An established developer, a plan that complies with Hempstead Town zoning and more than $100 million in possible state grant money are among factors stoking optimism that the 72-acre property around NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum finally will be redeveloped after decades of failed efforts.
But skeptics say the $1.5 billion plan for the asphalt-covered property in Uniondale may not have enough housing to make the project viable, has no anchor tenant or major sports franchise for the arena and no direct link to public transportation.
BSE Global and RXR Realty — the partners in the project to redevelop the county-owned property known as the Nassau Hub — have released few concrete details or a site plan.
The project also faces opposition from developer Ed Blumenfeld, who once had an agreement to build on part of the property and has suggested that he may challenge the plan in court.
Still, many who watched as past proposals came and went are expressing confidence that this project could be completed within five years.
“I feel like the stars have finally aligned,” said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group.
“BSE is in control, [and] they brought in one of the most reputable developers on Long Island who has a big financial stake in the Hub region and thus wants to see something great and exciting there to complement their other holdings,” Law said.
But Town of Hempstead Councilman Bruce Blakeman expressed concern that a proposed $1 billion arena for the New York Islanders in Belmont Park would be too much competition for the Coliseum, leaving both venues financially struggling.
"I don’t believe there are enough entertainment dollars to support two arenas so close together," said Blakeman, a Republican and former presiding officer of the Nassau County Legislature who was involved in an effort to revamp the Coliseum 20 years ago.
"If the Coliseum fails or falters, then you have the central portion of the overall development in jeopardy," said Blakeman, Hempstead's deputy town supervisor.
BSE Global, formerly Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, has a 49-year lease with Nassau County to operate the Coliseum. On Sept. 4, BSE and RXR Realty announced their partnership to build on the site 500 units of housing, 600,000 square feet of office and biotech research space, and 200,000 square feet of "experiential retail."
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran backs the plan and in October is expected to file an amendment to the Coliseum lease that will require the approval of the GOP-controlled county legislature. The amendment will recognize BSE’s right to support or reject development around the Coliseum and include the BSE-RXR plan for the area.
County legislators say they won't rubber-stamp Curran's proposal.
"We won't show favoritism just because they've done projects like this before," Legis. Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), minority leader, said of RXR, based in Uniondale. "No one has done this before. We got to get it right."
Redevelopment of the Hub property has been hamstrung for years by political infighting, costly project delays and protracted litigation. Curran, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, is the fourth county executive to attempt to redevelop the site.
In his 1998 State of the County address, Republican Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta urged construction of a new arena for the New York Islanders by the 2001 hockey season.
Under Gulotta's $200 million plan, the new arena would have been built next to the existing Coliseum, which opened in 1972 and would have become a convention center. But a disagreement between then-Islanders owners Howard Milstein and Steven Gluckstern and SMG, the Coliseum lease partner, sank the project.
The most expansive proposal for the Nassau Hub came during the administration of Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi.
In 2004, Islanders owner Charles Wang proposed the Lighthouse Project that included a renovated sports arena, 2,300 housing units, 1 million square feet of office space, 500,000 square feet of retail and a luxury hotel. Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR, was involved with Wang as a partner.
The $3.8 billion plan ultimately was rejected by the Town of Hempstead. Increased traffic on neighboring roads, the 60-story height of the hotel and an expected burden on the Uniondale schools were some of the reasons lawmakers cited. Wang eventually moved the Islanders to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
In 2011, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, asked voters to approve spending up to $400 million to rebuild the Coliseum and build an adjacent minor league baseball stadium. Voters rejected the referendum proposal.
By 2013, four developers were vying to build on the site.
Madison Square Garden and RXR had a $250 million plan to renovate the Coliseum and create "Long Island Live!," a year-round, 150,000-square-foot entertainment complex.
Developer Bruce Ratner pushed a $229 million project that included a 2,000-seat theater, a 2,500-seat outdoor amphitheater, an ice-skating rink, restaurants and 50,000 square feet of retail.
Developer Bernard Shereck and New York Sports & Entertainment proposed a downsizing of the Coliseum. The $90 million project would have resulted in renovation of the interior and brought a minor league hockey team and possibly a lacrosse team to the arena.
Blumenfeld bid on the project that year as well, proposing to spend $180 million to replace the Coliseum with a new 9,000- to 12,000-seat arena to host Big 10 college basketball and hockey games and construct a 100,000-square-foot convention center.
Mangano chose Ratner's proposal and Blumenfeld became a partner. But they split over the direction of the project and sued each other.
Ratner went ahead with a $250 million renovation of the Coliseum, which reopened in April 2017. The developers reached an out-of-court settlement this past February, making Blumenfeld the sole leaseholder for a 17-acre parcel known as the Coliseum Plaza that had been in dispute.
Curran, who took office on Jan. 1, entered the fight over the property in May when she refused to renew Blumenfeld's lease for the Coliseum Plaza parcel and rejected his new pitch to build an "arena district" with entertainment, retail, housing and restaurants.
After BSE and RXR forged a partnership backed by Curran, Blumenfeld called the new plan, "an unprecedented unilateral transfer of development rights to a major donor of the current administration without employing a fair open competitive process."
"Ultimately, the needed disinfectant required to correct what has occurred here may only be found in a courtroom," Blumenfeld said on Sept. 8.
It is unclear whether Blumenfeld could successfully bring a lawsuit.
In an April 10, 2018, agreement with the Curran administration, Blumenfeld's company released the county from all claims or liabilities " . . . arising from the County's decisions with respect to the development of the Coliseum Plaza or more generally with respect to the development of the Coliseum Site, including the County's choice of developers." Newsday obtained a copy of the agreement.
"I'd like for the administration to do whatever it can to resolve the issue before it goes to court," said Nassau County Legis. Richard Nicolello (R-New Hyde Park), the legislature's presiding officer, who previously expressed support for the BSE-RXR plan.
"Anytime there is litigation it can delay the development and that is the last thing we want to see," said Nicolello, an insurance attorney,
But many remain hopeful that the new $1.5 billion plan won't hit significant roadblocks.
Margo K. Cargill, president of the Uniondale Chamber of Commerce, said the difference this time is the involvement of Rechler, who is a supporter of the chamber. She said RXR's involvement makes the difference.
“I feel as though they [RXR and BSE] would be better neighbors, be good neighbors, and play an active role in engaging us,” Cargill said. “We’re excited to have them as part of the team of developers because they are our neighbors . . . It’s very encouraging.”
Dorothy Goosby, senior Hempstead Town councilwoman whose district includes the Coliseum, said she is reserving judgment until she sees a site plan. She said constituents would be most concerned with the size of the project and its impact on local roads and schools.
But Goosby, who in her 18 years on the town council has seen several proposals for the Hub site, admits her "biggest fear is that the plan won't happen at all."
Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association Inc. in Hauppauge, said of the BSE-RXR Global plan, “I don't know why, but I’m very optimistic and I think it’s actually going to take place this time."
The proposal is "not built around saving the Islanders," Herbst said. "It’s built around housing, research, the adjoining properties, the educational facilities, and RXR’s existing properties . . . There’s a cohesiveness here.”
Dave Kapell, a member of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, which advises the state on local economic issues, said the plan for 500 housing units was “on the light side” and might not meet demand in the area.
Kapell, also a consultant to the Rauch Foundation, a research group based in Garden City that studies Long Island issues, said the difference this time, is, “the Coliseum has been renovated, or rebuilt; you have a very competent operator now for the coliseum; [and] they’re partnering with arguably the most prominent firm on Long Island."
For her part, Curran said she was "very confident" the county legislature will "be supporting this. And I look forward to talking to them and continuing our very open dialogue we've been having and I'm expecting them to be fully cooperative and actually be very excited about this."
Mitchell Pally, chief executive officer of the Long Island Builders Institute, which represents some local developers, said of the project: “If it doesn’t happen in the next year, it will never happen. All of the parameters have been set."
But this time, “both political parties now realize that this project is essential to the growth of Nassau County. That was not always the case. This time there is no political will or political benefit to being an impediment to the project.”
With Scott Eidler
HISTORY OF HUB PROPOSALS
- 1998: County Executive Thomas Gulotta, a Republican, urges construction of a new arena for the New York Islanders by the 2001 hockey season. Then-Islanders owners Howard Milstein and Steven Gluckstern fail to come to an agreement with SMG, the Coliseum lease partner.
- 2004: County Executive Tom Suozzi, a Democrat, secures a bid from Islanders owner Charles Wang who proposed the Lighthouse Project with partner Scott Rechler, chief executive of RXR Realty. The $3.8 billion project is rejected by the Town of Hempstead. Wang ultimately moved the team to the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.
- 2011: County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, asks voters to support spending up to $400 million to rebuild the Coliseum and create a minor league baseball stadium. Voters reject the referendum question.
- 2013: Mangano chooses developer Bruce Ratner to develop the site and Blumenfeld becomes a partner. The two developers then sue each other in a dispute over the direction of the project.
- 2014: Mangano pitches another plan to create a biotech park innovation center, housing and a minor league ballpark. Backers secure $85 million in state grant money to build two parking garages.
- 2016: Memorial Sloan Kettering plans a cancer center for five acres of the property. The proposal becomes the first building on the property around the Coliseum.
- 2018: County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat, considers a proposal by Ed Blumenfeld, founder of BDG in Syosset, for an “arena district” with retail, entertainment, housing and office space. Curran rejects the plan.
- September 2018: Curran backs a $1.5 billion plan by BSE Global, operators of the Coliseum, to develop the site with RXR Realty. The plan is pending approval by the Republican-controlled Nassau County Legislature.