Billionaire Mets owner Steve Cohen is betting the City Council could help make his Citi Field parking lot casino dreams a reality, pushing for a “home rule” vote clearing state lawmakers to act — but it’s not a home run just yet.
The baseball titan spent nearly $100,000 on lobbyists in the first two months of the year — the most recent data available — aiming to get more than a dozen Council members on his team as he appeals to Albany lawmakers to permit development on what is officially parkland controlled by the state.
Cohen’s plan is already partially in motion. State Assemblymember Jeffrion Aubry (D-Queens) introduced a park alienation bill in March, the first step to authorize any development on the 50 acres surrounding the city-owned ballpark.
Any movement, though, still requires a similar bill to be introduced in the state Senate — which area Sen. Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) has yet to bring forward. The state’s legislative session ends June 8.
Ramos recently told a local community board she wanted to take her time weighing her options to maximize public input.
“I don’t feel comfortable presenting a bill to designate or alienate parkland to build a casino, to build a hotel, to build a dining hall, to build a concert hall,” she told members of Community Board 3, which represents Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and parts of Corona, on April 20. That community board adjoins the stadium.
Without the state senator’s bill and approval in both houses of the state legislature, there’s not much the Council can do, according to land use experts.
But the holdup hasn’t stopped Cohen and the multiple lobbying firms he’s hired from putting pressure on Council members to support the casino.
City records show lobbyists from four separate companies along with in-house lobbyists from New Green Willets, the limited liability company Cohen’s team formed last year, have stated their intention to contact 14 Council members to discuss the project so far this year.
Hollis Public Affairs, Lemma Strategies, MirRam Group LLC and Moonshot Strategies were each paid $91,500 over the first two months of the year for their outreach, mostly to Council members, records show.
Cohen has also recently retained Tusk Strategies to lobby Council members as well, an official with Tusk confirmed, although that payment hasn’t been recorded yet in city records.
A key Council target is Francisco Moya (D-Queens), who represents Corona. As the local member, Moya will have major sway over any Council vote allowing a casino or other development.
“We have been working closely with Council Member Moya and Senator Ramos from the beginning and their input has been an important part of our approach,” Karl Rickett, a spokesperson for New Green Willets, told THE CITY in a statement.
“We will continue to partner with them and our neighbors in Queens as we incorporate feedback and shape a vision for the area.”
Moya did not respond to requests for comment from THE CITY.
THE CITY reported in January that New Green Willets projected to spend more than $729,000 on its lobbying push this year.
A Firm Maybe
Some of the 14 City Council members on the Cohen target list told THE CITY they hadn’t met with anyone about the casino plans yet, while others said they were still mulling over what a home rule vote could mean.
Nobody said they fully supported a casino at the ballpark, and none committed to action to help make that happen.
“We haven’t been lobbied on this issue, and don’t take meetings with lobbyists generally, so haven’t met with any of his affiliates either,” Caitlin Kelmar, chief of staff to Councilmember Christopher Marte (D-Manhattan), told THE CITY.
Queens Councilmember Tiffany Cabán, a Democrat, also said that “no one has yet talked to us about the project, so we don’t have enough information to take a firm stance.
“What we can confidently say is that the most important factor for us will be the position of community stakeholders,” Cabán told THE CITY.
A spokesperson for Councilmember Jennifer Gutiérrez (D-Brooklyn) said she didn’t have a position yet. Councilmember Lynn Schulman (D-Queens) said “it’s a little too soon, but I’m open to having conversations.”
Councilmember Diana Ayala, a Democrat who represents parts of The Bronx and Manhattan, said she is “a no until I’m a yes.”
Said Ayala: “I need to make sure before I commit to anything that the community wants that and they’ve been included in these conversations.”
Councilmember Shekar Krishnan (D-Queens) who chairs the council’s Parks Committee, was lobbied specifically to introduce “permanent use legislation” by lobbyist Brian Simon of Hollis Public Affairs, Inc., records show. Krishnan did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Councilmember Joann Ariola, a Republican who represents parts of Queens that includes Resorts World Casino, an electronic gaming hall vying for a license to expand into a full casino, said she is opposed to any casino at Citi Field.
“I realized if it was a casino at the Citi Field spot it would really draw from what is now the clientele at Resorts World Casino,” she told THE CITY. “Resorts World has been such a major economic engine for the community that I represent.”
Councilmember Vickie Paladino (R-Queens) told THE CITY in a statement that “I spoke to Steve Cohen about his plans, and there is more information to review before forming my opinion.”
Seeking Local Input
Cohen’s operation is one of many applicants vying for one of three downstate casino licenses, alongside a list that includes the Related Companies and Wynn Resorts pushing for a casino at Hudson Yards, and SL Green Realty Corp. striving to build a casino in Times Square.
The Citi Field bid centers on the 50-acre parking lot around the stadium that is technically city-owned parkland, and follows a failed past attempt by former Mets owners to get state approval to develop the property as a mall.
Aubry’s bill would transfer the land solely to New Green Willets — and the land is returned to the city if a casino isn’t constructed, according to the bill.
It still needs the Senate bill, known as a “same as,” to move forward — and Ramos has dropped hints that she is not opposed to development on the site.
“However, that does not mean because we do have that need that we necessarily have to hand over that land to a billionaire,” she said. Cohen made his money working in hedge funds, and paid $2.4 billion to buy the Mets.
Ramos hopes for more community input through the city development approval process known as the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), which involves the local community boards, she told members at the meeting.
“Alienation of public land shouldn’t be at the discretion of one person,” a spokesperson for the senator, Astrid Aune, told THE CITY in a statement.
“Senator Ramos is committed to keeping community members in the conversation.”
At the visioning sessions, most participants listed “gaming,” which includes a casino, near the bottom of both what they’d like to see year-round at the area, and what would improve a day at the stadium. Most said they’d like to see more public green space, restaurants and bars, and a food hall with local vendors, as well as live entertainment.
The group also did canvassing in and around the neighborhoods surrounding the ballpark, speaking English, Spanish, Korean and Chinese, according to a report set to be released Tuesday.
Of the 10,000 residents they say they spoke with, the most popular wish was “green space.”
The Mets are currently seven games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves in the National League East division, after breaking payroll records for its players.