After years of social distancing from community leaders, are developers ready to reach out?
On Tuesdays and Thursdays in May, Vanessa Gibson and Diana Ayala, New York City’s councilmembers for the districts surrounding Yankee Stadium, have donned masks to hand out food to Bronx residents with an organization called Bridge Builders Community Partnership. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has dropped by. Each week, Ayala and Gibson’s posts on Facebook and Twitter about the food distributions have taken care to mention one partner in particular: the real estate developer Maddd Equities.
Charity seems to be a new passion for Maddd Equities’s owner, Jorge Madruga, who as a 12-year-old boy on a boat fleeing Cuba decided to pocket half the Juicy Fruit gum that his uncle gave him to hand out to his fellow refugees because, according to his business partner Eli Weiss of Joy Construction, “it didn’t come naturally to just give it away.” In the last few weeks, Maddd’s Twitter account has received kudos for Covid-19 aid work from U.S. Congressman Adriano Espaillat and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez as well as Gibson, whose former chief of staff recently joined Madruga’s company. The flurry of social media attention is unusual for the developer, which despite its big real estate deals and generous campaign contributions only tweeted twice last year to an audience of 24 followers.
Why might Maddd Equities want to raise its public profile now? Besides good corporate citizenship during a crisis, there’s also the reason the developer has in common with another partner in the food distributions, New York City Football Club: they’re trying to build a soccer stadium as part of a billion-dollar development on the border of Gibson and Ayala’s districts. Maddd declined to comment for this article.
In February, NYCFC President Brad Sims confirmed reports that the club was “actively involved with MADDD Equities” on a stadium project that was nearing the public approval stage. In the coming months, Sims wrote, the club would engage “in meaningful public dialogue with community residents, civic leaders, supporters, and local elected officials to obtain critical feedback on the details of this proposal.”
According to the developers, that dialogue was already well underway at the time. They told the New York Times that, unlike previous plans for a soccer stadium that had withered under community criticism, this time “they began with community outreach and sought input long before they presented any concrete proposals.”
But while the stadium project appears to be gathering necessary support from city and state agencies, local leaders aren’t quite on the same page. At a Bronx Community Board 4 board meeting two weeks after the Times’ February stadium update was published, District Manager Paul Philps wasted no time in addressing it. “What I would say about this article is that there’s a lot of misinformation in here. I’ll be very clear, they’ve been meeting with lots of city agencies, but they’ve not been meeting with the community or the community board as of yet,” he told residents gathered at the Bronx Museum of Arts.
“In reading the article, it gives the impression that there’s going to be a public process,” Philps said. “I think in there they say that construction will not begin until at least 2022. Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is almost March of 2020 and I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that’s highly unlikely.”
Weiss told the Times that the stadium had reached “a moment in time where the stars have aligned. And by the stars, I mean all the people involved.” But in an interview taped alongside Madruga just weeks earlier, on December 18, Weiss said the project was “in the very nascent stages.” “There have been discussions with the city and with the stakeholders that there could be enough excess land there where a stadium could be put in,” he said. “But I think the concept comes back to excess land.”
That land lies in Ayala’s council district. Speaking to The Outfield in February, she sounded less than convinced. “I think that the soccer stadium people and the city, they’re going to have their hands full in trying to really persuade the community that this is something that is in their best interests.” Ayala characterized her meetings with Maddd up to that point as very high level, and emphasized that she would have to hear from her constituents and small businesses before backing a proposal. “This one is really something I would like to take my time with,” she said. “Because you know there’s real potential here, but there’s also a little bit of risk and so I want to make sure that everybody feels comfortable.”
Winning over Ayala and Gibson will be vital if the stadium development enters New York City’s lengthy land use review process. “By tradition,” according to one ULURP explainer, “the Council usually follows the lead of the councilmember in whose district a project falls.” (Maddd and Joy also have affordable housing and retail developments in the works just north of Yankee Stadium, in Gibson’s district. “We like the commercial corridor of River Avenue,” Weiss said in the December interview.)
Some community stakeholders doubt the developers’ interest in local needs. Cary Goodman, the executive director of the 161st Street Business Improvement District, told The Outfield that he met with Madruga about a potential stadium almost two years ago, when Madruga intimated that he wanted the BID’s fullest cooperation and inclusion. That was the last time Goodman heard from Maddd on the subject. Last year, the BID took it upon itself to demonstrate the community’s needs by surveying local business owners and residents about what they would want from a new soccer stadium.
Bronx Community Board 4 likewise acted without input from developers when it sponsored an Urban Land Institute panel on the stadium plan in October. ULI Executive Director Felix Ciampa spoke to The Outfield when the panel published its report in March. Although the ULI group met for only two days, Ciampa said that community board sponsorship allowed the panel to represent the community and voice its broad concerns. He noted the panel’s finding that, in addition to a stadium, the proposed development could bring employment opportunities to the area. The full footprint, which includes plans for housing, retail, and a hotel, could complement the mixed-use development at Bronx Point by allowing increased access to the River Avenue corridor, he said.
“The great thing with working with the community was they have a plan,” Ciampa said when asked about the disconnect between city agencies and the South Bronx. “They have a plan and a strategy and a set of recommendations for the vision they have with their community.”
It’s unclear whether the community’s vision is aligned with the stadium developers’ plans. “The city has been meeting with the development team for close to two years and no one has really reached out to us at any level until we engaged ULI on the technical assistance panel,” Philps told the Commercial Observer in March. “It would have been nice to be engaged a little bit sooner.”
In the first lobbying reporting period of this year, Philps and Community Board 4 were named for the first time in the disclosures of CFG Stadium Group lobbyist Geto & de Milly and Yankees President Randy Levine. (The Yankees are part owners of NYCFC, and Levine has been a key player in the soccer stadium push.) Newly released filings from March and April show Maddd and Joy shifting their attention from city officials to the state legislature, where Maddd’s powerhouse lobbyist Stanley Schlein has been in touch with New York Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie regarding Bronx real estate development. At the same time, Tonio Burgos, which has been lobbying the state’s transportation department on the critical step of removing a 153rd Street ramp to build the stadium, added the MTA to its list of targets. On May 18, Maddd registered a new lobbyist, David Quart of VHB, who was last seen swapping stadium plans and discussing the GAL factory’s relocation with NYCEDC in mid-2019.
Reached by email, Sims told The Outfield that while “wider work on the stadium has continued” amid the pandemic, NYCFC and its stadium partners have had “many other important things to focus on during these challenging times.” Sims added: “I am proud of the significant impact that our team, along with a number of our partners, have made, in conjunction with NY Common Pantry, to provide relief locally in the South Bronx.” ❧
- A First Look at NYCFC’s Bronx Stadium Plan (December 20, 2019)
- NYCFC Stadium Plans Gather Steam in the Bronx (October 28, 2019)
Image: Ernest Lawson, Spring Night, Harlem River