A What if with Belmont Arena

We may be considering the future of the New York Islanders at a proposed Belmont location, but suppose we take a moment to play “Devil’s advocate?”

What if this whole Islanders Belmont Arena deal is the means to a MUCH bigger return for the NYAP team? We’re not talking about the Retail Village, or the luxury hotel. We’re not even referring to the passive return on parking fees or even night-time racing at the track. Is it possible that there is a much more lucrative plan afloat?

It almost doesn’t make sense that reasonable-thinking elected officials and investors would continue to push the Belmont plan as currently proposed. The Belmont Racetrack was built in 1905 and was last updated during the Nixon administration in 1968. We’ve seen enough evidence (“F”-ratings for the adjoining Cross Island Parkway, tram-to-the-train inconveniences for fans, commercial vehicle restrictions that will cripple side streets through predominantly minority communities in Queens, major security deficiencies at the site, etc.) to know there HAS to be more to this, right?

Let’s start with the announcement of the new LIRR train station proposed for Bellerose Terrace/Elmont. At best, the 12th-hour proposal is a “Hail Mary!” to try and appease the New York Islanders owners who stated unequivocally that a mass transit solution had to be part of any project for a new team arena. 

The estimated cost of the proposed station dropped almost overnight from $300 million to $105 million, with nary an explanation of how that number was even arrived at.  The station is not currently budgeted in the MTA’s capital program, and likely won’t be until at least 2022. Keep in mind that at the exact juncture where the proposed station will be erected, the LIRR is currently four tracks wide. Any station will need to span that space, plus provide a sheltered platform to accommodate up to 5,000 people leaving events on cold winter’s nights. (In February 2016, it was estimated that 5,000 fans per night utilized the LIRR to reach the Barclay’s Center for Islanders games).

NYAP has agreed to pick up $30 million up front for the station, and another $67 million over 30 years in an interest-free note – IN LIEU OF RENT ON THE ENTIRE PROPERTY. Who pays for the inevitable overruns (and there are ALWAYS overruns on a project of this magnitude!) Will New York State tap the citizens of Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany (as they did to help fund the $6 million ice making upgrade at Nassau Coliseum last year?) to fund a train station that upstate taxpayers will never benefit from?

Did any rational-thinking person consider Islanders fans naïve enough to take a train-to-a-tram-to-an-arena as a solution to mass transit to the site? If it’s even possible, this unprecedented imposition on fans is even more peculiar than a reverse rush hour trip through Jamaica to Atlantic Terminal!

The assertion that this station would become a “commuter station” for area residents is also a fallacy. First of all, it was never even contemplated in the original Environmental Impact Study. Resident-restricted parking cannot be designated on state land. Even if 400-500 spots in the North Lot were designated for “commuters,” those spots are open to ALL commuters – whether they be from West Hempstead, New Hyde Park or Little Neck.

LIRR Artist Rendering of Belmont Arena

The final Environmental Impact Statement doesn’t even require that borings be done on the proposed site of the new station. Local officials have cited abatement issues involving cyanide from old railroad ties and even Agent Orange, which at one time was used to suppress foliage along the tracks. What happens when the ground at the proposed station gets disturbed? The FEIS didn’t even address the potential health risks to the community. 

Now what if – here comes the “Devil’s advocate” part – the NYAP has no intention of building the new station? 

The proposed station could not even get on the MTA’s drawing board until the East Side Access project is completed (currently projected for 2022). How long would it then take the MTA to do proper analysis, resolve abatement issues and actually build the station? (Though far more complex a project, the East Side Access is currently 15 years behind schedule and $7.6 billion over budget). 

Based on current “shovel-in-the-ground” estimates from NYAP, the Islanders Arena will open without the new train station. What happens after 3-to-4 years if attendance dwindles as frustrated Islanders fans quickly tire of the interminable travel issues on the Cross Island, and then the tailgate-to-the-tram-to the-arena imposition?

The Oak View Group owns the Islanders sales and marketing rights. Do they exercise an “out” clause – just like Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment did at Barclays Center – do the Islanders get stuck into another awkward financial situation as they did in Brooklyn?

What might they do with this now underutilized arena? Do you want to “roll the bones” on this one? (Remember we are still just playing the “devil’s advocate” game). 

Former NY Governor David Paterson was recently named SVP of the Las Vegas Sands Resort and Casino – the top publicly traded casino company in the U.S. There are three downstate gambling licenses that will be up for grabs in 2023. It’s estimated that New York State will reap a windfall of $500 million from EACH of those operator licenses. 

The former governor has gone on record as advocating the Queens area as an ideal choice for a full blown live-action (Blackjack, Roulette, Poker, Craps), casino due to its proximity to area airports. When legalized pro sports betting is added, it’s apparent how individual casinos easily rack up billions in revenue every year.

Might a windfall like that unite area sports owners Wilpon, Malkin and Dolan? With the Islanders theoretically evicted from their arena, would that clear the way for the building’s conversion to a live-action casino?

This may shock some, but billionaire developers and area politicians may not ALWAYS have the best interests of their constituents in mind. Witness what happened as the Ed Mangano-administration and Nassau County sought bids to refurbish the Nassau Coliseum in 2013.

The County hired developer Bruce Ratner’s Forest City Enterprises to assess development possibilities for the site, and to assist in crafting the RFP that would be issued on the project. Ratner’s firm was allowed to bid on that contract, and they won it (over the proposals of three other viable competitors)! 

Forest City Artist Rendering for Nassau Coliseum

The RFP called for a down-sizing of the arena to enable more of the 72 acres around the Coliseum to be converted from parking spaces to other development projects. Ratner’s proposal only called for a 10% reduction (versus an average of 23% seating reductions proposed by the other developers).

Because of the higher capacity, Ratner’s pro formas showed higher potential revenue streams in their proposal. But the element that sealed the deal was the guarantee that Forest City would pay the County $1 million per year – for up to 10 years – (even during the estimated two years of the refurbishment when the building was uninhabitable), if the Islanders did not play a minimum of 6 home games in the arena per year. He also guaranteed that Forest City would purchase an AHL franchise and they would make the Coliseum their home. 

A simple phone call by the County to the NHL would have determined that they would not approve (except under extraordinary circumstances – such as a team being evicted from their home rink – would they allow a team to essentially have two home rinks).

In the space of a couple of years following the awarding of the contract, Ratner sold his interest in the Coliseum to Mikhael Prokhorov who then transferred ownership to Joseph Tsai. New York State agreed to spend $6 million toward the upgrade of the ice-making plant in the privately-owned facility. Ed Mangano went to jail in an unrelated federal corruption charge. And last year, Mangano’s successor, Laura Curran signed an agreement that absolved Brooklyn Sports (Forest City’s successor) from having to pay the $1 million per year penalty for the Islanders playing in the Coliseum and the acquisition of the AHL franchise. One of the most significant aspects of Forest City’s winning bid on the Coliseum refurbishment was erased with a politician’s stroke of a pen!

The cautionary tale from the Coliseum experience is that – when it comes to big-time developers and politicians – expect that the terms of ANY deal will change once they get their approvals.

In 2012, the Empire State Development Corp. issued a Request for Proposal for the development of underutilized land at Belmont Park. In January 2013, the Cosmos of the North American Soccer League submitted a proposal that included a privately-financed $400 million, 25,000-seat stadium, with retail, restaurants and a hotel. The bid was one of four submitted for the land. Four years later, in December 2016, the ESD Corp. withdrew the RFP, rejecting all four plans.

New York Cosmos Stadium Artist Rendering at Belmont Park

Just six months later, the ESD Corp issued another RFP for the site, with three bidders responding. The New York City Football Club, the Blumenfeld Development Group and the New York Area Partners featuring the New York Islanders, the Wilpon family development group and Oak View Group – backed by Madison Square Garden – submitted proposals.

In December 2017, on the eve of Donald Trump and the federal government announcing massive tax cuts and a new jobs act, the ESD Corp hastily put together a press conference on a frigid morning at Belmont to announce that “the Islanders were returning to Long Island.” Coincidentally, this announcement bumped news of the popular Republican-led tax cuts off the front page on most local dailies and began a process that continues through today.

The Cosmos are still looking for a permanent home. They currently play their home matches at the 10,000-seat Mitchell Athletic Complex across the street from Nassau Coliseum. The New York City Football Club currently plays home games at the spacious Yankee Stadium. Both are still looking for a “soccer-specific” site in New York. Land located in proximity to major highways and mass transit is in scarce supply in the New York City metro area.

One of the sites most frequently mentioned as a possible destination for one or both of the soccer teams is at Willets Point on the site of the Wilpon-owned (Queens Ballpark Company) Citi Field. It would certainly be fortuitous for the Wilpons if the rejection of both soccer field proposals at Belmont resulted in them having interests in BOTH the Belmont project and a new soccer stadium at Citi Field. 

Of course, it’s highly speculative and oft-times very unrealistic to play the “Devil’s advocate” game.

But, what if?

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Larry Penner says:

    Governor Cuomo claims that it will only cost $105 million to pay for a new full-time Elmont LIRR station between Bellrose and Queens Village on the Main Line and for the upgrades to the existing spur for part time events at Belmont Park Arena Station. Just how did he come up with this number? A reliable cost estimate takes more than just a press release with station renderings that were probably prepared by Empire State Development Corporation project consultant. How will the developers $97 million share be transferred into the current MTA 2015 – 2019 or future 2020 – 2024 Five Year Capital Plan for LIRR to access these funds? A reliable cost estimate takes more than just a press release with station renderings that were probably prepared by Empire State Development Corporation project consultant.

    What about costs to modify, upgrade or build new interlockings along the Main Line? Will there be any costs for modification to the ongoing Positive Train Control project? How will this project be integrated with Main Line Third Track, Jamaica Capacity Improvements and other nearby LIRR capital and routine maintenance projects? Is there a detailed project budget, procurement strategy, force account plan, track outage plan and schedule to validate both the $105 million cost and project completion to coincide with the opening of the Islanders Belmont Arena which is less than 27 months away?

    Costs will be further refined as the project progresses through completion of the environmental review process, preliminary and final design, award of construction contracts followed by change orders to the base contracts during construction, due to last minute changes in scope or unforeseen site conditions.

    If Governor Cuomo, Empire State Development Corporation, MTA, LIRR, elected officials, consultants and their respective employees are so confident in the $105 million price tag, let them put up their respective retirement pensions, 401Ks and mortgage their homes as collateral. They can cover any inevitable future cost overruns.

    According to the station renderings, there is only one overpass connecting the west bound and east bound platforms. Will that provide safe and sufficient capacity for those who have to cross over? What will happen if there is a delay in service and crowds begin forming? Will the station be in compliance with Americans with Disability Act and include bathrooms?

    Station renderings of the new station did not show LIRR riders lined up waiting for electric shuttle buses for a one mile trip to the Islanders Belmont Park Arena. The ESDC consulting firm advised that only the south side platform serving customers coming from Jamaica could be ready in time of the October 2021 Arena opening. The north side platform serving fans coming from points east might not be ready until 2023. It is also dependent upon completion of the $2.6 billion Main Line Third Track and $11.2 billion East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal by December 2022.

    Will the station be in compliance with Americans with Disability Act and include bathrooms? .

    What will the costs for LIRR tickets be at the new Elmont Station – Zone 3 or Zone 4? Will the thousands of potential nearby Queens commuters be offered any weekday or weekend City Zone discount tickets?

    Which trains from the Hempstead, Oyster Bay, Port Jefferson and Ronkonkoma branches will be serving the new Elmont LIRR station rush hour and non rush hour?

    How many LIRR riders from Port Washington, Speonk, Babylon, Long Beach, Far Rockaway, West Hempstead and Atlantic Brooklyn branches will still have to change at Jamaica before being able to board an east bound train to reach the Belmont Islanders Arena?

    Anyone in the transit industry knows that customers being asked to pay a premium fare always prefer a one seat ride. This is what is provided for most who attend events at Madison Square Garden or the Brooklyn Barclays Center. Why would any Islanders fan coming from Nassau or Suffolk County want to first drive to a local LIRR station, park their car, board the LIRR (and in some cases have to switch at Huntington. Mineola, Babylon or Ronkonkoma from a diesel to electric train) then board a shuttle bus from the new Elmont LIRR station (assuming it opens on time which based on my previous years in the transit industry is doubtful) to the Islanders Arena. They will instead elect to drive or take a car service.

    Babylon, Speonk, West Hempstead, Long Beach and Far Rockaway branch riders will have to change at Jamaica (walk up the stairs, take an escalator or elevator from platform levels serving tracks one, two or three to the mezzanine level. Next walk across the mezzanine and down the stairs, escalator or elevator to tracks 7 or 8. Then they will have to wait for the next east bound train to reach the new Elmont Station followed by boarding a shuttle bus to reach the Arena. Port Jefferson, Huntington, Oyster Bay and Ronkonkoma branch riders will have to do the same until the Elmont Station west bound platform and overpass are completed. Port Washington branch riders have the added pleasure of an additional transfer at Woodside.

    Who will be responsible for building and maintaining the parking lot adjacent to the new Elmont LIRR station for commuters and those who want to attend both day and night events at the Islanders Belmont Arena? What will the parking fee be? Will LIRR commuters be offered weekly or monthly discounted parking fees? How will you deal with potential conflicts between those wanting to use the parking facility prior to events at the Islanders Arena versus daily commuters coming home from work? Will spaces be made available or reserved on a proportional basis?

    Who is going to purchase, operate and maintain electric shuttle buses? Will they be in compliance with ADA? Someone will have to build a maintenance facility for the electric buses. Will there be enough equipment during peak periods to simultaneously serve both LIRR riders traveling to the Islanders Arena, hotel, conference center, movie theater and retail complex, while at the same time providing shuttle service within Belmont Park parking lots to the Arena? What are the capacity of these electric buses which can vary based on size from 20 to 50 riders?

    (Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road, MTA Bus, NYC Department of Transportation along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).

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