Earlier this year, the Atlanta Braves opened SunTrust Park. The development was more than just a new baseball stadium, but also sparked the creation of a 60-acre complex called The Battery Atlanta. The Battery is a mixed-use facility which, when completed, will include a 50,000-square foot entertainment venue, a 16-floor Omni Hotel, a nine-story office tower, as well as numerous restaurants, shops and apartments. This type of mixed-use facility is hardly new, as several other sports complexes have been enhanced by the addition of mixed-use development, such as the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
However, if you visit Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, you’ll find nothing of the sort.
For over 50 years, New York City has tried to develop Willets Point, the 61-acre area that lies west of the Mets’ home. Willets Point’s neighborhood is infamous. The perception of the area as a blighted community stretches back to the early 20th century, as the area is believed to be “The Valley of Ashes” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in The Great Gatsby. The neighborhood relies on septic tanks because it is not connected the city’s sewer system, is prone to flooding and lacks running water and streetlights. For almost a decade, the Mets have been working with the city to try to develop the neighborhood, but in June the project hit a major road block – the New York State Court of Appeals.
The Mets and the City had separated the project into two phases, the first of which was the building of a mall and movie theater on what is currently a parking lot outside Citi Field. However, the court halted this development in Avella v. City of New York, through an interpretation of a 1961 state law. The court believed this statute was not an explicit enough authorization for the construction.
Putting aside the important, complex and varied political, economic and social issues surrounding the project (including a debate about whether sports complexes help or hurt poor neighborhoods, the serious pollution and health risks in the area and the number of public housing units that will be created as part of the project), the court’s interpretation of the statute was incorrect.
The statute in question was enacted as part of the quest to bring National League baseball back to New York. Because the proposed site rested on parkland, the legislature had to alienate or lease the land for non-park purposes, pursuant to the public trust doctrine.
Administrative Code of the City of New York § 18-118 authorizes the city to enter into contracts “to use, occupy or carry on activities in, the whole or any part of a stadium, with appurtenant grounds, parking areas and other facilities.” It goes on to list a number of enumerated purposes for which the space can be used, which include “recreation, entertainment, amusement, education, enlightenment, cultural development or betterment, and improvement of trade and commerce, including professional, amateur and scholastic sports and athletic events, theatrical, musical or other entertainment presentations, and meetings, assemblages, conventions and exhibitions.”
The court interprets this language to mean that the legislature only authorized uses that are “related to, part of, belonging to, or serving some purpose for, the stadium itself.” Though the defendants argue that the broad language, which authorizes use for “improvement of trade and commerce,” would certainly capture a shopping mall, the majority believed the phrase must be interpreted pursuant to the noscitur a sociis canon. Thus, since the other purposes are “consistent with the typical use of a park and/or stadium,” the use of the land must be “stadium related.”
Which begs the question, what type of development is stadium related?
The court dismisses out of hand that building a mall could in any way be related to a stadium. However, as Chief Judge DiFiore noted in her dissent, the “practical realities regarding modern stadiums” support a broader reading. In other words, it’s time for the court to update what it means to authorize construction of sports stadiums.
Stadiums often serve as the center of economic life and are accompanied by different types of real estate and development. The legislature alienated the parkland for the use of a stadium. Now, that includes retail centers, restaurants, shopping malls and the like. As one reporter noted, “the era of standalone, isolated stadiums [is] largely over.”
Even if authorizing construction for modern stadiums now comes with other development, one could argue that this was not what the legislature had in mind in 1961. This line of thought brings to mind one question about the practice of statutory interpretation – should we interpret statutes as the legislature would have understood it at the time the statute was enacted, or do we interpret it dynamically, taking account of changed circumstances, and lean on what the language means today?
However, perhaps this idea of stadiums being accompanied by other infrastructure, specifically retail-related apparatuses, is not a modern phenomenon. As Judge DiFore notes, in the sixth century B.C., the Circus Maximus in Rome had shops adjacent to it and “when the Romans conquered the Greeks, they renovated the stadium at Olympia and built inns and shops in the area.”
Now, the building of new sports stadiums is almost always accompanied by other development. In addition to the aforementioned stadiums, the Detroit Redwings included a $200M project to build offices, restaurants, shopping areas and a hotel for its stadium. The minor league baseball team, the Lansing Lugnuts invested $11M in an apartment complex literally within the stadium, over the fan concourse. The Milwaukee Bucks, the Green Bay Packers, the Minnesota Vikings and the Tampa Bay Lightning all have plans for mixed-use projects accompanying their stadiums. The list goes on and on.
It’s unclear what the next steps for Willets Point will be. A community meeting last month did little to shed light on the future of the project. Though the development group could try to get the legislature to (more) explicitly alienate the parkland, navigating the political process in Albany is no small task.
Regardless, one thing seems clear. Everyone on the court agrees that the legislature authorized use of the parkland for stadium-related purposes. Now, this just might include a mall.
Brette Trost is a J.D. candidate, 2019, at NYU School of Law.