It’s a decade-long tale of three plots of Long Island land. In it is a drama of big ideas, stops and starts, plans and compromises, and hopes dashed and realized. There are lessons to learn, and answers to a key question: How does a developer put a shovel in the ground on Long Island?
The characters in our tale are very different properties, with diverse goals, challenges and histories. One stretch of land was once a blighted Superfund site in a city starving for an economic boost. Another was a massive asphalt parking lot with an aging arena in its midst. And then there was the former psychiatric hospital to the east, on 450 acres.
Ten years ago, developers, political leaders and residents envisioned large-scale development at all three locations. By now, many expected construction, or even completed housing, retail or office space at each site. Instead, sites on the Glen Cove waterfront, around Nassau Coliseum and encompassing the Pilgrim Psychiatric Center sit virtually untouched.
(Yes, the Coliseum is being renovated, but that won’t change the surrounding landscape, or add new economic activty. It’s not notable development — not yet.)
But on Tuesday, developers will break ground on one of the three: the first phase of Garvies Point, which will bring housing, retail, and more to Glen Cove.
For RXR Realty chief Scott Rechler, who is heading the Glen Cove effort, this is a long time coming. That’s how development will always be on Long Island, where it’s easy to say no. But in Rechler’s bumpy path to hard hats and shovels, there is a blueprint for others.
Start with what are, perhaps, the most important ingredients: flexibility and compromise. For developers with big plans, politicians with re-elections to worry about and communities with limited appetites for growth, those two are not easy. But without them, a project is doomed to fail.
A lack of those ingredients was certainly one of the downfalls of the Lighthouse Project, the massive $3.8 billion proposal to overhaul the Coliseum property that dates back to 2004. Tall buildings and dense development were hallmarks, in part because developer and then-New York Islanders owner Charles Wang (and one-time partner Rechler) had to fund a full arena remake. But the Town of Hempstead balked, and no one came close to compromise.
It was easier, perhaps, in Glen Cove, where Rechler reduced the project’s square footage, added open space and lowered building heights. Glen Cove’s mayors compromised, too. And while some residents still aren’t on board, I would wager that when the esplanade opens, they’ll be there, ready to enjoy the stunning water views and space to play.
Then, there’s the necessary persistence. The moment someone refuses to keep going, backs away in a huff or gives up is the moment it’s likely over. That happened more than once in Uniondale. In Glen Cove, everyone kept trying, even with frustrations. Combine a developer who’s tenacious, a politician with an open door and a community that listens, and you just might have a chance.
Finally, there’s the need for a grassroots effort that involves the community in decision-making. In Glen Cove, Rechler favored that bottom-up approach as he developed his plans, and it worked. Wang had support, but his efforts always were more top-down.
So, what does this mean for that third piece of land in our tale? Gerald Wolkoff first introduced his proposal for Heartland Town Square 14 years ago. Recently, he and son David have been more willing to compromise, and they’ve always been persistent. Keep the community engaged, and problem-solve, and the potential is there. The coming construction in Glen Cove just might show that anything’s possible.
Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday’s editorial board. Columnist Michael Dobie is off.