As the lease on land immediately around Nassau Coliseum expires Monday, Nassau County is, once again, at the beginning.
The Nassau Hub can be a perpetual tale of opportunities lost. But only if nothing is ever learned from the mistakes of the past. Long Island still needs to create the vibrant center envisioned long ago, but the individual elements of what exactly can make that happen have changed in the more than half-century since the county purchased the land, better known then as Mitchel Field, from the federal government. A sporting complex and several museums were built, but the rest of the ideas, such as those for a library and cultural center, were jettisoned.
So how does the county, in consultation with the Town of Hempstead, which has zoning authority, take advantage of this moment?
There’s so much the ghosts of the Hub could say. The most comprehensive recent proposal was Charles Wang’s Lighthouse Project. It contained vision and forethought; it could have been a game-changer. But the politics of the county and the town, and the intransigence of the developer, stopped the Lighthouse before it started. And there is always the possibility that had the Lighthouse moved forward more quickly, it could’ve been derailed by the 2008 financial crisis. There’s a need for vision, but also for flexibility and an awareness of the political and economic landscape.
Since the Lighthouse came and went, none of the proposals for the 77 acres around the Coliseum have come close to reality. The county learned that casinos are non-starters; so was a plan to raise millions in public funds for arena renovations by issuing debt. What the county does have is the knowledge that there’s $80 million in state funds for parking garages — money just waiting to help jump-start a smart plan, not one of chain restaurants and box stores.
Nassau and Hempstead officials have to think of the future, of the jobs and businesses the region wants to attract, of the many types of housing it so desperately needs, and of the importance of public transit. What type of office space will meet the needs of generations to come? How can we get ahead of a rapidly changing economy, shifting technology, a world where some industries are growing while others fade? How should our developers think differently and avoid making the same tired proposals?
No one has all the answers. Nor is there only one best idea. Nassau must look around the nation and beyond to see how cities and suburbs are reinventing themselves for a new workforce, a new economy and a new way of living.
With the lessons of the past and notions of the future, the county should craft a request for proposals that welcomes big and new ideas, even if that is achieved by incremental, piece-by-piece progress.
If they fail, they’ll join the many ghosts of the Hub’s past. But if they succeed, it could just be the start of a new story.