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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Nassau's finally closing in on a Coliseum plan

Nassau Coliseum on October 25, 2011.

Nassau Coliseum on October 25, 2011. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It could take just 30 days for the Town of Hempstead to approve the conceptual master plan for the Nassau Coliseum site, which is the last big piece of undeveloped commercial real estate in Nassau County.

Thirty days -- after more than a decade of trying to find ways to remake Nassau's Hub.

Back in 1971, the opening of Nassau's Veterans Memorial Coliseum at Mitchel Field was a very big deal. "Until the opening of the Coliseum, spectator sports were a minor part of local entertainment," local historian Edward Smits wrote in "Nassau Suburbia, U.S.A.," a history of the nation's first post World War II suburb.

"The arena provided a regular home for two major league teams, the basketball Nets and the hockey Islanders," Smits wrote. "Over 15,000 fans could attend a wide range of functions from rock festivals to the circus."

Those were very heady days for Nassau County, where officials were so ambitious that they decided they also needed to build their own public hospital.

Nassau's central business and entertainment district -- later dubbed "the Hub" -- would remain a catch basin of sorts for suburban planners and dreamers alike.

At one point -- during the late 1980s or early 1990s -- one plan proposed construction of a monorail that would keep visitors moving from attraction to attraction.

In 2004, New York Islanders owner Charles Wang made the most audacious proposal of all: The Lighthouse Project. "A 60-story tower -- with breathtaking views from Manhattan to Montauk -- surrounded by hundreds of acres of fun, sports, culture and commerce," according to the original brochure. "A unique landmark -- the world's tallest lighthouse -- standing proud at the center of one of the world's most remarkable islands."


But Wang's dream ended up being too big -- or more precisely, too dense for surrounding communities and for Hempstead, where town officials said the project would have overwhelmed its water, sewer, roadways and other infrastructure.

So in 2011, the town approved a zone that would allow only as much as 5.4 million square feet of construction on the Coliseum property -- a move that effectively killed Wang's proposal.

On Tuesday, Bruce Ratner, executive chairman of Forest City Ratner Cos., and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano submitted a new master plan and environmental analysis to Hempstead.

Approval likely will come quickly because: 1) The project falls within Hempstead's development limits and 2) The town, in developing the zone, did its own environmental analysis in 2011.

Still, the first question asked during Tuesday's news conference was whether, after so many false starts, the project would get done.

After all, there's pending litigation that could impact commercial development on the site. And Ratner just recently won county approval to seek $90 million in new investment from Chinese backers.

Mangano and Ratner, however, said again Tuesday that renovation of the Coliseum will begin, as scheduled, in August.

The project also will involve putting up eight new buildings, including a movie theater, restaurant and sports-related entertainment, on the county-owned site.

And somewhere down the line there may be new hotels, a convention center and parking garages -- although, unlike Wang's proposal, the conceptual plans include no residential component.

Can the Hub -- and by extension, Nassau -- regain its strut, its swagger? With no Islanders, and a Coliseum scaled down to 13,000 seats?

That's the plan, officials seemed to be saying on Tuesday. That's the plan.

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