Monday, April 04, 2005

Class Warfare

In Roman times, the wealthy gave money to their cities to build baths, arenas, theatres, aquaducts, and other structures intended for the public benefit. In our time, the rich just can't be rich enough, so they steal the money from the taxpayers to build their pleasure domes, as Bob Herbert observes:

When Robert Wood Johnson IV, the fabulously wealthy owner of the New York Jets, craned his neck from a perch in the New Jersey Meadowlands (where the Jets now reside) and trained his eyes on an enormous parcel of Manhattan real estate, his heart began beating wildly and a single obsessive thought began racing through his brain: I want it.

After all, it was waterfront property, right up against the Hudson River. Very valuable. You could walk to it from Times Square.

Not only did he want this publicly owned property turned over to him so he could build a grand stadium for his privately owned franchise, he wanted the city and state to kick in hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars to help him realize his dream. Being a member in good standing of the billionaires' club, he asked his fellow billionaire, Michael Bloomberg, to take care of this matter for him.

Mayor Mike was only too happy to oblige. He quickly came up with $600 million in city and state money for his pal Woody (all of Mr. Johnson's friends call him that). To put this in perspective, consider that the $600 million is nearly equivalent to the entire amount ($635 million) that Woody paid for the team. In effect, the public would be reimbursing him for the cost of the franchise.

Then Mayor Mike persuaded the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns this very valuable property on Manhattan's West Side, to agree to hand it over to Woody for a bargain-basement price, hundreds of millions shy of its real value.

So quicker than you can say "scandalous," the billionaire mayor arranged the transfer of more than a billion dollars' worth of goodies from the public domain to the private stash of his friend Woody. Quite naturally, Woody plans to use this windfall, which rightfully belongs to the men and women of New York City and New York State, to further enrich himself. Trust me, it's good to be a billionaire.

There are a few other weird things about this deal. The proposed 75,000-seat stadium - surrounded by the dense, traffic-jammed neighborhoods of Hell's Kitchen, Times Square and Chelsea - will be built with no new provisions made for parking. On game days, the entire West Side of Manhattan will be paralyzed. Fans driving to the stadium will be lucky to make it inside before the final gun.

Then there's the price tag for this stadium. Originally it was supposed to cost $1.4 billion. There is only one appropriate reaction to spending that kind of money for a football stadium: hysterical laughter. (In Philadelphia, a billion dollars bought two new stadiums.) Usually when something is overpriced, it gets marked down. But in this case the price has gone steadily up - to $1.7 billion, and then $2 billion, and now, incredibly, $2.2 billion.

Incredible. Just incredible.

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