John Alschuler, Chairman, HR & A Advisors (J. Albert Diaz)
After their Plan A proposal to build a stadium on the government-owned portion of a pier met a wall, the advisers working with Major League Soccer quickly retooled.
With seemingly lightning speed and the mayor’s blessing, they put together a fairly straightforward pitch for a stadium at a nearby site—a landmark park.
In exchange for substantial acreage needed to host a soccer field, the billionaires behind the project would dump hundreds of millions into the shiny new sports venue near an existing arena. The new construction would help revitalize the underutilized park, proponents promised.
So it was in late 2012 when an investment group began working hand in hand with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to turn 13 city-owned acres at Flushing Meadow-Corona Park into a professional soccer stadium.
If the similarities with the proposal to bring an MLS stadium to Miami seem striking, it’s not a coincidence. In both cases, John H. Alschuler Jr., chairman of New York-based land-use advisory firm HR&A Advisors Inc., played a prominent role as top counselor to the soccer entrepreneurs in both cities. Eventually opposed by a coalition of community advocates and politicians, the Queens stadium push ultimately failed. The New York soccer club is exploring other possible sites.
Now, Alschuler is getting his second chance to sell the stadium in a park.
He is far from the only Miami stadium adviser. The land-use department at the law firm Akerman, led by former Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin, is also engaged to lobby for the project. Francois Illas, Felix Lasarte and Roly Marante, three Strategis Access Group political operatives with extensive contacts in City and County Hall, also have been working for the group behind the scenes.
Yet with the exception of several high-wattage appearances earlier this year by retired superstar player David Beckham, part owner of the Miami soccer enterprise, Alschuler has been the most visible face pushing for the undertaking.
As proponents of the plan to build a soccer venue at downtown Miami’s Museum Park increasingly get to know Alschuler, they’re likely to portray him as exactly the kind of person you’d want pushing a major development effort in your city’s urban core: a multifaceted fixer with decades of experience shepherding downtown revitalization projects.
Carl Weisbrod, the chair of New York’s Planning Commission and a former partner at HR&A, said Alschuler is “an extraordinary problem solver.”
“He has a knack and expertise about planning on the one hand, economic development on the other, and the needs that private clients and the public have, and how to harmonize those needs,” Weisbrod said
Alschuler “can often see how things are going to work out before they get built,” said Robert Hammond, co-founder of the group that with Alschuler’s assistance advocated to turn an abandoned elevated rail in Manhattan’s west side into a linear park.
Helping turn the High Line Park from an outlandish idea to a world-renowned destination is the highlight of Alschuler’s resume, which also includes efforts of varying success in downtown Philadelphia, Baton Rouge, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio.
Opponents of the Miami soccer stadium, on the other hand, scoff at that view. They’re finding flaws with Alschuler and his company’s approach that activists fighting the New York soccer stadium were put off by.
Several people involved in that fight told the Daily Business Review that Alschuler has unique skills at getting top municipal officials on his side but is undone by his attitude toward the public.
The Queens stadium plan “was all backroom deals. They had a lot of background conversations with the mayor’s office, and then they came in and told the community that this stadium was what we needed,” said Donovan Finn, an open space advocate and professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook who fought the idea of giving up parkland for a stadium. “That really rankled a lot of people. Every single time the dynamic was ‘Here’s our flashy PowerPoint telling you what a great idea this is.’ The conversation was starting at the end.”
In Queens, Finn said, “I think they just thought this is a largely international community here, so there’s a significant population that are soccer fans, and I think they just thought: We got the politicians and soccer lovers on our side, so who is going to have the time or money to fight us on this?”
The sheer amount of money dumped into the lobbying effort was also distasteful to Finn and other New York activists. In 2012, HR&A Associates was paid $1.09 million to lobby for the Queens stadium, public records show. The New York soccer effort spent millions more hiring other lobbyists, buying up advertising and running a public relations campaign.
In Miami, Alschuler has been caricatured as a snooty New Yorker. John Fox, a lobbyist who organized the opposition to the first stadium proposal at PortMiami, tagged Alschuler as “disrespectful” to Miami’s 118-year history after suggesting the soccer complex would “bring Miami into the 21st century.” A statement made during the unveiling of the latest proposal, where Alschuler said substituting a dock north of the American Airlines Arena with a stadium was like trading in a Chevy for a Cadillac, has been similarly panned.
In an interview with the DBR, Alschuler gave a brief preview of the arguments he’ll likely be making over the next few months as his client engages in a high-profile campaign to get voter approval for the stadium.
“We are the anti-Marlins,” Alschuler said, referring to the politically toxic deal for the subsidized Little Havana baseball stadium that opponents of his client’s project sometimes cite for comparison. “Every aspect of it is different. We’re different financially, different in the ability to create jobs, different in what it will mean for downtown, different in what it does for open space.”
Alschuler also noted the soccer stadium proposal would be diametrically opposed to Marlins Park in terms of how it interacts with the community around it.
“You don’t want the Marlins phenomenon, is like a suburban mall,” Alschuler said. “There, you come, you drive your car, you go into a garage, go into the stadium, and then when the game finishes you get in your car and you go home. We have a different vision. We have a vision of an urban experience with dispersed parking. It means after you park you walk by [downtown entrepreneur Jose] Goyanes’ restaurants, you go by people’s bars, and you experience them. And you go eat and drink before the game and after the game.”
Besides preaching the gospel of economic revitalization and vehemently denying a parking-free arena would worsen traffic, Alschuler told DBR that plans to put part of the stadium atop a “semi-polluted piece of slip which today is used mostly as a garbage receptacle” would help drive active programming and more people to Museum Park.
One component of the soccer proposal is to use the stadium walls for public screenings, something of a permanent waterfront Jumbotron, Alschuler said.
“I think what people will see is something very much like New World Symphony in Miami Beach, where people come and have just a wonderful experience. They spread a blanket, and they have a bottle of wine or maybe a picnic with their families, and people play music,” he said. “We’ll do it so that maybe people can come and watch a great movie, or there’s a great singer or band performing there. Or maybe you want to watch the World Cup, or maybe what you want to do is take your family and walk through the park and have dinner or get an ice cream cone on a hot afternoon. I think there’s a whole series of activities that we’re going to introduce that are going to make the park what it wants to be, which is a great civic destination.”
Early opposition to Alschuler’s pitch has tested his salesmanship. In an extensive Miami Herald article, several prominent architects and planners who were involved with earlier plans for Museum Park excoriated Alschuler’s idea.
Terence Riley, a director of the former Miami Art Museum who helped turn that institution into the Perez Art Museum of Miami, told that newspaper the stadium site plan was “mind-boggling,” “preposterous,” “misguided” and “kind of crazy.”
On Friday, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez became the first elected official to speak against the latest preferred location, suggesting land near Marlins Park in Little Havana.
Alschuler commended his opponents for their passion “to have a great park” but added they were wrong and would change their opinion after the stadium gets built downtown.
“I think they view the park as a pastoral refuge that they want to keep pristine,” he said. “I understand that vision, and I respect that vision. We have a vision of a more active energized park that is more like Millennium Park in Chicago.”
Alschuler doesn’t have to convert everyone, but a key measure of his vision’s chance for success will be whether he can convince the proposed stadium’s neighbors, including the two museums to the north and the Miami Heat to the south.
In New York, one of the major factors that killed the Queens proposal was foot-dragging by the New York Mets, whose cooperation was a linchpin of the deal and who reportedly saw the proposed stadium within sight of their ballfield as something that could hurt their concert business and expansion plans. Alschuler told the DBR there are no official statements of support from the Miami neighbors yet.
At least one talking point being floated by Alschuler seems to be directed squarely at that narrow audience.
“I think one of the things the museums will look back in a few years and say is how [the stadium] ended up as one of their great contributors,” He predicted first-time visitors will say, “Wow, there’s these two great museums here. We should go check them out.”