A Conversation With Roland Betts

On Friday, November 22, Gotham Gazette held an online chat with Roland Betts, chairman of Chelsea Piers and director of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Betts also served on the U.S. Olympic Committee that selected New York as the U.S. host city to compete for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Find out what he said as he answered questions about rebuilding downtown, Chelsea Piers, and the 2012 Olympics.

Gotham Gazette: Good afternoon everyone. Today we are chatting with Roland Betts. Good afternoon, Mr. Betts.

Roland Betts: Good afternoon.

GG: Mr. Betts, what exactly is your job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation? What role do you play?

Betts: I am a member of the Board of Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and I chair the site planning sub-committee of the Board. In addition, I chair the site planning task force which consists of LMDC, New York State, New York City, the White House and the Port Authority.


GG: You were quoted today in the New York Times, describing the new World Trade Center designs that are due in December as "astoundingly innovative, creative and exciting." The reporter paraphrased you as saying they were almost too fantastic to describe. Can you try now? Give us a few examples of design that most impressed you.

Betts: No, I'm not willing to talk about specific plans or specific elements of the plans. The plans will be made public in about one month and everyone will have an opportunity to view them and to form their own opinions. It would be inappropriate for me to try to put into words something that is so visual and so unique.

GG: Is there an exact date when the new designs will be released?

Betts: We are in the process of finalizing the location of the exhibition of the plans, which we anticipate will be in mid-December. It is worth the wait. In addition, over the next three weeks, each of the architects has been charged with taking their presentations up a notch or two so they will be even better than what I have already seen.

GG: Are they taking direction from your sub-committee? What do you mean by "taking it up a notch?"

Betts: I mean by that...more articulation in their models, more and bigger drawings, overall more clarity and information to help the public fully understand the vision that each architecture team is presenting.

GG: How are the new designs different from the six plans released last summer?

Betts: The new designs are radically different from the plans we released last summer. The new designs are innovative, exciting and unique. Each plan is radically different from each of the other plans. Whereas the first six plans all tended to meld together, you will have no difficulty remembering each of these distinct plans.


GG: Yesterday, the Port Authority announced that they are coming up with their own master plan for the World Trade Center site. How will this affect the plan being developed by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation?

Betts: I have not actually seen the comments attributed to Joe Seymour [the executive director of the Port Authority], so I would not want to respond to what I've read in the paper. However, we have been working side by side with the Port Authority for 11 months, and I expect that to continue. The architectural competition is at the heart of this phase of the planning.

GG: Do you see their proposal as a competing vision?

Betts: I have invited the Port Authority to have the Eckstut plan presented with the others at the exhibit. I hope they will decide to include the plan in the exhibit.

GG: What is the Eckstut plan?

Betts: Stan Eckstut is the architect retained by the Port Authority.

GG: Ethan Ernest asks: "Has there been any systematic attempt by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation to look through the multitude of proposals put forth by the general public?"

Betts: The decision was taken to hold the architectural competition that we are just completing and that is where the focus of our energies has been.

GG: Several readers have questions about the plans to put a section of West Street underground as a tunnel. A group of Battery Park City residents oppose the plan, saying that the project is unnecessary and will mean ten years of construction. Marshal Coleman asks: Why are you pushing something that the very people who live in the area do not want?

Betts: At this point, the question of whether to depress all or a part of West Street is very much under study. As you may know, at the large public meeting at the Javits Center in July, the idea of turning West Street into a grand boulevard or promenade was overwhelmingly embraced. Also, that same idea has received favorable reviews from the public at least a dozen public meetings which I have attended. I have read a great deal of misinformation on this subject, particularly related to the length of time that it would take to depress all or part of West Street. Some reports suggest 10-20 years, which based on my research, is far longer than the truth. My best guess is that this task would take 2-3 years. But at this point, no decision has been made.

GG: When is the earliest date by which West Street construction could be finished?

Betts: No construction time tables for the WTC site or West Street have been developed as yet.

GG: According to the head of Westfield, the company that has the lease on the retail space at the World Trade Center, the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation has agreed to include twice as much retail space in the new plans. How do you respond to people and groups who say they don't want the site to be a giant shopping mall?

Betts: The instructions which I gave to the architects proposed a range of retail square footage from 600,000 to 1 million. There is no interest on our part to create a "giant shopping mall".


GG: There are several questions from Chelsea residents.

GG: John Gosling asks: "Before you opened Chelsea Piers, you promised to hire as many local people as feasible. Young people at two local public housing developments have complained that they can’t get jobs at Chelsea Piers. What became of your promise to the neighborhood?"

Betts: We have a total of 1200 employees at Chelsea Piers and a good many of them come from the local neighborhood.

GG: Adrian Di Lollo asks: "I contacted a local community organization that assists youth and seniors to ask what Chelsea Piers has done for the neighborhood. The director of the organization told me, `Chelsea Piers has not given us so much as a baseball bat.’ Can you describe your corporate giving practices in relation to the neighborhood?"

Betts: If you would like to know more about our charitable giving activities, our various scholarship funds and programs are described on our website, http://www.chelseapiers.com.


GG: How would the plans for the 2012 Olympics and a West Side stadium affect Chelsea Piers?

Betts: At this point, Chelsea Piers attracts in excess of 4 million visits a year and runs more or less at capacity. Therefore, neither project would have much impact, if any, on our activities.

GG: As a member of the U.S. Olympic selection committee, how did you vote, New York or San Francisco?

Betts: The vote was by secret ballot.

GG: Michelle Solomon asks, "I'd like to ask Mr. Betts what are the next steps that New York City will go through in its Olympic Bid, as it has quite a bit of time before it must submit a questionnaire to the International Olympic Committee."

Betts: I don't know the exact schedule that the International Olympic Committee will follow, but the US Olympic Committee Selection Process was mirrored on the same categories and criteria that the International Olympic Committee uses, so New York is already well prepared to respond to International Olympic Committee inquiries. New York will have to devote its energies to figuring out the best way to present its case to the International Olympic Committee.

GG: The city's economy is struggling. The municipal government is facing the worst budget crisis since the 1970's. The mayor is raising taxes and cutting services. Some ask: "Can New York carry out two huge public works projects – rebuilding lower Manhattan and the 2012 Olympics at such a time?"

Betts: That is an excellent question. The good news is that neither project is funded by taxpayer dollars. There are a great variety of sources of funds, including on Lower Manhattan Development Corporation federal monies, insurance proceeds, and private equity. And on the Olympics, the sources of funds include ticket revenues, sponsorship dollars, television fees, the capital contribution from the New York Jets, and the sale of air rights, among other things. Additionally, the bonding capacity of the MTA.

GG: But someone has to pay the interest on those bonds, and isn't that the taxpayers?

Betts: Yes, but it's more complicated than that.

GG: Could you explain it to us briefly?

Betts: I'd rather that you address your specific questions about the Olympic Funding to the NYC 2012 committee, since I am a member of the USOC and not the 2012 committee.

GG: You wrote just now that "neither project is funded by taxpayer dollars." We thought you were talking about rebuilding downtown and the Olympics. Is this correct?

[Long pause. No answer]


GG: Moving on....An article in the New York Observer recently said: "The LMDC, created to rebuild the former World Trade Center, has become a dysfunctional family. And the relative who wasn’t at the table – state economic-development czar Charles Gargano – may cause the most trouble in the coming months." The article says that Mr. Gargano, who chairs the Empire State Development Corporation, is seeking a bigger role for himself in the rebuilding process. Why are critics saying that the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation is "dysfunctional?"

Betts: I did read the New York Observer piece and felt that it in no way reflected life at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. In fact, it was so fraught with factual errors that I have chosen to ignore it. The Lower Manhattan Development Corporation process was created to plan the World Trade Center site. I believe that the plans that we are about to release will demonstrate that the process has in fact been successful.

GG: OK, last question: Some have said you, as a close friend of President George Bush, were instrumental in securing the city’s federal aid package. Is this true? Has the federal government taken the necessary steps to help New York City recover from September 11?

Betts: All I can tell you is that President Bush is extremely interested in all the developments relating the rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, and I have kept him fully informed of our progress. The White House has appointed Rubin Jeffrey as their liaison to Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and he has been very effective in that capacity.

GG: Thanks for participating, Mr. Betts.

Betts: Thank you for your many interesting and insightful questions. I enjoyed the dialogue.

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