In the middle of the nation’s first suburb and one of its most affluent counties lie 77 acres of broken asphalt, a constant reminder of disappointment and unrealized potential. For decades, plans, ideas and hope have come and gone, and the Nassau Hub has remained an economic wasteland.
Even now, with a renovated Nassau Coliseum on one side, and a Memorial Sloan Kettering outpatient cancer center under construction on another, most of the rest of the land remains empty, without a vision, or commitments from job-producing companies, or a comprehensive plan.
The Hub’s development is critical to Long Island’s future, to Nassau County’s financial footing and to the housing, jobs and economic opportunity the region needs to maintain its pre-eminence.
The Hub needs a jump-start in its redevelopment, but a report released last week by the Long Island Index asserts that Nassau’s current attempts lack the energy that comes from fresh thinking and new leadership. A landscape-changing vision on par with Levittown, the region’s first suburb, the Index’s report recommends creating a destination where residents can work, live and play, and that is walkable, with public transportation options. And it makes clear that this can’t be done without a financial commitment from both the private and public sectors.
Those conclusions from the Long Island Index — a non-partisan project by the Rauch Foundation that gathers data, issues findings, and encourages region-wide thinking on key local issues — are spot on. But it won’t be easy to make this Hub happen.
The report recommends the creation of an “innovation district” that would include millions of square feet of housing, office space and facilities for research and development, but far less retail and hotel space than most previous efforts have suggested. It says an extensive public transit component must include improvements to existing bus service and new bus-rapid transit pathways that connect to the Long Island Rail Road.
The Long Island Index’s effort is perhaps the most aspirational vision for the site since the Lighthouse Project was proposed in 2009. That alone is worth applause. After all, a few big regional dreams are inching toward reality — most recently, the LIRR’s third track, an effort the Index also studied, received approval to build.
A vibrant center at the heart of Nassau County can happen. But the obstacles are significant. A lot must change to arrive at the Long Island of tomorrow.
To start, the proposals go beyond anything allowed by the Town of Hempstead, and it’s unclear whether town officials would support increased density overall and significantly more housing.
Hempstead’s zoning for the site was approved in the wake of the failed Lighthouse Project, a $3.8 billion development proposed by former New York Islanders owner Charles Wang, who still owns a small stake in the team. After the town rejected Wang’s plans, Hempstead’s new zone allowed up to 5.4 million square feet of development, including parking garages, the arena and up to 500 units of housing. The Long Island Index says 7.1 million square feet of development, including 2.2 million square feet of multifamily housing, is needed to attract companies and make a significant economic impact. That would likely be far more than 500 housing units, so there would be a need to rezone the property.
Meanwhile, the site’s existing plans remain uncertain. Retail stores planned around the Coliseum have yet to be built, as Nassau Events Center Plaza, the company tasked with the job, figures out where to put two state-funded parking garages.
The bigger question mark, however, lies in the Long Island Index’s transit proposals.
Expanding or rerouting Nassau Inter-County Express bus service is a good and simple starting point. But utilizing abandoned or barely used LIRR tracks as a dedicated bus rapid-transit route through neighborhoods like Garden City, as the Index proposes, will be contested and likely subject to years of studies and reviews. Nassau County’s previous suggestion to connect the Coliseum site to Mineola and Hempstead train stations via buses using existing roads might be an easier sell.
Ultimately, the Index’s plan is just a blueprint of exciting possibilities, but the Hub will need a deep-pocketed developer and the political leadership to shepherd it. And an innovation park must have the key ingredient — innovators who want to be part of emerging companies in biotech or software or something else — and who are willing to do that here.
The report restarts a long-stalled conversation about the survival of Nassau County. It comes at an opportune time, as key county and town posts are up for election this fall. Residents should demand that candidates for county executive and legislature, as well as Hempstead supervisor and council, articulate their visions for the Hub. Do their ideas represent bold steps toward the future or a feeble clinging to the past?