The man behind the Beckham stadium plan

Miami /
Jun.June 04, 2014 09:45 AM

David Beckham’s goal of building a soccer stadium on the last chunk of public waterfront land in downtown Miami rests on the shoulders of John Alschuler, a prominent New York City real estate consultant whose firm made nearly $1.5 million lobbying unsuccessfully for a similarly contentious sports facility in Queens.

The international soccer celebrity retained Alschuler, chairman of Manhattan-based HR&A Advisors, to help him secure a stadium site for his Major League Soccer franchise in downtown Miami, preferably near Biscayne Bay. After his star client abandoned efforts to secure a location at PortMiami, Alschuler last month unveiled plans for a 20,000 seat soccer stadium as the centerpiece of an expanded Museum Park.

Amid mounting opposition from various downtown stakeholders, Alschuler is the ideal pitch man, colleagues and critics told The Real Deal.

“We are very lucky to have John at the helm of this project,” said Neisen Kasdin, the Miami land-use attorney Beckham hired to assist Alschuler. “When you look at his body of work, it tells you what a grade A development consultant and urban planner he is.”

“Alschuler is a great master of spin,” Coconut Grove parks activist Glenn Terry told TRD. “Unfortunately, I think he is doing a very good job of telling the public they are getting ‘free things’ such as a stadium and a bigger park. It’s B.S.”

While in Miami last month, Alschuler spoke to TRD about the public skepticism surrounding Beckham’s soccer plans and other signature urban redevelopment projects he’s been involved with.

“The cynicism in Miami has been well earned,” Alschuler said. “The city has a history of promises being made that weren’t kept. We are just asking to be judged on the merits of our plan and our own integrity.”

Urban planning passion

The son and grandson of Chicago architects, Alschuler moved to New York City at a young age. He obtained a bachelor of arts degree from Wesleyan University and doctorate in education from the University of Massachusetts. After completing his education, he landed a job as an assistant to the superintendent of schools in Hartford, Conn. in the early 1970s.

Following a promotion to assistant city manager, Alschuler left Hartford in 1981, when he was hired as city manager in Santa Monica, Calif. During his stint there, he oversaw the redevelopment of the aging Santa Monica Mall into the Third Street Promenade, an open-air, upscale shopping complex.

“Urban planning has always been a passion,” Alschuler said. “I judge my success on my ability to contribute to the next greatness of a city.

Three years later, Alschuler left Santa Monica to start HR&A. The City of Santa Monica was one of his first clients, hiring Alschuler as a consultant to continue overseeing the mall redevelopment. During its 30-year-existence, HR&A has been involved in dozens of downtown and waterfront redevelopment projects.

In 2001, the City of Cincinnati hired Alschuler’s firm and New York-based planners Cooper, Robertson & Partners for $1.9 million to write a strategic investment plan for its downtown. Alschuler helped establish the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp., a nonprofit group that oversaw a $49.5 million renovation of the city’s Fountain Square into a lively plaza with a park, giant LED board and special events.

Other signature projects in HR&A’s portfolio include New York’s Brooklyn Bridge Park and South Street Seaport, the Toronto waterfront and Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia waterfront. Among Alschuler’s most prominent projects is the High Line, Manhattan’s decommissioned elevated freight rail line-turned-critically feted public park, designed by James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Robert Hammond, executive director of Friends of the Highline, told TRD Alschuler came on board when his group faced strong opposition from residents.

“People thought an elevated green walkway wouldn’t work,” Hammond said. “They said no one would go up there and delinquents would use it to throw things at people below.”

Alschuler won opponents over with an economic feasibility study that outlined how the project could be successful, according to Hammond.

“He’s good at coming up with a compromise that works for everyone,” he said. “He understands the importance of design and how to use it to integrate competing priorities.”

Powerful partners

Alschuler’s work earned his firm powerful relationships with New York City Hall and Major League Soccer. Three former HR&A employees and partners now hold key positions in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. His firm raked in at least $1.5 million in 2012 and 2013 lobbying for Major League Soccer. (Alschuler is not required to disclose his lobbying fees in Miami like he is in New York.)

The league is working with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family who owns the Premier League’s Manchester City, to establish a New York City soccer club. The sheikh is partnering with the New York Yankees on the New York team. Alschuler was hired to convince the city to relinquish 13 acres in Flushing Meadows Corona Park for a 35,000-seat stadium and concert venue. His client wanted to pay $1 per year on a city lease, with no sales or property taxes.

As part of the sales pitch, Alschuler noted the sheikh planned to use his own money to build it and will spend tens of millions of dollars adding new amenities and paying for employees to maintain the park. Yet, Major League Soccer and the sheikh backed off the Queens site after being met with stiff opposition from neighborhood activists. The team later reached a deal to play its first three seasons at Yankee Stadium and is now hoping to build a soccer stadium nearby in the Bronx.

The Flushing Meadows failure hasn’t stopped Beckham and Alschuler from making similar promises in Miami, where opponents of the soccer stadium include environmental and park activists, downtown condo owners and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.

In addition to financing most of the stadium construction costs, Beckham and his partners would pay for the cost of filling a boat slip at Museum Park in order to put the 20,000-seat stadium there. Miami-Dade estimates filling the slip would cost $20 million. The group is seeking a state subsidy to defray some of the costs, but Alschuler insists city and county taxpayers would not pay a cent.

For the deal to work, the city and county would have to agree to a land swap that would exempt the stadium from paying property taxes. And while Alschuler says Beckham will pay a “fair price” for rent, no dollar amounts have been proposed.

Alshuler’s preliminary renderings show the soccer stadium would do away with a portion of a long-planned waterfront park that the city just spent $15 million on. Some of its footprint would sit on 4.2 acres currently designated for green space and a waterfront plaza.

During a recent press conference, Alschuler also upset opponents when he responded to a question about reimbursing Miami the $15 million. “If I owned a Chevy and someone says I’m going to replace it with a Cadillac,” he said, “I would consider that a pretty fair transaction.”

“His comment underscores a fundamentally elitist misunderstanding of the needs of our community under the mantle of attracting a Major League Soccer team to Miami,” Gregory Bush, president of Miami’s Urban Environment League, told TRD.

Alschuler said he wasn’t trying to be flippant with his “Chevy” metaphor.

“We are going to provide a public park and an open space, in addition to a stadium that will pay for itself,” he said. “We are going to make a set of commitments, embody them in a contract and we are going to live by them.”

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