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Lighthouse project developers grilled at hearing

Patrick Dowd of Bay Shore listens to Islanders

Patrick Dowd of Bay Shore listens to Islanders owner Charles Wang speak on the Lighthouse project Tuesday. (Sept. 22, 2009) Credit: Howard Schnapp

For the first time in a nearly two-year review of the Lighthouse project - which stands to be the biggest development built on Long Island since Levittown - Hempstead Town Board members spent hours Tuesday grilling the developers about details of the proposal during a zoning hearing in which the tone veered from cordial to testy.

Although most of the questioning was polite, the developers - New York Islanders owner Charles Wang and developer Scott Rechler - appeared frustrated and at times ill-prepared for the questions about traffic, height of buildings and whether the developers would sell off parts of the project.

PHOTOS: Lighthouse project hearings & rallies

Town board members repeatedly asked for specific commitments, but the developers declined to make them. Instead, they extolled what they say are the project's virtues - creating jobs, serving as a magnet for new industry and keeping young people on Long Island.

Some new details emerged: The project would have 42 buildings in a mix of residential, office and retail space. It would more than double the size of the Nassau Coliseum to 831,500 square feet and would provide parking for 19,926 vehicles.


$1 million for some housing

The housing units would range in price from more than $1 million at the high end to $234,000 for some one-bedroom units, the developers said.

That prompted board member Dorothy Goosby, a Democrat whose district includes the Lighthouse site, to say, "Well, I don't see that there's any way people in my district could live there."

A key question was whether Wang and Rechler would sell off parts of the project. Town board member Anthony Santino, a Republican, said the board needed some kind of "security" that the developers would not walk away from an unfinished project. He said the town did not want to deal with "some nameless, faceless, big conglomerate . . . that simply cares about the bottom line."

Wang would not make specific commitments, but said, "I love the Island. . . . I want to make sure that what's built is the vision that Scott and I have created and that it gets done."

In the morning session of the hearing, which lasted into the night, Wang was greeted with boisterous cheers from union laborers in the theater at Hofstra University. By afternoon, the tone had shifted dramatically, as board members challenged the developers' numbers. Several hundred people attended the day and night sessions.


Zoning decision crucial

The $3.8-billion project, which would be funded by Wang and Rechler, would be built on 150 acres of county-owned land stretching from RXR Plaza (formerly EAB Plaza) to Roosevelt Field. Tuesday's hearing was held to determine the zoning for the site. The town board has not set a date for the vote on zoning.

One issue overshadowing the sometimes contentious back-and-forth was Wang's Oct. 3 deadline for "certainty." He has said repeatedly that he needs key governmental approvals by that date - the start of the hockey season - or he will have to "explore other options." At least eight cities have expressed interest in the team, according to sources close to Wang.

In fact, the Islanders spent Tuesday touring the Sprint Center, the new sports arena in Kansas City, Mo.

Wang took pains to say that his deadline was not a "threat" and he would continue to work with the town. But he again complained that the board had not moved quickly enough in its review. Board members countered - again - that the town had acted as expeditiously as possible.

Traffic became the centerpiece of the late morning and early afternoon sessions. The town board extensively questioned the developers and their traffic consultant about the number of cars that would be traveling to the site, the improvements being proposed and mass transit options such as a private bus and trolley service.

"I think there's no incentive for us to not want to provide these services," Rechler said.

"If they're stuck in traffic, they're not coming and that's why we're in total agreement with you . . . This is as important to us as it is to you."As the hearing progressed into the evening, neither side seemed satisfied. "This whole process," Santino said, "has been like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall."

With Eden Laikin and Randi F. Marshall

PHOTOS: Lighthouse project hearings & rallies

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