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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

The Nassau Hub: A field of dashed dreams

An aerial view of NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum,

An aerial view of NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum, April 5, 2017. Credit: ALL Island Aerial/Kevin P. Coughlin

Once upon a time, planners and public officials had Big Dreams for the former Air Force base once known as Mitchel Field. The most ambitious of the dreams, over decades, dissipated into the mist.

But, oh, what dreams there were for the place now dubbed “the Hub.” At one point, the area was considered to be “a development opportunity unique in American planning,” according to a Newsday report.

Recently, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran put her support behind a $1.5 billion plan to redevelop 72 acres surrounding NYCB Live's Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.

While specifics are sparse, the proposal by BSE Global and RXR Realty would include 500 units of housing, 600,000 square feet of office and bioresearch space and 200,000 square feet of what the companies called “experiential retail.”

What’s “experiential retail?”

A Google search yielded a more descriptive phrase — “retail-tainment” -- which seems to be the rage these days. More digging produced a list of companies -- Apple, Victoria’s Secret, Ulta Beauty, Bath & Body Works and IKEA -- that Forbes says are best at it.

That’s a far cry from what then-County Executive Eugene Nickerson, a Democrat, had in mind when Nassau County acquired the 1,170-acre site in 1962 after the U.S. government declared it surplus property.

The centerpiece of Nickerson’s dream was  a John F. Kennedy Cultural Center, which was to be the bigger, better suburban rival of Lincoln Center in Manhattan.

But politics and concerns about funding intervened, and the compromise was construction of Nassau Coliseum -- still a big deal development for a suburban county --  which opened in 1972 under Nickerson’s successor, Republican Ralph Caso.

Next up was a proposed hotel, the planning of which started under Caso but was completed by successor Francis Purcell. Purcell, a Republican, also supported construction of high-rise office buildings, and, recognizing the need for transportation improvements, widening of the Meadowbrook Parkway.

None of that happened, and neither did construction of a monorail once proposed by officials.

In 1979, according to a Newsday report, “The final shape of Mitchel Field . . . has, at last emerged.” By then, with construction of Nassau Community College, stores and other projects, about 80 percent of the former air base had been developed, the report noted, “after 17 years of controversy, four master plans and countless false starts.”

Still, obstacles remained.

Purcell’s successor, Republican Thomas Gulotta, dreamed of building a new Coliseum.

And Gulotta's successor, Democrat Thomas Suozzi, dreamed of building an "emerald ribbon" of walkable greenways and bike paths winding from Eisenhower Park past the Coliseum and over to Hofstra University and to Adelphi University in Garden City.

That never happened. And Charles Wang, who owned the Islanders hockey team, dreamed of a new Coliseum, with a  60-story hotel as the development's centerpiece. His vision was even more ambitious than Nickerson’s, but political fights scuttled that plan as well.

Suozzi’s successor, Republican Edward Mangano, asked residents in an advisory referendum whether they would support spending up to $400 million in public money to build a new Coliseum. Voters (no surprise) said no.

So Mangano went a different way, with a now-renovated Coliseum and plans -- later scuttled -- to develop an adjacent parcel.

All of which brings us to the present, when what’s left of Mitchel Field, with its proposed “experiential retail,” could find itself in competition with a slew of destinations that have sprouted up across Long Island over the past few years.

Patchogue and downtown Westbury have become popular. So have Farmingdale, Huntington and other communities — and there potentially are even more  such spots, such as the Ronkonkoma Hub, Wyandanch Rising and Heartland in Islip, on the horizon.

Where will the Hub fit in?

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