnarounds, that kept us there to the bitter end. (The Giants won by a run.) I had my annual Nathan’s hotdog. (There was no sauerkraut available. I am shocked, simply shocked!)

I am not a team sports fan, however I am a minor observer of the stadiums themselves, and this visit to Citi Field got me thinking about the relationship between the city, a team and the huge infrastructure necessary to support them.

Citi Field and surrounding neighborhoods. Photo: Wilimedia Commons, Malrite. Modifications: photo cropped.

I like this new form of smaller Major League stadiums that take after venues like Boston’s Fenway and Chicago’s Wrigley Field. I lived in Chicago for a while and Wrigley Field is still my favorite. It is an authentic place. There are still lawn chairs on the roof of small apartment buildings across the street. Those are the really cheap seats. Newer stadiums like Baltimore’s Oriole Park at Camden Yards have taken many of the nicer attributes of these old buildings and incorporated them into spanking new structures.

While running the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department I managed a team of folks who worked for the Department and handled the creaky process of converting Candlestick Park from a baseball field into a football stadium, and back again every year. The groundskeepers were amazing. They could turn that field around in a day.

I also got to see the back of house in all its decaying beauty. The team owners were sure they were the center of civic life in San Francisco. They were not. So, when they moved on to purpose-built stadiums, I was relieved. It was time.

And that was the first time these age-old questions of who pays for them were an issue for me.

When Citi Field was built to replace Shea Stadium it cost $850 million. Of that, $615 million came in public subsidies from the State of New York. Some of that subsidy was in bond sales, which are being repaid by the Mets with interest. But this is where it gets tricky. The Mets pay no property taxes or “in-lieu” fees. They do pay lease fees to the City. How that equation shakes out, I can’t be sure.

It is perhaps clearer in the new soccer stadium being built at Willets Point, just up the block from Citi Field, which is being privately financed and will cost $750 million to build. According to the City’s Budget Office that will cost the taxpayers $516 million in relinquished property taxes. So not exactly free to the public.

And, what does the taxpaying public get for its investment of public resources? According to an article about another New York State stadium project, the Citizen’s Budget Commission examined studies about the economic dynamics of these ventures: “Prior economic research has found little to no evidence that professional sports franchises and facilities have measurable economic impacts.”

New York City has lots of specialized professional sport team venues. The argument for a new model for stadia is in part to move the financial model around to reduce the burden on civic funding sources. That naturally leads to more private funding, accompanied by the sale of naming rights, more advertising (and associated noise), crazy expensive boxes and silly games intended to fill the television advertising gaps.

This is a trade-off of sorts with an uncertain pay-off for cities. Civic pride? Tourist dollars? I am not sure. But I do think that it is harder to hear the old-fashioned thrill of a ballgame on a beautiful night with enthusiastic fans over the blaring advertisements and flashing lights. And that is kind of a shame.

I hope you enjoy a beautiful day watching your favorite sports team with friends and family this summer!

Elizabeth Goldstein Signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President, Municipal Art Society of New York

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