Wang's Lighthouse project: Slow going from the start

Charles Wang listens at a public zoning hearing Charles Wang listens at a public zoning hearing for the Lighthouse project in Hempstead on Tuesday. Photo Credit: Joel Cairo

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Billionaire businessman Charles Wang had never seen an ice hockey game and knew more about computer chips than hockey pucks when his friend, former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato called him in 1999 with an improbable request.

Buy the New York Islanders, D'Amato urged, saying Wang could help keep the team, the Island's only professional sports franchise, in their Nassau County home.

COMPLETE COVERAGE: Lighthouse Project

Wang said yes, making a multimillion-dollar deal for the financially troubled team that would set into motion grandiose plans for redeveloping Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and the county-owned land around it. His vision would include a completely renovated sports arena, 42 new or renovated buildings, 2,300 housing units, 1 million square feet of office space, 500,000 square feet of retail, a sports technology center and a luxury hotel - spread across 150 acres. Artist's renderings showed a "grand canal" next to a grassy "celebration plaza" and fountains throughout.

D'Amato and Wang would meet again. As Wang's vision for the land began to take shape, D'Amato, a powerful lobbyist and then board member of Computer Associates, the software company Wang founded, sat down to lunch with Wang at a favorite Westbury haunt, Giulio Cesare. Also at the lunch was D'Amato's brother, Armand, a lawyer and lobbyist.

D'Amato, a Republican, had another request of Wang: Bring Armand into the project, according to a source familiar with the meeting.

 

Hoped to keep politics out

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Wang's answer was an emphatic "no," sources have told Newsday. Wang, they said, hoped to keep politics out of a venture that he envisioned would fundamentally change Long Island, bringing thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic growth and tax revenue along with it.

Asked about the lunch, Wang declined to comment. In an interview, D'Amato denied making the request on behalf of his brother. Armand D'Amato did not return phone calls asking for comment.

"That conversation never took place," Alfonse D'Amato told a reporter. He declined to answer questions about his relationship with Wang.

While it is not known if Armand D'Amato's participation in Wang's project would have helped him, as it turned out Wang's hope to keep politics out of his project has been in vain. A Newsday review of records, along with scores of interviews, shows that one of the largest projects ever proposed for Long Island - a landscape-changing vision on a par with Levittown, the region's first suburb - fell into a quagmire of government review, clashing personalities and competing egos, meetings requested and refused and attitudes on full display.

Hempstead Town officials say politics has played no part in their review of the project. But to many, the history of the Lighthouse project says more about Long Island politics than it does about planning.

 

Critical to LI's future

Critics argue that the project's success or failure could be critical to the Island's future economy, its ability to develop land, to grow and attract businesses and the potential to expand its tax base.

"You're looking at a sea of asphalt and a decaying stadium in a place you can't get to very easily or get out of very easily," said Michael White, who heads the Long Island Regional Planning Council. "If those trends continue, then literally the tumbleweeds will be here in 2035."

Since he first unveiled his plans five years ago, Wang and his partner, developer Scott Rechler, have not turned a shovel of earth at the site. They have no lease to build on county land and are just now awaiting zoning approval from Hempstead Town.

Wang and his team have long criticized the pace of the process and the uncertainty whether they'll be able to build anything at all. "There's a process to go through and there are ways to speed it up and ways to slow it down," said Lighthouse president Michael Picker. "The faster we get to the finish line - yes or no - the better."

Last Tuesday, Wang and Rechler appeared before the town board at a zoning hearing held at Hofstra University, in their broadest effort to convince the board to rezone the property. So far, the board has not set a date for a vote.

"We are at a defining moment that will determine Long Island's future," Wang told the board. Rechler noted that without projects such as theirs, major companies would not come to Long Island or, like OSI Pharmaceuticals, the Farmingdale-based biotechnology firm, would relocate to more business-friendly locations.

To an impatient Wang, the clock is ticking. He has said that if the project does not have an approved lease and zoning by next Saturday, Oct. 3 - the date of the Islanders' opening home game - he will entertain offers to move the team to another city.

Town officials counter that Wang's lease with the county and SMG, the manager of the Coliseum, runs until 2015 and prevents the Islanders from playing home games elsewhere. By their view, Wang and the team aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

 

Town: What deadline?

Many local officials and community members say the town has moved the process along as quickly as possible. They note that town officials shouldn't abide by Wang's self-imposed deadline.

"You can't make a determination of the future of this county . . . based on a sports calendar," said Nassau County minority leader Peter Schmitt (R-Massapequa). "Everything we do . . . is subject to legal challenge. It's got to be done right."

To date, Wang has paid out some $15 million for studies, reports and consultants. He's also had to field demands for hefty payouts by everyone from the fire department to the Uniondale school district, all of whom expect to be compensated for what they see as the project's hefty impact.

In Uniondale's case, the district and Wang have agreed to a $4 million payment. At the same time, Wang's Islanders have been losing about $20 million a year, adding more red ink to a project Wang has hoped would put his personal stamp on Long Island.

By all appearances, Wang has lost more than money as he has tried to push his project along. During these five years, his one-time ally, Alfonse D'Amato - still a powerful voice in Nassau GOP circles - turned against the project.

D'Amato made that clear at a Republican fundraiser in 2005 when he said the Lighthouse would turn Nassau into the sixth borough of New York City.

With the project now before the Hempstead Town Board - the last bastion of GOP politics in Nassau - Wang and his staff have said privately to friends that they wonder if he had hired Armand D'Amato whether it would have helped the project. Wang has expressed that concern to several key officials and business people on Long Island in recent months.

Hempstead Town officials say neither politics nor D'Amato have played any role in the process.

 

Impact on whole region

Many experts agree that the project could have a strong economic impact, not just on Nassau County but the whole region. "I think this idea of modernizing or refocusing what a suburban economy looks like means you have to diversify your economic base," said Gary Huth, the Hicksville-based labor market analyst for the New York State Department of Labor.

Huth said a mix of the traditional suburban look, with single family homes on large plots of land, and higher-density developments could give Long Island "a really healthy, dynamic economy."

And on the commercial side, Huth noted that a development that can attract younger workers, bring in new industries, such as digital media or film, and bring in better hospitality services and business venues, such as a convention center, could help the Island "keep up with the rest of the world."

Some observers note that if Wang does not win approval to build his vision, or pulls out in frustration, it could scare other developers and business executives with plans of their own.

"It's going to send out messages to everyone that you don't ever want to come here because you can't get anything done," said developer Vincent Polimeni, who has been involved in delayed or rejected projects in the region and was once a bidder for the county land around Nassau Coliseum. "You reach a point as a developer where you ask, 'Why am I doing this? When do I say enough is enough?' That's what's going to hurt Long Island."

Conversations about development around Nassau Coliseum first began in earnest in 2003. After Wang officially unveiled the project at a September 2004 news conference, his first stop in the approval process was Nassau County government, because the Coliseum and the land around it are owned by the county and he would need a lease to build on it.

After the unveiling, Wang set up meetings with local politicians, including Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray, a Republican, and Schmitt. "It was very exciting," Schmitt recalled. "He had a great vision."

But Schmitt recalled feeling uneasy about the lack of specifics in the plan. And he said he left Wang with a warning about the review process: "I told him, 'You have no idea what you're getting into.' "

For the most part, the meeting at the Westbury restaurant was between friends. Wang and Alfonse D'Amato had by then known each other for several years. Within months of losing re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1998, D'Amato joined the board of Computer Associates. He also worked for Wang's charity, the Smile Train Foundation, earning $399,000 from 1999 through 2002, according to records.

In September 2005, Wang threw down his own marker at a breakfast of business leaders. "This is not a Suozzi project, it's not a D'Amato-Mondello project, it's a Wang project," he said, referring to Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat, and County GOP chairman Joseph Mondello.

 

Monkey wrench in plans

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In 2005, county officials threw a monkey wrench into Wang's plans by putting out a request for proposals, or RFP, to let other developers bid on the land, even though Wang was the owner of the Islanders.

"Looking back, I wish we had done an RFP right away," Suozzi said. "My feeling always was the most logical developer for the property was the owner of the Islanders . . . but I wish we had gone from the RFP process from the get-go."

Sources said that politics played a role then, too. It was, after all, an election year - and Democrats and Republicans alike lined up behind the need for a transparent process. Indeed, the GOP's county executive candidate, Gregory Peterson, ran a campaign opposed to the project.

The RFP started in summer 2005, forcing Wang to start from square one two years after he had first discussed the project with key government officials.

In late 2007, armed with his successful RFP and a designated developer agreement, Wang took his Lighthouse to Hempstead Town, which would have to create a new zone to accommodate the mixed uses of the project. The hearing on that zone took place last week. In the interim, Wang's backers say, there were calls and e-mails not returned, meetings that went nowhere and months of delays.

"Despite all the supportive words I have heard from you regarding the significance of the Lighthouse project, it is unfortunately very clear that your intention (or direction) has been to slow down the process," wrote Picker in a letter to Hempstead Town attorney Joseph Ra on Aug. 31. "I can see no reason, other than political, that we continue to struggle to achieve certainty by October 3, 2009."

More recently, after a letter from Murray to Suozzi spelled out new provisions the town is hoping to include in the county lease, Wang said, "This project, with all its benefits in this tough economic climate, constantly falls into political roadblocks."

 

What the critics say

The project's promotional materials say it will bring much-needed jobs, millions in tax revenues and will keep young people on Long Island. Critics counter that its scale is too vast, its high-rises are all wrong for the suburbs, and the traffic, waste and water use will far exceed what Long Island - or Nassau County - can handle.

And to town officials, the nearly two-year time span is to be expected for so vast a proposal. Wang and his staff, they say, complain too much about a project that is moving through the process quicker than most.

"I think we have been very cognizant that not only is this an important project, but a project in recessionary times . . . " said Murray in an interview. "We have worked at a tremendous pace and rate."

Jim Baeck, the Lighthouse project architect who has overseen many other large-scale developments, said that when the process works, it's because the town and city and their related agencies are "part of our development team."

He said the Lighthouse is the longest-running project he has ever seen without either a shovel in the ground or a developer choosing to pull up stakes. "It's been much longer than any other process than I personally have gone through," Baeck said. "I don't know how developers . . . can have the financial and mental wherewithal to outlast the process."

To town officials, the notion that they are on a "team" with Wang is nonsensical. Murray calls herself a "judge" of the project, saying that she cannot meet with any developer to talk about proposed projects. "The problem comes if I would have a private meeting with every developer, where is the public in that meeting?" she said.

Some other Long Island town supervisors say they routinely meet with developers to discuss their ideas. For example, in Islip, Town Supervisor Phil Nolan, a Democrat, said he has met with the developers behind Heartland Town Square, a $4-billion mixed-use development covering far more ground - 450 acres - than Lighthouse.

"I've met with . . . developers on numerous developments here, on large projects as well as small projects," he said in June. "I like to be on top of things. The door's always open."

 

Success in Suffolk

Wang has seen success before when he has worked side-by-side with political officials. His first attempt on a real estate project came when he decided to move Computer Associates, which he founded in 1976, from Garden City to Suffolk County, after complaining that he had found it too difficult to relocate to Plainview.

Then-Suffolk County Executive Pat Halpin met with those handling CA's search to encourage the move. Later, when there was a disagreement over the height of the new building, Halpin, a Democrat, assembled all the parties in a room. Within a few hours, the issue was resolved, Halpin recalled recently. A deal was made in 1989 and three years later, CA's employees moved into a lavish headquarters in Islandia.

"I think you have to be engaged as a public official," Halpin said in a recent interview, noting that he has encouraged Murray to talk with Wang about the Lighthouse. "The most important thing local governments do is zoning and development, and the tone is set at the top."

Wang has tried, and failed, in Nassau County before. Wang and Rechler proposed a project they called "Old Plainview," of up to 1,000 housing units, office space and stores, along with a hotel and village center in Plainview. But public outcry, combined with what Wang saw as a lack of enthusiasm from Oyster Bay Town officials, led him to withdraw his application, abruptly, as an evening public hearing with the Town of Oyster Bay was about to begin.

Sources say that quick Wang decision shows that he's serious about the need for answers. And Suozzi and other county officials say they hope the Lighthouse doesn't meet the same end.

"If we come to October and the deal is off and Wang says, 'I'm walking,' that would become one of the biggest shames in the county's history," Suozzi said. "It would be a terrible symbol of dysfunction. And if it succeeded, it would be a tremendous symbol of hope for the future that we can be someplace special."

But town officials aren't buying it. "We don't tell them when they have to bring in a Stanley Cup," Murray said during an interview at the zoning hearing. "And developers generally don't impose deadlines on zoning authorities."

But beyond the politics, the deadlines and the back-and-forth debate, there is a bigger concern for the region, economists and other experts said.

"You run the risk of marginalizing yourself," said Huth, the state labor market analyst. "You run the risk of being one of those areas that we all recognize around the country where populations kind of drift away."

To even the most seasoned observers of Long Island politics, the five years Wang has spent trying to gain traction on his project is surprising.

"It's remarkable to me," Halpin said. "I mean, we're talking about an asphalt wasteland."

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COMPLETE COVERAGE: Lighthouse Project

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