The following was published exclusively on The Foggiest Idea on May 23, 2017.
When Long Island’s folk hero Billy Joel opened the newly refurbished Nassau Coliseum during the venue’s inaugural concert, many wondered if the building would once again host an NHL hockey team. Reminders of the New York Islanders, the building’s former tenants, have been reduced to just four framed photos in the lower level.
But could that soon change? In January, Bloomberg reported the owners of the Barclays Center (home of the Islanders since 2015) were preparing to terminate the team’s lease at the end of the 2018-19 season probably because they have the third-worst NHL attendance, averaging fewer than 13,000 fans per game. This news, coupled with the refurbished Coliseum, seems to set the stage for the Islanders to make their return to Nassau County.
They should come back, but not to their former home.
The Islanders’ moving back into Nassau Coliseum would be a neat movie-like ending to a sorry saga. But Belmont Park, the famed horse track that straddles the Nassau/Queens border in Elmont, is the right place for the team.
The Belmont site comes complete with 36 empty acres that New York State targeted for redevelopment years ago. Even better, the racetrack is surrounded by highways, has its own LIRR station and comes with less political hand-wringing than the Nassau Hub.
So far, Belmont seems like a win-win-win scenario. For the Islanders, a new arena at the site allows the team to be closer to the City while not completely alienating its Long Island-based fandom. For New York State, building at Belmont would unlock the possible development of a track that hasn’t been living up to its potential. The innovative mixed-use project accompanying the new arena could make Belmont an economic powerhouse. Even better are the community benefits. Because the site is ringed mostly by highways and railways, the nearest communities would be less impacted than those across the Coliseum.
Despite these benefits, not all involved agree that Elmont is the answer and the team.
Both the Long Island Association and federally indicted Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano are clamoring for the Islanders to return to their former home. Their logic is that the Nassau Hub will continue to whither without a professional team to anchor the new arena, which would put the brakes on the momentum gained from already sizable investments made in the area, including Memorial Sloan Kettering’s $140 million, 105,000 square-foot outpatient treatment and research facility. For Mangano and LIA, large investments at Belmont Park would cannibalize the potential successes at the Coliseum, dooming its chance at a revival. “The state should be facilitating their return to the Coliseum and not anywhere else, including Belmont,” Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, told Bloomberg in February.
Newsday’s editorial board disagrees with both Law and Mangano, arguing in an April editorial that arenas in both Elmont and Uniondale can both thrive. The NHL agrees. League commissioner Gary Bettman told a group of sports editors that the Islanders’ option at Belmont Park is “a terrific opportunity.” Accentuating his point further, Bettman told the group that the Nassau Coliseum is “not a long-term option” for the team.
The NHL and others are skittish about the hub, mainly because the site is experiencing issues getting its redevelopment effort off the ground. Developer infighting has delayed pieces of the mixed-use component, with Bruce Ratner booting out former project partner Syosset-based Blumenfeld Development Group in 2015, resulting in pending litigation. And there’s the loss of the proposed $300 million Center for Bioelectronic Medicine by the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. The latter hits particularly hard since it would have acted as an anchor for a blossoming bio-tech sector in the area, complementing Memorial Sloan Kettering’s efforts.
The Coliseum becoming a smaller, 13,000-seat arena didn’t help matters much with the team either. While Islanders fans have complained about the obstructed views at Barclays and players have noticed shoddy ice conditions, the arena is larger, with about 15,800 seats for hockey games. The average NHL arena has capacity for anywhere from 17,000 to 21,000 fans. In recent years, despite the fact that Barclays is smaller than most venues in the league, the Islanders have struggled to fill seats.
Now, all Nassau County has at the hub aside from a smaller revamped coliseum is Memorial Sloan Kettering’s outpatient cancer care center and the $85 million commitment by New York State to build some garages.
Since the 1970s, revitalization efforts in the area have, when ways to bring additional transit options for the hub were being explored by regional planners. In more recent years, the very visible failures of Charles Wang’s Lighthouse project, the public’s rejection to pay for a new arena and the departure of the team, left a longstanding scar on the psyches of Nassau residents, who already feel cheated over the effectiveness of their local elected officials.
To County officials, it’s critical that the team return to Uniondale. The Islanders would not only serve as an economic anchor tenant of sorts that would complete their longstanding efforts to further develop the Nassau Hub, but it would be a public correction of a series of highly visible political failures.
To create growth at both the Hub and Belmont, it’s critical that policymakers ensure the buy-in of local governments and the community by being transparent throughout the entire development process.
At Nassau Coliseum, past proposals like Wang’s overly ambitious Lighthouse project failed because of political insecurities of the Town of Hempstead and a lack of necessary community buy-in with Wang’s grandiose $3.8 billion vision, which at one point included a 60-story tower surrounded by over 2,300 housing units. The County owns the land around the Coliseum, but the site is still subject to local zoning, a fact that the township forcefully reminded everyone of when the Lighthouse was rejected. Years later, the township has been a bit more flexible, complete with a rezoning that allows for 500 residential units, but the site remains largely empty.
As other mixed-use projects that are just as impactful as the redevelopment around the Coliseum take shape, policymakers must continue to seek unique approaches for the hub that separate it from the rest of these developmental efforts. At the same time, Belmont’s potential must be unlocked with some sound planning and the political muscle of New York State driving the effort.
It’s time to disrupt the pattern of stagnation at the Nassau Hub once and for all with strong leadership and an innovative cohesive vision. The Islanders are correct to seek opportunity elsewhere in Nassau County.
It’s time for the coliseum to finally accept that it’s time to set it out on its own path without the team.
Richard Murdocco regularly writes and speaks on Long Island’s real estate development issues. He is the founder and publisher of The Foggiest Idea, a public resource for land use in the New York metro region, and received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s veteran master planner. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.
You can email Murdocco at Rich@TheFoggiestIdea.org.