Politics missing in Nassau Coliseum discussion

The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale. (March The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale. (March 13, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

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The latest proposals to revitalize Nassau Coliseum may be most notable for what they're missing.

Unlike previous efforts to redevelop the Uniondale site, the four plans being considered by Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano haven't yet met any significant political opposition.

What's different?

All of the projects would be privately financed, unlike a failed 2011 county referendum to authorize up to $400 million in borrowing for a new arena.

And with the New York Islanders set to move from the Coliseum to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in 2015, and the local economy still struggling, there's a new urgency among public officials who want to avoid having 77 empty acres in the heart of Nassau County.

"The climate has changed," said Lee Koppelman, director for the Center of Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. "I think the economic conditions make a development more possible this time."

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The new proposals also lack the density and impact on traffic and schools that could have resulted from Islanders owner Charles Wang's $3.8 billion, 8.8-million-square-foot Lighthouse plan, officials said. That had a 60-story tower of hotels and condominiums amid 2,300 housing units. It was rejected by Hempstead's town board, after years of debate, in 2010.

The Lighthouse and the $400 million borrowing plan had the Islanders as a centerpiece. With the team's departure, tearing down the 40-year-old Coliseum for a new arena no longer is the only option, Mangano said. Without having to accommodate a major league sports team, he said, a developer can complete the project for less money and fund it privately.

"The private sector did not have the appetite to invest $400 million, and neither did the people of Nassau County when asked," Mangano, a Republican, said in an interview. "That brings us to the present plan, which sheds the expense of a professional sports arena."

 

Key players are Republicans

Political power also has shifted since Wang's vision for the Lighthouse was first unveiled.

Former Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a big Lighthouse backer who had a Democratic county legislature behind him, faced opposition from the GOP majority on the Hempstead Town Board.

Now, all approval levers are in the hands of Republicans. Mangano defeated Suozzi in 2009, when the legislature reverted to Republican control.

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Jay Jacobs, chairman of the Nassau Democrats, said politics was the key factor behind Republican objections to the Lighthouse, and the reason for the lack of GOP opposition to the new Coliseum proposals. Republicans "didn't want to work on any compromise . . . " on the Lighthouse, Jacobs said.

Mangano and other officials, including some Democrats, downplayed the role of politics, saying density and financing are the significant factors.

The four new plans are from Barclays Center developer Forest City Ratner Cos., The Madison Square Garden Co., Syosset businessman Edward Blumenfeld and Bayville-based New York Sports LLC.

Forest City Ratner proposes a $229 million, 13,000-seat renovated arena for minor league hockey, a 2,500-seat outdoor amphitheater, restaurants, bars and an outdoor ice skating rink.

MSG's $250 million plan calls for a renovated 14,500-seat arena with at least one of three teams: minor league hockey, a developmental league basketball or the WNBA Liberty. An entertainment complex would house restaurants and bars.

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Blumenfeld Development Group would spend $180 million to demolish the existing Coliseum, which can seat over 18,000, and build a new arena with 9,000 to 12,000 seats. The arena would host minor league hockey and concerts.

New York Sports would spend $60 million to $90 million to renovate the interior and downsize the arena to 8,000 to 10,000 seats. The company wants to bring in professional and college lacrosse and a minor league hockey team.

Wang's Lighthouse project spanned 150 acres; its residential units were necessary to generate enough revenue to fund a new arena, Wang and his then-partner, RXR Realty chairman Scott Rechler, said in the past.

"First and foremost, the Lighthouse project was too big," Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray said in a recent interview. "It didn't fit with roadway infrastructure, and other systems wouldn't have been able to support it."

 

New plans said to fit zoning

Murray, a Republican, said the new proposals fit zoning for the area that the town created after the Lighthouse failed. The zone calls for no more than 5.4 million square feet of construction and largely limits building heights to four stories.

The current proposals, Murray added, don't treat the actual arena as "an afterthought."

Murray said Hempstead's opposition to the Lighthouse had nothing to do with party politics.

"I can categorically reject that kind of assumption, that people made the decision based on politics," Murray said.

Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a Republican who lives in Lido Beach, endorsed Mangano's vision for a scaled-back Coliseum as a "home run" representing a viable development that doesn't use taxpayer dollars. D'Amato's lobbying firm, Park Strategies, has worked for MSG and Ratner, but is not involved in their new Nassau Coliseum proposals, D'Amato said.

Early in the Lighthouse process, D'Amato said the project would turn Nassau into New York City's sixth borough. Newsday later reported that Wang angered D'Amato by refusing to hire his brother, Armand, to lobby for the project, an assertion Alfonse D'Amato denied.

The size of the Lighthouse, not politics, motivated his opposition then, D'Amato said.

"Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, it was too much," D'Amato said of the size of the Lighthouse plan.

Wang didn't return requests for comment. But Rechler, now a co-developer with MSG on its proposal, said the loss of the Islanders has removed the need for dense development to fund an arena with a pro team.

"I don't think there's a lot of politics involved at this stage because . . . everyone's in sync: It's within the [town] zoning, and is meant to immediately fill a void," Rechler said. "Now, everyone knows the Islanders are leaving and there's a sense of urgency to come up with something that makes this the center of Nassau County."

 

Politics called secondary

Michael Dawidziak, a Bohemia political consultant who works primarily for Republicans, said politics played a secondary role in Lighthouse opposition. He cited Hempstead's resistance to the project on traffic and environmental grounds.

"I can't say politics has nothing to do with it," Dawidziak said. "But I think the Town of Hempstead has shown that it will oppose any plan it doesn't like, regardless of political pressure."

But Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf said Mangano probably tailored the county's project requirements to please GOP town leaders. "What Mangano has done, smartly, was to make it noncontroversial," Sheinkopf said, "What Suozzi did was to great controversy."

Suozzi, who faces businessman Adam Haber in the Democratic primary for county executive in September, declined to comment when asked if he thought politics drove Hempstead's opposition to the Lighthouse -- or if the support of Murray and D'Amato for the new Coliseum plans is meant to help Mangano's re-election.

Suozzi said the new proposals lack vision because they don't make use of the museums, colleges and shopping areas that surround the Coliseum: "The failure of the RFP [request for proposals] is that they're not demanding whatever project is proposed be tied into the extraordinary assets around the Coliseum."

County Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), the legislative minority leader, said the changed climate was less about politics and more a matter of "people realizing that, at this point, we've lost the Islanders, so we have to settle for whatever we can get.

"The current proposals sound enticing," he said. "We're lucky to have them."

The Dolan family holds controlling interest in MSG, and owns Cablevision, Newsday's parent company.

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