Pennetta How about a grander vision
David Pennetta is president of the Commercial Industrial Brokers Society of Long Island.
The foremost symbol of Long Island's long-running failure to plan is back in the news. Deciding what to do with the 77 acres in the heart of Nassau County has long divided the region. The attempt to resolve the issue on Monday through a referendum over who should fund an ice hockey rink insults our collective intelligence.
The Coliseum referendum -- do we fund a new hockey arena or lose the Islanders? -- is pure hokum.
The real choice is not on the decision to borrow up to $400 million to replace the Nassau Coliseum. It's whether we continue building isolated, single-use, car-dependent structures surrounded by cement seas, or at long last begin to envision and build the kind of human-scaled, mixed-use structures that are revitalizing downtowns across the world.
I have no problem with hockey. I do have a problem with restrictive land-use patterns that date back to when potato fields dotted the landscape. I do have a problem with pretending we still live in the 1950s. We need to modernize how we build and begin addressing the questions of how we create housing, infrastructure and transportation, and how we deploy public space for the next generation and those to come.
Politics, unfortunately, tends to trump planning on Long Island, and the Coliseum is no exception. The dreary structure was archaic when it opened in February 1972, hosting a New York Nets professional basketball game. The Nets were the New York franchise of the rebel American Basketball Association, infamously using a red, white and blue basketball. The Nets signed the great Julius Erving, who had grown up nearby in Roosevelt, and the owners touted Dr. J, proclaiming their loyalty to Long Island and forecasting a glorious future in the Coliseum.
What happened? Economics. The rival National Basketball Association swallowed the league whole; the Nets owner sold Dr. J's contract and moved the team to New Jersey.
Fast-forward to 2011. Little has changed save the names. The need to modernize the arena remains obvious. There is still a professional sports team claiming to represent Long Island, demanding publicly financed arena upgrades. This time, the team is called the Islanders and the owner is asking the county for a $400-million accommodation. Once again Long Islanders are being told we cannot exist without a particular professional sports franchise.
Where have you gone, Dr. J? A region turns its lonely eyes to you.
The current Coliseum project is a mess primarily because no one seems to be listening to Long Islanders, or trying to address the region's real needs for housing, transit and infrastructure. Hempstead Town's new zoning plan, approved last month, actually makes things worse, further restricting housing density and height. Are we still living in 1950?
Long Island needs planning that envisions how we might live and how our children might live, how we work and get to work today and in the future, how we could attract new businesses and retain them, how we might create the kind of public space that fosters community and leads to civic pride and neighborhood identification.
Other regions are doing this. In Chicago, developers and city officials worked together to convert a dilapidated wharf into a vibrant lakefront destination called Navy Pier. There are shops, conference and event spaces, restaurants and entertainment options. It bustles with life morning to night. Navy Pier spells Chicago to millions of visitors, locals and tourists alike.
On Monday, when the county holds its referendum, I hope Nassau residents turn thumbs down and insist our government officials expand their vision, then come back to us with a smarter proposal. Let's hope for another referendum someday offering a real choice. Let's work toward a project that combines housing with transit, stores and schools as well as arenas and parking.
Nassau should finally turn this private playground into a genuine public space -- for good.