The following was written for the Long Island Press. The original piece can be read here.
Could change finally be coming to one of Nassau’s most underutilized sites: the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and the 77-acre sea of asphalt that surrounds it?
It’s certainly long overdue, but don’t hold your breath because you never know what will happen on Long Island until the shovels are in the ground.
Recently, Forest City Ratner, the site’s Brooklyn-based developer, announced that it plans to spend $261 million (partly backed by foreign investors) on building a new, downscaled 13,000-seat arena, as well as a 1,500-seat movie theater, restaurants and various retail venues.
With more than 600,000 square feet of development being proposed for the coliseum location, a majority of which is the arena itself, the current proposal is “a pittance,” as Newsday pointed out, compared to what the Town of Hempstead allows under its recently changed as-of-right zoning. Nevertheless, Hempstead town officials approved the master plan May 26.
Will Bruce Ratner, the man behind Forest City Ratner, be the savior of Nassau County, or be yet another character in Nassau’s long-running narrative of hope and failure?
After all, he already owns the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which will become the new home of the New York Islanders’ hockey team, so it’s not clear how motivated he’ll be to replace them with a viable sports franchise. Whatever he does, Nassau will still own the coliseum. All Ratner has promised to do is reportedly pay the county 8 percent of gross revenue and 12.75 percent of parking revenue, with a minimum guaranteed payment of $4 million slated to increase 10 percent every five years during the 34-year lease.
The “Hempstead Hub” has been the scene of grand visions before, with the most recent being Isles owner Charles Wang’s Lighthouse Project. Unquestionably, his $3.8 billion scheme was grandiose when he first unveiled it in 2004. But, after bowing to pressure from the Town of Hempstead, he scaled it back significantly, calling for a renovated Coliseum, two 36-story towers, a five-star hotel, a convention center, a sports complex, a residential community space for offices, retail businesses and restaurants, a movie theater, open space and a canal. A canal, mind you, in land-locked Uniondale! In total, Wang’s wonderland would have occupied more than 10 million square feet.
The Lighthouse was so immense because the county required that any proposal put forward must also cover the costs of overhauling the coliseum—a prohibitive provision that necessitated high density development to offset the expensive renovation. Compared to Wang’s idea, Forest City Ratner’s project looks boring, but it requires little to no public funds. Nor does it require a referendum like the failed proposition to have the county borrow $400 million, which Nassau voters resoundingly slapped down in August 2011 because they didn’t want taxpayers paying for the renovation.
And that is just what happened at the county level. When it comes to development, the Town of Hempstead is typically perceived as risk averse. Supervisor Kate Murray led the charge to rezone the Hub site to be more suburban in nature. Restrictions in density and a maximum 9-story height limit were put in place to curb any future proposals on the Lighthouse scale, preventing Wang-like levels of density but still allowing 5.4 million square feet to be built.
The prospective political leanings of the project’s future residents may have also impacted the Town’s decision making, some observers said. With its offering of new apartments and condominiums, The Lighthouse would draw more Democrats to live in this traditional Republican bastion, which didn’t help grease the wheels with the Township. Hearsay aside, the fears of density—a legitimate reason to shrink the project thanks to the Meadowbrook Parkway’s multiple choke points and no access to mass transit—killed the Lighthouse off for good. Simply put, starting with Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, Mineola made promises to Wang the county couldn’t possibly back. On Long Island, local towns have the police power over land use, not the county.
This is the environment in which the current plan for the site has thrived, so it’s not surprising it barely accounts for roughly 11 percent of what is presently allowed on the site thanks to zoning. Why is everyone so proud of such a relatively lackluster plan?
The answer lies in the broken expectations so endemic to Nassau County.
Unlike Suffolk, its more far-sighted neighbor, Nassau has a pretty dismal record when it comes to regional planning. All one has to do is examine the placement of subdivision after subdivision on what were once wetlands on Nassau’s South Shore, or try driving north/south on any main Nassau road to see that in one of the nation’s oldest suburbs, planning didn’t place high on the priority list.
To further complicate matters, Nassau is entangled in a complex web of multi-layered political jurisdictions that are corrupted by the corrosive influence of patronage and backdoor dealings.
All of this leads to a system that is fundamentally broken, which brings us to the new coliseum proposal.
Many policymakers see Ratner’s plan as an opportunity to inject life into the county. With a scaled-down venue slated for a limited run per season of NHL games with the Islanders and a better utilization of the large swaths of space around the venue, the project does have potential.
But potential and reality are separate concepts, and the latest chapter in the coliseum saga may not live up to the hype. Between Nassau’s chronic inability to get out of its own way, and the increasingly bitter legal infighting between Ratner and Syosset-based Blumenfeld Development Group, whom Forest City had brought on board to handle the retail component, the project is already going down the typical Nassau path of disagreement and disappointment.
If government in Nassau had less patronage, more transparency and a strong regional vision, the coliseum would’ve been renovated already, and the site’s vast asphalt acreage would’ve been put to a higher use. While Suffolk’s approach is at times flawed, at least Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has a vision, and is sticking to it. In Nassau, it’s hard to see what the vision is. Industrial Development Agency (IDA) tax breaks are attempted to be given to Costco so it can build a new facility in Oceanside because it’s supposed to be a “tourist destination”, unsightly billboards are pitched for the Long Island Expressway and LI’s only professional sports venue loses its principal tenant thanks to political gridlock – all while promises of a better county are constantly being made.
In the end, the real losers are Nassau residents, who pay the highest property taxes in the nation, and all they get for their money are layers of government that can barely do more than serve themselves.