Residents, politicians and vendors who live and work on the Nassau-Queens border gave the proposed $1 billion Islanders arena at Belmont Park mixed reviews at the fourth public forum this week addressing the pros and cons of the project.
Those who spoke at Elmont Memorial Library on Thursday ranged in age from 73-year-old Chester Brown of Floral Park, who said the complex was “ill-planned and fraught with poorly thought out consequences,” to 9-year-old Michael Walker Jr. of Elmont, who followed his father and drew a near-standing ovation for his advice that planners should help Elmont residents succeed along with them.
“We should have everything in the community,” he said at the start of a three-minute speech that focused on the prospect of a project that he believes could neglect residents of his community. “That’s what a community is for. We are supposed to be able to go to you and you give us the resources that we need.”
The speakers’ moods ranged from dead-set against the project because they said it would shoehorn the complex, people and cars into an already traffic-rich space to enthusiasm from small vendors like Charles Razenson of Unique Impressions. He said of the Islanders: "They shop local,” adding that the franchise uses his services and could use those of other vendors in the audience of about 400 people.
But the overwhelming sentiment was one of caution for the project, which many said would choke Floral Park, Elmont, and several Queens communities with new columns of traffic, something those areas already cope with on one day each year during the Belmont Stakes.
The project, which is being proposed by the state's economic development agency, Empire State Development, would include a 19,000-seat arena for National Hockey League games and concerts, a hotel and 450,000 square feet of retail space. If approved, the complex is set to be completed by 2021.
Jack Sterne, a spokesman for Empire State Development, did not address the specific concerns raised but echoed his previous comments that the agency is "committed to a robust community engagement process."
"We look forward to continuing the conversation and working with community members to ensure this transformative project — which will bring a world-class arena, improved and new public spaces, and millions in tax revenue to Long Island — is successful," he said.
Marta Hernandez, an Elmont resident, said she does not support the project because she said it all but ignores the needs of youth in the area.
“I don’t believe in the project,” she said. “It is a result of a process that doesn’t reflect meaningful community engagement.”
Other speakers, like Alfreda Simpkins of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, hoped planners would provide prevailing wages for the workers who would serve at the shops and restaurants once the complex is completed. Labor leaders like Matthew Aracich, president of The Building and Construction Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk Counties, urged planners to use local unionized workers, tap minority and women-owned businesses and provide apprentice programs.
Traffic and congestion was by far the most oft-raised concern, though, and state Sen. Anna Kaplan (D-Great Neck) was echoed by many who said congestion problems could be eased by creating a full-service LIRR station to service the complex.
The current plan calls for two trains each before and after events.
The Cross Island Parkway, which separates Nassau from Queens, was also maligned as a contributor to the problem.
“The Cross Island Parkway is often the Cross Island Parking lot,” said Queens Councilman Barry Grodenchik, a comment that drew laughs from the approving crowd.
He added that eastern Queens has insufficient public transportation, a reality that would exacerbate traffic issues if public transportation is not improved.
“We live in the Death Valley of mass transit,” he said. “I cannot support this development that does not accomplish that goal.”