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Javits Center Plagued With Problems From the Start

By Jill Colvin | January 9, 2012 12:46pm
Governor Cuomo proposed razing the Javits Center during his State of the State address.
Governor Cuomo proposed razing the Javits Center during his State of the State address.
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MANHATTAN — Long before Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed razing the Jacob Javits Convention Center and replacing it with a glittering new 3.8 million square-foot convention center at the Aqueduct Racino in Queens, the site was the subject of multiple failed attempts at renovation and renewal.

Cuomo proposed in his State of the State to tear down the 25-year-old west side convention center and remake it into a "21st century" mixed-use neighborhood in the model of Battery Park City, with residential units, hotels and parks, alongside the Hudson Yards redevelopment plan.

But even before it welcomed its first visitors in 1986, the replacement for the former Coliseum was mired in problems, from delays to cost overruns to trouble getting equipment through the door, said those who were involved in the plan at the start.

The Javits Center has been undergoing renovations to modernize and expand.
The Javits Center has been undergoing renovations to modernize and expand.
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"I believe it was always too small so it could never be competitive. It couldn’t handle the big conventions," said Former Mayor Ed Koch, who was in city hall when the Javits was built.

"[Gov. Hugh] Carey called me to tell he was going to build a convention center totally paid for by the state," Koch added, noting the city had little say in the Javits location and design. Also, he noted, the city didn't originally have an appointee to the board because it wasn't providing any cash.

Koch said he hoped the proposed center renovation will open the doors to new housing and hotels on the west side waterfront, which could provide a big boost to the area.

“I think it’s a good idea instead of the Javits,” Koch said.

When the Javits opened its doors in 1986, many on the West Side hoped it would mark the dawning of a new era for the largely desolate industrial lands.

The original plan for the center called for 1 million square feet of convention space on West 44th Street, at one point on a pile jutting into the Hudson River. But the footprint was gradually scaled down and the plot forced south after the area raised objections to razing homes.

"This has been a troubled building since its birth," said Mitchell Moss, Director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, "It was an effort to kind of rejuvenate New York City. But it didn’t have the impact they thought."

Meta Brunzema, a long-time local resident and member of the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association, which has long proposed razing the Javits to make way for a park, said the "deserted" stretch of 11h Avenue, between West 34th and 38th Street, was simply "not a hospitable place" for a tourist destination.

More than a half mile from the closest subway stop, Brunzema said the building also lacked the kind of meeting rooms and ballroom space that would have attracted typical conventions. Instead it welcomes a roster of giant trade shows with time-intensive set-up and take-down, leaving the center closed as many as 150 days of the year — making it impossible to sustain businesses, including cafes and restaurants, she said.

And when events like the auto show are in full-swing, Brunzema said the neighborhood is hammered with hundreds of cars circling for parking and lost packs of badge-wearing convention-goers asking for directions to the Javits. After shows, they flock to cabs, leaving as fast as they came.

“It really hasn’t attracted the kind of economy that it should have," she said, noting that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, up to 30 percent of properties in the area remained vacant, hindered in part by zoning laws that left the landscape dotted with auto repair shops and parking lots.

Residents also panned the "big, black hulking building" for cutting off access to the waterfront.

"People looked at it with a sense of isolation," said long-time Chelsea resident Edward Kirkland, 86, whose lived on West 34th Street for the past 40 years and held numerous leadership positions in his decades serving on the West Side’s Community Board 4.

In the two decades since its opening, many have floated big dreams for re-making the Javits better.

In 2004, Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for a massive expansion as part of his West Side Stadium plan. The New York Sports and Convention Center would have included a 75,000-seat stadium, 200,000 feet of exhibition space, and a new convention hotel, as part of what was marketed as a "convention corridor" that would have made the city more competitive for lucrative trade shows.

The mayor recalled last week how the New York Jets were willing to invest nearly a billion dollars in the space in exchange for its use for 13 Sundays a year.

"People [thought of it] as a football stadium," he said, "But it was an expansion, a dramatic expansion to the Javits Center. ... We just couldn’t get it through Albany."

The state approved another plan in 2006 for a dramatic $1.6 billion expansion (PDF), with would have added approximately 340,000 square feet of new exhibition space, including a ballroom, 180,000 square feet of new meeting space, a new loading zone and hotel.

In the end the plan was downgraded, leaving many officials unsatisfied.

"What we have [now]," the mayor said during his weekly radio interview Friday, "Is a disgrace."

Save Chelsea founder Bob Trentlyon, 82, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 60s, said that the story of the Javits has been a steady stream of plans for development, which have repeatedly fallen through.

“There were a lot of people that bought property [from Eighth Avenue to 11th Avenue] assuming that the area would start taking off, which it didn’t," he said.

"I guess the proper word," he said, "was lame."