In November 2020, billionaire Steve Cohen bought the New York Mets for $2.4 billion, bringing instant relief to millions of Mets supporters (the authors included), who had suffered under the two-decade rule of the previous owners, the real estate developer Fred Wilpon and his failson Jeff. As credulous investors in Bernie Madoff’s fraudulent empire, the Wilpons were among its biggest suckers: Fred, with his brother- in-law Saul Katz, lost $500 million almost overnight, and father and son were forced to borrow $880 million just to keep the Mets going. What was already a volatile situation was compounded by the Wilpons’ constant meddling in team affairs—back in 2005, Jeff notoriously forced inner circle hall of famer Pedro Martinez to pitch through an injury—and penny-pinching. From 2008 to 2013, right when the Mets’ new digs, Citi Field, should have delivered a bump in attention and attendance, payroll dropped by 48 percent—and fan morale along with it.
Unlike the Wilpons, Steve Cohen is not cheap. Within weeks of the changeover, he signaled his good intentions by donating $17.4 million to the New York City Economic Development Corporation’s small business Covid recovery fund. In 2021, he boosted team payrolls to $201 million and signed shortstop Francisco Lindor to a $300 million–plus extension, a contract that would have been inconceivable under the old regime. Cohen proceeded to bring the Mets up to baseball code by developing an analytics office (something COO Jeff Wilpon refused to do) and upgrading coaching throughout the organization, hiring highly competent and well-regarded staff to the minor leagues and bringing on the steady hand of Buck Showalter as manager. This past offseason, he turned his attention toward Citi Field, installing a huge new scoreboard and several modern screens around the ballpark.
These moves have branded Cohen as an outlier in Major League Baseball (MLB). One anonymous executive took issue with the unprecedented expenditures he has sunk into the Mets, complaining to the press, “Our sport feels broken now.” The feeling is that Cohen is unsettling a balance among owners. Because of MLB’s interteam revenue sharing agreement, running a profitable team is actually very easy to do if you don’t try to win: cut labor costs by lowballing players, rack up a losing record, and still profit. (According to Forbes’s Business of Baseball report from this year, the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates are the league’s seventh most profitable team). Cohen’s strategy—spend whatever it takes to win a World Series—doesn’t make straightforward economic sense. In an era of plummeting payrolls and expanded playoffs, one doesn’t need to go this hard. So, what’s in it for him?
For one, he’s an actual dyed-in-the-wool Mets fan living out his dream. He often takes to Twitter to post his excitement about the team and reassure fans in hard times. (Naturally, he has scores of adoring reply guys.) Secondly, owning the Mets is a great deal for Cohen personally, as it helps him repair his reputation. A favorable profile recently published in the New York Times mentioned how Governor Kathy Hochul “beelined” to Cohen, whose previous firm SAC shuttered after paying $1.8 billion in forfeiture and fines a decade ago, at her January inauguration ceremony. Talk to any normie Mets fan about “Uncle Steve” and they’ll wave away the financial controversy; after all, he saved their team.
But beyond personal motivations lies the promise of profit. Cohen didn’t just take on a baseball team when he bought the New York Mets. Ownership means Cohen now has a major stake in the economic development of Willets Point, the bedraggled area surrounding Citi Field. Willets Point has presented an unsolvable development enigma for decades, with a persistent unbridgeable rent gap despite some obvious strengths. Cohen just might have the financial and political clout to resolve that enigma and realize the latent value of the area. These planned investments have serious implications for the future of Queens, where a soccer stadium and a casino are poised to turn Willet Point’s historical Iron Triangle of industry and auto body shops into a glitzy entertainment complex. Cohen, as a new kid on the block in Queens, has inherited a complicated set of spatial politics and opportunities for profit. His purchase of the Mets has already begun transforming Citi Field, but far bigger changes are yet to come.
OPENED IN 2009 in the shadow of the financial crisis, Citi Field sits on 2.75 million square feet of city-owned public parkland. Hemmed in by a square of Robert Moses–era highways, the stadium feels isolated despite its proximity to several dense and vibrant neighborhoods. Situated north of the elevated 7 line, the stadium is flanked to the west by a 50,000-square-foot parking lot and to the east by a jumble of auto shops known as the Iron Triangle. South of the 7 lies Flushing Meadows Corona Park, one of the largest parks in the city. The grounds are scattered with buildings: two museums, the tennis center that hosts the US Open, and a banquet hall operated by the Port Authority, plus eerie remnants of the 1964 World’s Fair.
While this swatch of interstitial land was designated as parkland during the city’s earliest years, the whole “park” idea has always been impinged upon by more prosaic uses. In the 1910s, the area was leased to Brooklyn Ash Removal Company, which reduced it to the “valley of ashes” immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The 1939–40 World’s Fair, whose nonexistent profits were supposed to go toward realizing Moses’s conception of The City Beautiful (a green “sliced off by gray as sharply as by a knife,” as his biographer Robert Caro put it), initiated a chain of disappointing recreation-based economic development schemes. When the site was being readied for the ’64 World’s Fair, Moses changed his sales pitch: as the city’s population shifted toward Long Island, Flushing Meadows Corona Park would supersede Central Park in geographical importance. But that fair was also a flop, with only a handful of rickety monuments still standing to mark its legacy. Philip Johnson and Richard Foster’s New York State Pavilion, which millennials will remember from the scene in Men in Black when aliens conceal their spaceship in one of the structure’s towers, was one such monument; Shea Stadium, Citi Field’s predecessor, was another.
When Fred Wilpon’s beloved Brooklyn Dodgers departed for Los Angeles (in part over stadium negotiations with whom else but Robert Moses) and the Giants decamped from upper Manhattan’s Polo Grounds to San Francisco (both in 1957), New York was left without a National League baseball team. (The Yankees played in the American League.) The city worked together with lawyer William Shea to pressure the National League for a new team, even threatening to start a third league, the so-called Continental League, if it was refused. Moses’s vision for Flushing Meadows Corona Park incorporated a new baseball stadium, to be built on public parkland and leased, with fixed annual rent payments, to the organization that would become the New York Mets.
Though technically within city limits, Shea Stadium anticipated a trend of giant concrete inner tubes adrift in a suburban sea of parking; baseball, native to the vacant urban lot, joined in on the flight away from the city core. Shea fulfilled many purposes: it housed the Mets from 1964 to 2008, while also hosting the New York Jets and a variety of major concerts, including the Beatles’ attendance-record- breaking second U.S. performance. While Yankee Stadium remained stranded in a South Bronx marked by disinvestment, Shea seemed to be riding the wave of the future. Despite getting off to an uneasy start, the Mets were soon drawing more fans than their crosstown counterparts. The quality of play surged as well. In 1962, while the team was still playing at the Polo Grounds, aging manager Casey Stengel despaired at a dreadful 40-120 season. (“Can’t anybody here play this game?” he said of the team at his seventy-third birthday party.) By the end of the decade, the side had won the World Series and secured its place in sports history as the “Miracle Mets.”
Perhaps the best word to describe Shea Stadium now is utilitarian. In its day, however, it was hailed as an advance in ballpark design. Because it had room for 55,000-plus seats spread over five tiers, the stadium needed to efficiently let fans flow in and out. This led to a preponderance of conveyance: twenty-one escalators threaded through a web of twentyfour ramps, visible on the exterior of the complex. While the ramps became Shea’s most identifiable architectural feature, fans might have better appreciated the total absence of posts, columns, and other visually obstructive elements common to older ballparks. (Yankee Stadium didn’t lose its grandstand, supported by over a hundred columns, until a 1975 renovation; the team played at Shea for the duration of the building works.) In another innovation, entire sections of seating could be mechanically reconfigured to accommodate Jets games. A massive outfield scoreboard further reinforced the stadium’s high-tech profile. Shea’s biggest fault was beyond technological fixes, however. Because it lay in the flight path of LaGuardia Airport, games could be incredibly noisy. Designs to enclose the park under a dome came to naught after it was discovered that the pilings on which the stadium rested would not be able to withstand the additional weight.
For all its strident futurism, Shea was full of fun quirks. There was virtually no seating in the outfield, which became the territory of numerous, often product-driven add-ons. In 1980, a giant top hat was installed at centerfield (a comically big wire-and-plaster apple would rise out of it for every home run hit); later, it was joined by a kitschy Dunkin Donuts iced coffee that loomed above the bullpen. Whereas most food stands were located on the upper decks of the stadium, the kosher stands were level with the playing field; one of the authors (the one who isn’t religiously observant) once borrowed a yarmulke in a successful play for better seating.
By the time Fred Wilpon bought a majority stake in the Mets in 2002 and rather comically assumed the roles of principal owner, CEO, president, and chairman of the board, Shea was in disrepair. Wilpon conspired with the Bloomberg administration to build its replacement. Once there was momentum for a new stadium, maintaining Shea, as some fans wanted, was futile. In a May 2007 game against the Chicago Cubs in which Carlos Delgado drew a walk-off walk to win, the author (again, the nonobservant one) was so ecstatic he shocked himself by ripping his seat out of its screws. As he walked through those cavernous ramps to the parking lot, ushers merely shrugged at the sight of an 18-year-old carrying the forestgreen seat. Shea’s days were over.
IF SHEA STADIUM HELPED to inaugurate the suburbanification of stadiums, Citi Field, following in the steps of Baltimore’s Camden Yards, cemented their return to the city. In the final decade of the 20th century, metropolitan regions abandoned by capital and bereft of federal funds looked for entrepreneurial approaches to economic development. New-stadium construction suddenly began to look like a viable option. Sports infrastructure would create jobs and stimulate much-needed consumer spending. Cities would hook private capital by providing developers with tax breaks and cheap—sometimes even free—land. Boosters suggested that any up-front costs absorbed by the public would pay off in the long term.
Yet, dozens of studies have shown that stadiums are not a good use of taxpayer money, and the economic development benefits are at best marginal. As far back as 1997, research by centrist think tank the Brookings Institution undercut the boosterist claim in no uncertain terms: “No recent facility appears to have earned anything approaching a reasonable return on investment. No recent facility has been self-financing in terms of its impact on net tax revenues…. Sports facilities attract neither tourists nor new industry.” In the ensuing decades no one bothered making the counterargument, yet cities kept on building. Half of MLB stadiums currently in operation were constructed from 1998 to 2010.
The Bloomberg years were a bonanza for sports-oriented megadevelopment, despite the mayor’s early declaration that “given the lack of housing, given the lack of school space… it is just not practical this year to go and build stadiums.” While one major project, an Olympic stadium complex slated to have been built atop the Hudson Yards railyards on Manhattan’s Far West Side, was brought down by political rivalries, several others sailed through the city’s approval process. Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, and Citi Field in Queens all got the green light under Bloomberg’s watch. Vast subsidies, including rent discounts, foregone property tax, and tax-exempt bonds, facilitated their construction. Altogether, taxpayers paid $614 million in 2009 dollars for the Mets to play in Queens, with the team itself on the hook for 22 percent of that amount.
Architecturally bland, Citi Field makes gestures to an earlier era of stadium building. Where Shea proudly exhibited its functionalism, exemplified by its exposed ramps and spare palette of blues and grays, Citi Field boasts a hokey frontage of dull orange brick (like the kind used to clad a new dorm facility at a state university) and decorative arches, above which rises a gargantuan steel crown. Fred Wilpon, wanting to re-create the memories of Ebbets Field from his childhood in Flatbush, supplied the initial design idea. But Ebbets Field coexisted within the city grid and, by retaining that connection to the street, followed the grain of the neighborhood. What’s the grain of a massive parking lot, where spaces cost $40 for the duration of a game? What tangible connections can a beached 1.2 millionsquare- foot whale of a development hope to make with its surroundings? If Ebbets Field’s demolition in 1960 was a tragedy, then Citi Field is a farce, a lumbering reproduction that belongs to no place—certainly not to Corona Park nor to nearby Flushing.
Still, for all the shoddiness of its exteriors, and disregarding the cramped main rotunda (named after Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, in another nod to the elder Wilpon’s childhood fandom), Citi Field is arguably an improvement over Shea. The sightlines are amazing, and there are no bad seats out of the 42,000 in the house. At Shea, on the other hand, the cheap seats were so high up that one could almost touch the planes passing overhead. A reduction of some 13,000 seats lends the ballpark experience an intimacy you wouldn’t expect from a place of this size.
Enhancements to spectatorship have come at the expense of gameplay, however. Not long after the stadium’s debut, players realized that it was impossible to hit home runs over the too-high left-field wall. (It was dubbed, a tad problematically, the Great Wall of Flushing.) That was an easy fix—the Wilpons moved the wall farther into the field, a standard practice in today’s game—compared with the problems arising from the stadium’s siting on the Willets Point peninsula, which juts out into Flushing Bay to form Flushing Creek. According to Jeff Sullivan, blogger turned analytics guru for the Tampa Bay Rays, wind and humidity patterns around Citi Field have limited offense as a whole, leading to some of the lowest exit velocities (how hard a ball is hit) league-wide for any team that plays there. Multiple people associated with and covering the team interviewed for this article told us concerns over Sullivan’s findings were dismissed by Jeff Wilpon, who refused to pay for a wind study.
Ultimately, his father’s predilection for Ponzi schemes affected the Mets more than any design mishaps. Fred was closely involved with Bernie Madoff, having met through their sons, who were high school buddies. The Wilpons used their steady stream of fictive profits from Madoff as an anchor for their other business activities, including funding the Mets and building Citi Field, which cost an estimated $900 million. After Madoff was exposed as swindler, it became clear that the construction project was being financed with money that didn’t actually exist.
With their fortune vanishing, the Wilpons leaned on ally and league commissioner Bud Selig, whom Fred had helped install in a 1992 coup to help them retain control of the Mets. To get by, they used the team as a piggy bank, issuing debt on Citi Field and exposing the organization to all sorts of scams in the process. In 2013, Amway, a shell company that does nothing and sells nothing, opened its first physical location at Citi Field. (It was quietly closed a few years later after much public derision.) Sponge Tech, a pump-and-dump scheme involving “smart sponges” whose top executives were later arraigned by the FBI, purchased over $3 million in advertising space; when the check bounced, the Wilpons were left holding the bag. As one source close to the Mets told us, “Fred always thinks he is getting one over on everybody else and always has for his entire career. It’s what drew him to participate in multiple Ponzi schemes and get taken by the same people he thought he was taking.”
While the Mets went on to regain their financial footing after their 2015 World Series appearance, things didn’t start to really look up until Cohen put in his offer five years later. Almost immediately, he went to work on resourcing the team, investing in everything from staffing to stadium infrastructure. In 2021, he struck a deal with Samsung to bring in new state of the art screens across the stadium, making it immensely easier to check the scores and baseball information, even while going to the bathroom or buying food. With nearly one-third of MLB teams actively tanking, Cohen stands out for how much he’s willing to spend. Taking note of this, the league recently introduced a $290 million luxury tax designed with him in mind. He’s surpassed that limit.
LOOKING OUT FROM THE COCA-COLA CORNER across Flushing Creek, new apartment towers rise over Flushing, the most populous neighborhood in the entire state. The glass oblongs have begun to crowd out the Bland Houses, a cluster of brick blocks owned and operated by the New York City Housing Authority, and the older, low-rise commercial corridor along Roosevelt Avenue. Skyview Parc, with its 1,200 apartments and wellness center, lords over the Shops at Skyview, one of the busiest malls in the city. The elevated 7 train passes by this enormous pile before descending underground to its terminus at Main Street. On the other side of the train line, construction is underway on the Flushing Waterfront Special District, which will comprise 13 buildings in total, with more than 1,700 residential units, 680,000 square feet of commercial space, and about 900 hotel rooms. The megaproject, due to open in 2025, comes in response to strong market demand for condos among upwardly mobile Asian households. Despite a lapsed 421a tax abatement (a giveaway designed to spur New York City rental development) and rising national interest rates, Flushing is flush with development money.
That enthusiasm for development has made its way across the creek to Willets Point. In November, Mayor Eric Adams buoyantly announced that the city had cut a favorable deal with the New York City Football Club (NYCFC), an eight-year-old Major League Soccer expansion team, to build a stadium on public land opposite Citi Field. The stadium will anchor mixed-income residential towers and a school. The global holding company behind NYCFC—it’s majority-owned by members of the Abu Dhabian royal family, worth upward of $1 trillion—will cover the $780 million cost of stadium construction, while the city will waive the property taxes for forty-nine years and pay for the necessary infrastructure improvements.
Missing from Adams’s announcement was any mention of the steep challenges the project will need to overcome. Willets Point is a floodplain and on the front line of sea-level rise. What little infrastructure it has is about 150 years behind the times. The site is only a few thousand feet away from the landing strip at LaGuardia Airport, and the affiliated height limits will have the effect of curbing density. As for the stadium, it will only be used for soccer roughly 16 days out of the year, constituting an immense waste of resources. (The arena design, says the architecture firm HOK, will “embrace the multi-faceted identity of Queens, Flushing Meadows and the site’s industrial heritage.” It does not acknowledge that the plan will essentially drive industry from the area.) Progressive-leaning observers who would see the plan’s inclusion of 2,500 units of affordable housing as a win should consider the impact that roaring jets and noxious fumes emanating from the Van Wyck Expressway will have on quality of life, not to mention the inflating costs related to soundproofing that will likely obviate all pretenses of “affordability.”
According to the 2020 census, Willets Point has a population of two. Auto mechanics, muffler shops, and light industry are tucked behind Seaver Way (named after legendary pitcher Tom Seaver) and Shea Road. The roads are in horrific condition, and without integration into the city sewer system, Willets Point is one of the few remaining parts of the city that utilizes cesspools. These woeful conditions haven’t prevented new businesses like industrial recycling facilities and grocery wholesaling depots from settling in.
The nearby confluence of highways makes Willets Point a natural depository for auto repair shops, which began popping up in the 1950s. Moses saw fit to incorporate the land into Flushing Meadows Corona Park, but he was thwarted by a legal challenge from junkyard owners, who hired a young Mario Cuomo to defend their interests. The Iron Triangle persisted as a backwater oasis of industrial jobs for decades.
Successive city administrations have done their best to encourage businesses to leave, while tacitly refusing to introduce modern infrastructure. Blight thus becomes a pretext for urban renewal. In 2007, the city announced plans to rezone Willets Point in one shot and proclaimed that businesses must leave the area—all 62 acres—at once because of contaminated land and the high water table. The plan made it through approvals in 2008, just for it to be stalled by the financial crisis.
When the Wilpons revealed their plans for Citi Field two years earlier, they teased the idea of building a luxury mall on the asphalt expanse on which Shea once stood. They partnered with Related Companies, Mayor Bloomberg, former Queens borough president Claire Shulman, and the Economic Development Corporation to form a joint venture called the Queens Development Group. The venture, which operated on tax dollars as well as private funds, illegally lobbied the city council to pass the project. The absurd situation inspired the hilarious New York Times headline “New York Paid to Lobby Itself, Group Claims.” Ultimately, the plan for the mall was stopped by the courts for a simple reason: though it currently is a parking lot and formerly hosted a baseball stadium, the land is still technically part of Flushing Meadows Corona Park and can’t be alienated without an equivalent designation of new parkland. With nothing left in their arsenal, the Wilpons concentrated on building Citi Field, while Related found success with its own scheme for a luxury boondoggle mall masquerading as a neighborhood— Hudson Yards. But even sans mall, a brand-new Mets ballpark so close to Willets Point was a beachhead for finally breaking the Iron Triangle and transforming the peninsula.
WHEN COHEN PURCHASED THE METS, he didn’t show any intention of reviving the Wilpons’ parking lot ploy. But in 2022 when Governor Hochul announced an application process for three downstate casino licenses, Cohen saw his chance to do something all his own: bring gambling to the doorstep of the predominantly Chinese community in Flushing. He hired powerful city and state lobbyists, including an ex–council member for the area, to help boost his bid.
This process faces obstacles and will take years, and Cohen is certainly playing the long game. He’s also playing a game familiar to those in urban planning: community input. At a recent community visioning session framed as for Queens residents, Mets fans and members of various construction unions that stand to benefit from the project piled into the Piazza Club, a high-end food court at Citi Field for exclusive ticketholders, to hear about proposed changes to Willets Point and Citi Field’s environs. One of the authors easily gained admission to the session despite not living in Queens and listened to the appeals of the session captains, who spoke in the language of social justice. “We are the borough with millions of voices and when we see an opportunity, we come together and create change,” they said; the stadium’s parking lot, meanwhile, didn’t “serve the community.” Attendees were then asked to “vote” on various neighborhood development ideas that presumably would.
This was nothing more than a push poll. In his report for Hell Gate, journalist Neil deMause pointed out the fraudulent nature of the session, quoting a Mets fan who said of the various futures discussed, “They all sound interesting. But you don’t see the word ‘casino’ anywhere, and everybody knows that’s what this is about.” As a story in the Times noted, while the initiative’s website says nothing about one either, “a poster at the event, where guests could place a sticker next to their favorite choices, solicited thoughts on ‘gaming’ as a possibility for the site. It was one of the least popular options.” If a casino were on the table and nobody who came to these visioning sessions supported the idea, would Cohen be listening to them?
Uncle Steve himself was on hand for the proceedings. Spotting him by the free food, fans and business leaders lined up to kiss the ring. Clearly enjoying himself, he seemed confident of the success of his plans, which include “places to go after the game”—a weird fixation considering previous bars attached to the outside of the stadium were so sparsely used they had to be replaced with new entrances. As much as fans claim to want to hang out and enjoy themselves around the stadium, baseball games are already three hours long. Traffic sucks, and you want to get in your car, or on the 7 train, and go home, especially after Max Scherzer gives up seven runs to the Padres in the playoffs. But even if they don’t use such facilities, tourists feel entitled to a claim on the space of the city.
It’s additionally ironic in an era of heightened need for industrial capacity that city and state leaders are so keen on erasing a proven industrial zone. It’s worth considering that if state leaders wanted to create jobs and build infrastructure, perhaps the best use of funds would be to pave the streets and make the area more accommodating to industry, not less. But the contradictions that define the area’s development patterns are a perfect example of how two factions of capital are in competition with one another. In what urban geographer Samuel Stein has called the “Capital City,” real estate has had an inordinate amount of power in the postindustrial era. As the global economy continues to recover from Covid-19 and inflation and nations, including the U.S., begin to consider onshoring and repatriation of supply chains, perhaps no region in the country would be better for housing industry than the neighborhood next to two airports and multiple seafaring shipping routes. Electric vehicles will need to be serviced somewhere —why shouldn’t they be at Willets Point?
THE CHANCES THAT STEVE COHEN will get to build his casino are high. In March, Queens assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry, whose district covers Citi Field but not the rest of Willets Point, introduced a bill that would authorize the city to build in the parking lot. The bill even references Cohen’s lobbying firm, New Green Willets, LLC.
All the other groups vying for gambling licenses elsewhere in the city comprise the same developers who have drained the state and taxpayers for decades. Related, which received $2.2 billion in public money for Hudson Yards, seeks to build a casino at the financially imperiled enclave, claiming, without a shred of irony, that it would drive economic development. Cohen is an outsider figure, both in baseball and in New York real estate. If city and state elected officials seek a break from the traditional power brokers of local development, Cohen is clearly the better bet.
They need him more than he does them. He can pay for whatever he wants himself; according to his website, he’s prepared to invest in a new public park and much-needed upgrades to the 7 line, though the wording of this claim is vague at best. If elected officials are smart, they will extract the most concessions from him for working-class communities and make the process as democratic as it can be. At a minimum, there should be a city-led Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, a process with no counterpart at the state level. While imperfect, it’s the only opportunity for a democratic process whereby city agencies can conduct environmental reviews and elected officials can demand concessions. At the very least, it allows for a public schedule for local groups to organize around.
If Cohen is poised for a lucrative development deal to transform Willets Point after decades of false starts, it was the incremental movement of those failures that put him in position. Robert Moses built a park but couldn’t wrestle Willets Point away from a bloc of industrial owners. Fred Wilpon got city officials to back his plan for a mall but couldn’t convince the judiciary to demap the parkland. The Wilpons moved Citi Field east of Shea Stadium to pressure the auto shops but couldn’t keep their hold on the team. In a chain of contradictions, each faltering movement gives Cohen the moves he needs for a qualitative breakthrough in valorizing the area. Let’s make him pay.
Avi Garelick is third in a noncontiguous line of Garelicks who love the Mets, but the first to wear an urban planning hat to Flushing.
Andrew Schustek is a researcher and writer in Brooklyn. He lost the seat he ripped out of Shea Stadium after his house was wiped out by Hurricane Sandy.
This article is the first in a series called PANENKA! dedicated to the memory of Leijia Hanrahan.