Lighthouse developers begin wooing the public

Charles Wang gives a presentation on the Lighthouse Charles Wang gives a presentation on the Lighthouse Project on June 2, 2009. Photo Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

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The team behind the Lighthouse project at the Nassau Coliseum has recorded an up-tempo jingle, made presentations to more than 200 community groups, and hung roadside banners urging people to "Meet Me at the Lighthouse."

A full-page newspaper ad by the group touts the plan as "Long Island's Hope."

With the first public hearing set for Tuesday on a mega-development seven years in the making, the feel-good campaign reflects more than public relations.

It is a strategy based on lessons that developers Charles Wang and Scott Rechler say they learned after the resounding defeat two years ago of their 166-acre Old Plainview project.

At that hearing, residents concerned about the massive project blasted them so much that Wang walked out, and later withdrew the application.

This time, the developers hope to avoid such an outcome.

"We learned a lot since then," said Michael Picker, president of the Lighthouse Development Group. "We need to get out to the community and explain the project so we can answer questions, hear concerns and make some adjustments from the first vision put out in the application."

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Wang initially envisioned a 60-story Lighthouse tower, which Picker said half of those who responded liked. The scaled-back version proposes two towers, each 35 to 40 stories.

Picker said heights of some of the residential buildings have been lowered and concentrated in one area, as some nearby residents asked. Rentals were added.

During the past 18 months, the principals have met with war veterans, sports fans, school boards, civic leaders and elected officials. They created at least four videos and a commercial, and developed several slogans, including "Build It Now."

And this time, the Lighthouse has garnered very public support from major figures -- the governor came to Long Island last week to call it critical to Long Island's future.

County Executive Thomas Suozzi has praised the vision. Islander fans who don't want the team to leave Long Island when its lease runs out in 2015 support it, as do labor unions that say they will benefit from new jobs.

At the top of the Lighthouse Web site, a digital box counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the daylong hearing before the town board, when agencies, elected officials and neighbors will get to air concerns about how the project would affect traffic, water, air and the economy.

More than 240 people already have written to Hempstead Town since the public comment period began July 7. Of those, town officials said 132 were for the Lighthouse project and 92 were against.

The rest just asked questions. Those who expressed opposition and noted their communities came mainly from East Meadow, Merrick, Garden City, Levittown and Freeport.

Long before the public comment period, several municipalities had weighed in, saying they fear too much traffic, strained school enrollment, and diminished air and water quality.

The Westbury Village mayor argues property taxes won't be fairly distributed, and that the developers' studies don't adequately address impacts to East Meadow, Levittown and Westbury.

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The Village of Garden City has threatened to sue if the environmental review is short-circuited. The Village of Hempstead fears the Lighthouse will detract from its own efforts to renew its downtown business district.

"We're not going to please everybody," Picker said. "We try what we think is best, explain to as many as we can and we believe if people look at what we're doing, the pros significantly outweigh any cons."

The Lighthouse plans 2,300 apartments on 150 acres; a 300-room hotel; a canal and park; 1 million square feet of office space; 500,000 square feet of retail and $71 million per year in tax revenues.

Old Plainview in 2004 proposed 1,000 apartments on 166 acres, a 300-room hotel; a lake and recreation area; 200,000 square feet of office space; 140,000 square feet of retail and $13.4 million in tax revenue.

Oyster Bay Supervisor John Venditto, for one, hopes Wang did learn from the Old Plainview debacle in his town. In that case, he said, the public relations tactics were akin to "bullying."

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"From day one, I could never convince Charles that it wasn't as simple as giving a command and expecting an appropriate response. I told him he had to deal with the community . . . If they didn't learn a lesson from the Plainview-Oyster Bay experience, in my view, the Lighthouse project is doomed."

In Plainview, Rechler and Wang still could build 45 homes and two office buildings. If the creation of a new zone for the Lighthouse fails, Wang says there is no alternative.

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