Last month, New York City FC released the first renderings of the Willets Point stadium they intend to build in time for the 2027 MLS season. According to the club, the NYCFC stadium is moving ahead right on schedule.
The political reality is proving to be a good deal messier. Steve Cohen, the billionaire owner of the New York Mets – the (maybe?) future neighbors of NYCFC at Willets Point – is leveraging the proposed stadium to get approval to build a casino next to Citi Field. The deal Cohen wants to strike is simple: Either he gets his casino, or NYCFC won’t be able to use Citi’s parking lot on game days.
Those backroom negotiations became public yesterday when the New York Post reported that Cohen held a conference call with New York City Mayor Eric Adams and Councilman Francisco Moya, who represents the district. The conversation was “cordial yet spirited,” according to a mayoral spokesperson.
In other words, things got spicy as these power brokers sought to “hash out differences about the fate” of the NYCFC stadium.
If you think that sounds ominous, you’re right to be concerned.
Cohen: Merge the stadium and casino
The Willets Point stadium and the casino are completely unrelated, but according to the Post, Cohen is intent on merging the two projects.
The reason is simple: Both are subject to the city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a months-long approval process required of developments like these. The stadium has strong support, and stands a good chance of getting approval. The casino, on the other hand, is more contentious. Seemingly, Cohen feels that the casino will stand a better chance if it’s bound to the more popular stadium.
As reported earlier in Hudson River Blue, the NYCFC stadium will be one element in a multi-billion dollar development that includes 2,500 units of affordable housing, a public school with room for 600 students, and a hotel. NYCFC will get a state-of-the-art 25,000-seat stadium, and New York City will get a new neighborhood that will go a long way to address the city’s housing crisis.
Just as important, NYCFC will finance the entire project privately. Unlike other stadium projects, which are essentially subsidized by public financing, NYCFC plans to pay for their stadium in full.
Affordable housing, private money, jobs-creating construction: This is the kind of project that will likely get a green light from the ULURP.
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No wonder Cohen wants to piggyback the casino, which is thin on details, to the NYCFC project, which will first build the affordable housing, public school, and hotel before ground is broken on the stadium.
By fusing two, Cohen stands a better chance of getting his casino approved. But the risk to the stadium is enormous. NYCFC was careful to build political consensus, engage neighboring communities, and create tangible benefits for the city. All of that could be lost should the casino be rejected and take down the stadium with it.
50 acres of parking…
What leverage does Cohen have to bully his way into the stadium proposal? Parking lots, and money.
According to a report published in The City, the stadium isn’t required to provide parking. But The Outfield reports that the expectation is that there will be “one parking space for every 25 seats in the stadium,” which works out to 1,000 parking spaces.
The NYCFC stadium won’t have parking spaces available to public, so the development plan proposes entering into an agreement that will allow the use of a portion of the 4,000 parking adjacent to Citi Field. Reportedly, Cohen will sign that agreement only if the casino and stadium proposals are treated as a single project in regard to ULURP.
…and a $500,000 donation
But parking isn’t Cohen’s only bargaining chip. The billionaire and disgraced hedge fund manager is a major political donor.
Cohen contributed $500,000 to a Super PAC that supported the campaign of Mayor Eric Adams — and another $500,000 to a Super Pac that supported Andrew Yang. He was going to be on the winning side no matter what.
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The Post also reported that after the recent conference call ended, Cohen “threatened” to use his financial muscle “to back ex-con Hiram Monserrate, a former councilman and state senator who previously represented the area, in a Democratic primary if he didn’t get on board with his redevelopment plan.”
A Cohen representative later denied the threat, calling it a “complete fabrication” according to the Post.
It sounds messy.
Cozying up to the governor
Even more messy: Cohen’s relationship with New York Governor Kathy Hochul. The two were photographed taking in a Mets game at a Citi Field suite along with Melinda Katz, the Queens District Attorney.
This is where we’ll note that the casino license is to be issued by New York State, not the city. And that Citi Field and the parking lots are built on parkland that is owned by New York State.
Cohen needs to grease the wheels of the state as much as the city. Good thing Cohen and his wife Alexandra donated almost $140,000 to Hochul’s recent campaign. Alexandra Cohen also donated $117,300 to the state Democratic Committee.
It’s a testament to Cohen’s acumen that he’s even allowed to own the Mets.
Cohen made his fortune running the investment fund SAC Capital. Cohen and his fund, as reported in the New Yorker, “were, for several years, at the center of one of the most high-profile financial-fraud investigations ever conducted.”
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SAC Capital pleaded guilty to insider trading charges in 2013 and paid a record $1.8 billion in penalties. Cohen was barred from supervising hedge funds by the Securities Exchange Commission, but he personally escaped punishment. SAC Capital was the one that was found guilty, not Cohen.
That distinction proved to be key when Cohen took ownership of the Mets in 2020 for $2.4 billion. According to the New York Times, the lease of Citi Field specifies that “a transfer of ownership is a ‘permitted transaction’ only if the buyer is not a ‘prohibited person'” who “is ‘a person that has been convicted in a criminal proceeding for a felony or any crime involving moral turpitude.'”
In other words, you can’t own the Mets if you’re convicted of a felony. But what if the company that you personally oversaw and that was named for you – the SAC in SAC Capital stands for Steve A Cohen – pleads guilty? Totally fine.