Master planner Robert Moses instinctively understood the importance of Mitchel Field to the future of Long Island. But do Kate Murray and her shrinking Republican Party, whose cramped vision for the Town of Hempstead seems rooted in the Eisenhower era?
When the U.S. Air Force announced in 1960 that it would eventually turn the property over to the county, Newsday asked Moses, who sculpted Long Island more than most, for comment.
"The abandonment of an 1,100-acre air base in the very center of one of the most rapidly growing suburban counties in the country and its conversion to civilian use afford an almost miraculous conversion opportunity for sensible community development based upon forethought, experience, common sense and cooperation," was his description of its potential.
For a half-century, Moses' prophecy of transformation has been elusive. Much of the promise of the Mitchel Field area has been squandered by Hempstead, which controls its zoning. Nassau is now fully grown and threatened both by stagnation and by fear of embracing change. On the 150 acres remaining of the former airfield, the Lighthouse Project is the one opportunity left for that "miraculous conversion" before yet another generation grows up and abandons Long Island.
But Moses' prescription of cooperation and common sense must prevail. The elaborate project - a 21st century suburban version of Rockefeller Center - includes a new sports and entertainment arena and would ensure that the Islanders hockey team remains here. There is widespread agreement that Nassau County needs the Lighthouse. Yet Murray's last-minute list of demands suggests she wants to torpedo the project.
Murray wants the county - which is offering developers Charles Wang and Scott Rechler a 99-year lease on the property - to include certain provisions in its lease. While some of Murray's concerns are understandable, her zoning powers don't give her the right to micromanage. Besides, if a zoning change is ultimately issued, the town will retain considerable approval over what actually gets built.
Is Murray commendably, but mistakenly, trying to ensure nothing goes wrong? Or, is she trying to engineer the failure of the project and trying to make sure she doesn't take the blame?
We prefer to think that Murray has honorable intentions, but her strategy seems governed more by political maneuvering than a willingness to engage in honest negotiations. Our concerns, however, become actual fears when her actions are layered over Hempstead's regrettable record. Let's not forget that this is the town that put the region's largest incinerator and towering smokestack in its commercial center. It's the same town that turned the former Roosevelt Raceway site into a soulless maze of roads, stores and other buildings.
We hope Murray isn't taking her cue from GOP headquarters, which fears that new housing puts more Democrats on the voting rolls - or that the project would burnish the credentials of Democrat County Executive Tom Suozzi, its biggest supporter. Nor do we want to think that some well-wired GOP political fixer has put the kibosh on it for his own pocketbook or ego.
Murray and her party will either bask in the success of transforming suburbia or be smothered in blame for leading it into decline. The outcome of the Lighthouse will define them for the next half-century. hN