Four Big Unanswered Questions About NYCFC’s Ginormous Queens Soccer Complex
Mayor Eric Adams declared himself "the finisher" when he announced the $780 million soccer stadium, but he finished his press conference without answering these questions.
6:12 PM EST on November 16, 2022
One day after he fed the New York Times an exclusive about his deal with New York City F.C. to erect a new $780 million soccer stadium at Willets Point in Queens, Mayor Eric Adams, a panoply of elected officials, soccer bigwigs, and everything but an actual dog and pony held a press event at the Queens Museum on Wednesday to make it official. Before a cheering crowd of construction union members and chanting NYCFC supporters, Adams declared himself "the finisher"—that’s a futbol reference, if you’re unfamiliar—and asserted that "this is what it means to build a ‘City of Yes."
Despite taking a few questions after the event, statements by the mayor and other officials were a little light on details. Here are some questions we still have about the project:
How much will this cost taxpayers? That initial Times story indicated that stadium construction will be covered by NYC F.C.’s Abu Dhabian billionaire owners, with city subsidies "largely limited to infrastructure improvements at the site and property tax breaks for the stadium."
That could mean a lot of things: The city of Oakland, for instance, is currently considering up to $1 billion in spending on A’s baseball stadium "infrastructure" that includes such things as new bus underpasses and berms to defend the proposed stadium site against sea level rise. (Deputy Mayor Maria Torres-Springer said following the event that infrastructure for a project of this size would be "typically in the $200 to 300 million range," but that specifics were still being worked out.) And while property tax valuation is more art than science, a full rebate on taxes for a $780 million stadium could easily run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. (Yes, public land can be taxed if it's used for a private purpose.)
Torres-Springer added that the whole project "will generate $6 billion in economic impact over 30 years and close to 16,000 jobs," but the administration did not provide any math to back up those estimates.
Will the city get a fair price for its land? Willets Point was taken over by the city more than a decade ago as part of the eviction of the warren of auto-parts stores that once occupied the site across from the Mets’ stadium, and remains public land. According to Torres-Springer, NYCFC will pay an annual rent that will start at $500,000 a year and top out in the year 2076 at $4 million; over 50 years, the total would come to less than $30 million in present value.
How much affordable housing will be built, and how "affordable" will it be? Adams’ presentation leaned heavily on the 2,500 units of housing that Queens Development Group—a development company comprised of Related Companies and Sterling Equities—plan to build alongside the stadium, noting that New Yorkers earning "$40,000 and less" will be eligible. (The actual income range, according to THE CITY, will be 30 percent to 130 percent of area median income, which could include families of four earning as much as $173,420 a year.) The city council’s original plan was for 5,500 apartments, though some would have been market rate; Queens community groups have recently criticized Adams for backing away from the higher number.
None of this was addressed in Wednesday’s press event, nor in the accompanying press release. Presumably more details will become available as the soccer plan goes through the city’s ULURP land use process, but with both Adams and local councilmember Francisco Moya on board, it seems set for smooth sailing in terms of city approvals.
The Mayor's Office confirmed that the first 1,100 units built will be between 30 percent and 130 percent AMI, with a majority below 80 percent AMI, and that while the second phase hasn't been determined yet the goal is to have a similar range.
Does Queens need two full-service casinos? Earlier this year the state legislature paved the way to awarding three new full-service casino licenses downstate. Currently, Genting's Resorts World in Queens and MGM's Empire City Casino in Yonkers are the closest to the real thing—patrons sit and put their cash into machines then stare at screens or robotic roulette wheels, with no human beings doing the dealing. (The vibes are bad at the "racino"—trust us—even if the jobs are good.) Both are hoping to get a license to offer "real" gambling.
Also in the ring: Related Companies and Wynn Resorts want to put one in Hudson Yards, and SL Green Realty and Caesars want one in Times Square.
But Mets owner Steven Cohen wants a new Hard Rock Casino to be a part of this new Willets Point sports complex, and he started talking up the idea to Mayor Adams almost immediately after he took office.
Generally, casinos are not a good bet: they rarely raise the money that the casino operators say they will, and they tend to devour each other. Every new casino eats into the revenue from others nearby; New York casinos would cannibalize tax revenue that otherwise might go to Connecticut or New Jersey, and so on.
A Willets Point casino would be 10 miles north of Resorts World, which is currently the most profitable racino in the state. But maybe not for long! Would having one casino in Manhattan and one in Queens make any more sense than having two in Queens? The state's Gaming Facility Location Board is going to have to figure this out, sometime in late 2023.
For now, at least, we can stick a fork in both NYCFC's plans to build a new home alongside Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, as well as erstwhile minor-league soccer club Queensboro F.C.’s plans for a stadium at Willets Point. (Queensboro previously announced construction of a temporary stadium at York College, then never so much as put a shovel to earth before apparently disappearing entirely.)
What will eventually rise in Willets Point, and how much it will cost city taxpayers, remains a mystery for the moment — if anyone sees Adams out and about en route to one of his favored nightspots, maybe shout out some questions for him?
[UPDATE 11/18/22] To get a better sense of how much the city would be getting from NYCFC if they paid full property taxes—or payments in lieu of them—we asked Geoffrey Propheter, a University of Colorado economist whose book "Major League Sports and the Property Tax: Costs and Implications of a Stealth Tax Expenditure" is due out next week from Springer. Propheter said there are many caveats to calculating property tax payments, but that according to the methodology he’s developed for sports projects (which is explained in the book), granting the soccer team a full tax exemption over 49 years would cost New York City somewhere between $132.5 million and $197 million.
Plugging those numbers into our original cost-benefit estimation, we now have the city providing: an unknown amount of infrastructure spending (estimated by the deputy mayor at $200-300 million, though some of that would presumably be for the housing and hotel portion); property tax breaks worth $132.5-197 million; and the land under the stadium. In exchange, NYCFC would make rent payments worth a present value of under $30 million. At best, then, the city would be taking a $100 million loss on this deal; at worst, somewhere in the higher nine digits. We’ll know more once the mayor’s office provides a draft lease or memorandum of understanding, if and when it gets around to that.
Christopher Robbins contributed to this story.
This story was updated to reflect some answers on background from the Mayor's Office.
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