Time to Get Emotional

The New York Islanders Jon Ledecky got visibly emotional as the Empire State Development board announced approval of the team’s bid to acquire land at Belmont Park in Elmont to develop an arena, hotel, and retail shopping village. The natural assumption was he was appreciative of Islanders fans support for the project and grateful for the seemingly rubber-stamp approval by the state appointed agency allegedly charged with scrutinizing the safety of the development. 

The hope is that the emotion was really genuine and not Mr. Ledecky coming to the realization that the ESD board had just signed off on a deal that will make the potential new Islanders home the least accessible venue in professional sports.

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Most municipal projects the size of what is proposed for Belmont are managed by a front man like Ledecky who represents big money investors and others with influence (a la Bruce Ratner for Mikhail Prokhorov at both Barclay’s Center and Nassau Coliseum). Once the public cheerleading is completed and the dirt-under-the-fingernails work is done, they step out of the spotlight and the real impact of the project takes hold. 

Ratner worked for eight years to assuage the community and local government to get the Barclay’s Center project completed. He promised the moon (low income housing developments, employment for local residents, direct payments to local civic associations and people of influence, etc.), in order to get the building on Atlantic Avenue built. 

He followed that game plan in 2013 when his Forest City Ratner helped write the RFP and then won the bid to refurbish Nassau Coliseum (guaranteed payments to Nassau of $1 million per year for ten years if the Islanders did not play 6 home games per season, guaranteed purchase of AHL franchise for the building, etc.) Two years after Forest City won the bid, they sold 85 percent of the Coliseum to Prokhorov’s Onexim Sports and Entertainment. 

Recently, Prokhorov has reportedly entertained selling his interest to Alibaba’s Joseph Tsai as part of a larger deal to sell the Nets and Barclay’s Center to the Taiwanese billionaire. That’s potentially three different lease holders at the Nassau Coliseum in three years, and they haven’t even started developing the property around the arena and recognizing the true environmental and quality-of-life impact that the deal will have on fans and the local community.

Make no mistake about it. Belmont is a Scott Malkin, Jeff/Fred Wilpon and Jimmy Dolan show. They have conspired to use the New York Islanders franchise and their collective political clout with Albany to secure a valuable tract of land in a no-bid, no-pay scenario.

THIS HAS NEVER BEEN ABOUT THE ISLANDERS FANS. 

If it were, how could anyone expect virtually every fan who attends an event at Belmont to battle ominous traffic on the Cross Island Parkway, attempt to find space in one of three VERY separated parking areas, before requiring they take a tram to the arena? Don’t say, “they’ll take the train.” More on that later…

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Will those same Islanders fans who lined up with Ledecky wearing their team colors and posting signs of support feel that elated about this project a few years from now when he and Malkin have sold the team, the fans are standing outside an arena at 9:30 p.m. on a February night waiting for a tram to take them to their cars in the “Bossy,” “Trottier” or “Gillies” parking lots? How will they feel when the poor planning for the project leaves them waiting at least an hour to exit from any of the three primary parking areas?

Ledecky and Malkin have already sold the sales and marketing rights for the new proposed arena at Belmont to Oak View Group. It’s the same type of deal they struck with the folks at Barclay’s that got them evicted when Islanders fans refused to go on a reverse rush hour commute to a building with horrific sightlines and horrible ambience. These are the owners that had faith in Garth Snow to secure the signature of franchise player John Tavares on a new deal before he walked away for nothing. These are the same guys Islanders fans are getting all weepy with today? The plan Malkin, Dolan and the Wilpons have put forth at Belmont for fans will have supporters pining for the days when all they had to worry about was the “change at Jamaica.”

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PARKING

The center parking area (let’s call it “Trottier”) is located closest to the arena. It currently calls for about 1,100 surface spots that will require all early arrivals to walk through the paddock/backyard area at the racetrack, then head past the new parking garage and hotel, before arriving at the arena. The “Trottier” lot will have two exits on to Hempstead Turnpike. One exit will only facilitate cars heading westbound on the turnpike. 

The second exit will be shared with approximately 2,500 vehicles exiting the “Bossy” lot – currently located in the middle of a practice oval to the right of the racetrack. This egress will service the majority of the 3,600 vehicles trying to exit either the Trottier or Bossy lots. At least this exit gives drivers the option to also make a left turn on to Hempstead Turnpike to head east. 

How long will it take drivers to take the tram from the arena, find their vehicles and then exit the “Bossy” lot following an event? How will local authorities manage the glut of traffic trying to enter Hempstead Turnpike?

The third lot (“Gillies?”) is located to the north of the racetrack and adjoining the proposed new train station. This lot will accommodate approximately 3,000 cars. We specify “CARS,” because it is only accessible from the Cross Island Parkway – which does not allow commercial vehicles. That means that if you are a contractor with commercial plates on your van or truck, you are prohibited access to the “Gillies” lot.

The tram from both the newly proposed LIRR train station and the “Gillies” lot will be forced through a narrow, two-lane access point located to the west of the racetrack. There is not enough room for the trams and people who want to walk. There is exactly one point of access and egress off the Cross Island to the “Gillies” lot. Once fans negotiate a spot on the tram heading back to the train station and the “Gillies” lot, how long will it take to exit that lot and on to the Cross Island following an event?

Assuming that the fine officers of the NYPD’s Highway #3 block the right lane going north and south on the Cross Island following every event, can 3,000 cars be expected to leave the lot in under an hour? (That would be 50 cars per-minute for those scoring at home).

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And what about this proposed train station? If nothing else, the MTA has shown an amazing propensity for both cost and delivery date overruns. At a time when MTA management is engaged in hand-to-hand combat with their unions, they are still trying to complete the East Side Access project, the Hudson Yard platform development, the Second Avenue subway, the “L” train refurbishment and the LIRR’s Third Rail Project. 

Where does the new Belmont (actually Bellerose Terrace) platform fall in the queue? This will not be an open-aired platform across a couple of tracks. No, the LIRR’s first new station in 90 years will have to span four tracks and provide climate controlled services for up to 5,000 patrons per event. (We’re talking about at least a mini Jamaica station).

Whichever state office dropped the price of such a project from $300 million to $100 million overnight needs to have their pensions examined. Sure, that drop helped facilitate an acceptable payment for Malkin, Dolan and the Wilpons to accept as quid pro for the donation of the 40+ acres at Belmont. But is it reasonable? A proposal should be put forth that the Trio Grande of owners should also be made to pay for ALL cost overruns associated with the Belmont station until it is erected and operational.

Excuse me for a moment, as I am getting emotional just thinking about the inconvenience of trying to drive to Belmont (or take the train) to see my favorite team (40 times per year!?), concert or family show.

The parking gets more complicated once Belmont Racetrack becomes fully operational as a 10-month per year venue for racing. Where do the fans of the ponies’ park on an Islanders game night or when there is a sold-out concert?

WHAT ABOUT THE HORSES?

Speaking of the ponies, let’s consider for a moment what happens with them. Remember that the venerable racetrack – built more than a century ago – is also undergoing a major facelift. A fourth oval will be added in the infield for winter racing, high intensity lighting will be added for night racing and the entire grandstand will be enclosed as major renovations take place.

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With all of the construction noise (racetrack renovation, building of a new arena, hotel and elevated parking garage, etc.) has anyone considered the impact on the many thoroughbreds stabled at Belmont? What will the startling noises, disturbance of the earth and change in the environment associated with construction mean to the valuable equines? 

And what about the impact on the backstretch workers, many of whom live on the grounds? Most of these hard-working individuals wake before dawn to care for the thoroughbreds in their charge. Once construction is completed and events start taking place, how will their lives be impacted?

Currently, Belmont becomes relatively quiet after the final race. Both the Trottier and Gillies lots require that vehicles depart through the stable and paddock area where these horses and backstretch workers live. What happens when the lots overflow with vehicles, noise and light pollution until almost midnight? 

Does the inevitable disturbance in routine cause issues for the training and handling of these valuable animals and their caretakers? The horse racing community is already dealing with a horrific situation at Santa Anita Racetrack in California (30 equine deaths at the track in the last six months). Do they need another calamity on the east coast?  Has the ASPCA weighed in?

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QUALITY OF LIFE ISSUES

One of the factors that needs to be addressed immediately is the minimalizing of the quality-of-life issues raised by area residents. Major media outlets (some owned by the Dolan family), and social media accounts biased toward the approval of this project, have sought to minimalize issues raised by concerned local citizens. 

That needs to stop – NOW!

Those neighboring this project cannot be dismissed simply as NIMBY’s. There are true health and safety concerns associated with this proposed project. On Belmont Stakes day, local residents cannot shower. Let that sink in. 

The water pressure caused by thousands of flushes at the racetrack and other water demands from that day, drops the water pressure so low in the community, that residents can’t shower. What does that mean for water pressure at their hydrants?

Additionally, the influx of visitors on Belmont Stakes Day drives many patrons to park on the local streets. Since there are no public facilities available on these side streets, some visiting patrons take to urinating on the lawns and in the shrubs of the locals (the videos are available), before they leave the neighborhood.

Would you want that in your community for up to 220 days per year?

COUNTERTERRORISM

The elephant in the room is the fact that the entire project -with all of its obvious vulnerabilities – is considered a soft target for domestic or international terrorism. While not many want to publicly discuss this issue, it IS the 21st century, and this has become something we all must address.

Despite the property not being directly in their jurisdiction, representatives of the NYPD Counterterrorism department consulted with developers and safety officials tied to the project back in March. The NYPD experts identified dozens of vulnerabilities with the proposed project, but their concerns were summarily dismissed. After 45 frustrating minutes, reps from the NYPD walked out of the meeting. The fact that this information has been withheld from the Environmental Impact Statement borders on criminal negligence.

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Consider also the developers thwarted attempt to bring natural gas to the venue in an arrangement with National Grid. With the utility frustrated by the lack of a new pipeline to open new customer accounts in New York, Malkin, Dolan and the Wilpons have a problem. Their current proposal to sink a pair of 30,000-gallon propane tanks in the ground at Belmont and have them serviced daily by tankers crawling through the local streets is enough to make anyone cringe. 

It’s understandable why local residents, or anyone considering visiting the site, should be concerned for their health and safety. This is clearly not just NIMBYism.

RETAIL VILLAGE

We’ve saved the best for last, because Scott Malkin’s proposed retail village is the reason for this entire SNAFU in the first place! Malkin’s Value Retail, LLC has built about a dozen “destination retail villages” in the suburbs of major cities in Europe and Asia.

Those who classify it as “just another mall on Long Island” need to do their homework. This is unlike any retail shopping experience this area has seen. Malkin’s firm brings in an average of 10,000 shoppers PER DAY on luxury coach buses from area airports and major hotels in the adjoining major cities. This is made all the more difficult at the Belmont project, because there is no easy access by commercial vehicles to the property. 

All luxury coach buses (plus the delivery trucks) will be forced to utilize local access roads through Jamaica, Hollis, Queens Village, Bellerose Terrace, Elmont and Floral Park. Forty people per bus, ten thousand people per day. You do the math. Would you be concerned if you lived in these towns?

These “outlets” feature name-brand merchandise that is priced well ABOVE standard pricing found in local malls, such as Roosevelt Field or Green Acres. That virtually assures that very few local residents will avail themselves of the village. Instead, the majority of shoppers are foreign travelers, looking to score name brand products that are unattainable in their home countries.

During a recent visit to a European “retail village,” lines of foreign shoppers were queued up to make purchases of leather goods, clothing, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals to bring or ship back to their native lands. Due to government restrictions on exporting of goods, all shoppers were required to produce passports and other forms of identification before completing their purchases. The lines at the counters were interminable.

Clerks in the shopping village needed to be multi-lingual (including and especially in Mandarin and Cantonese) in order to communicate with the shoppers and to complete their transactions. If these clerk jobs are among the hundreds of jobs that developers have promised to area residents, perhaps they might reconsider?

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CONCLUSIONS

There are so many red flags on this project, it is hard to fathom that even the bold name developers of this project would have the audacity to try and push this through. The fact that government agencies employed to protect the public’s safety would be looking to essentially rubber-stamp this project is almost more disheartening. 

With shovels supposedly ready to get in the ground this month, the financial cost of this project to taxpayers is still a huge unknown. We can already see what the emotional cost to the community will be.

If we hadn’t already experienced frustrating projects similar to this (Barclay’s, Nassau Coliseum) in our recent past, it might be forgiven. But millionaire developers and head strong politicians have fooled us before with their “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” charades. Tell the public anything to get the project approved, and then sell the property or move on to the next elected office before the full damage can be realized.

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Islanders fans better be really careful what they wish for. In a couple of years, all of those who got you to buy in to this sham of a project will be collecting more millions and sipping margaritas on a South Pacific beach. Once the mall is built, don’t be surprised if Malkin sells the team. Oak View Group will grow tired of losing money, just as Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment did, and the team will get evicted from their new arena. Again!

Please remember this as you are freezing in a queue for a tram on a February night, trying to get to a distant parking field or a LIRR platform that costs taxpayers closer to $1 billion to complete. You’ll be refreshing your Waze app trying to find a better way to drive to Belmont. Ride share organizations like Uber and Lyft will be charging you surge prices ANY time they have to drive NEAR Belmont.

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All the while, the same media outlets owned by the family of one of the beneficiaries of this boondoggle, and the social media sites managed by Islanders sympathizers – who are currently touting this confounded project – will be lamenting the Islanders move off of Long Island.

Then, we can all get emotional.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Larry Penner says:

    In ancient Rome, government attempted to curry favor with the masses by offering free bread and circuses. Today, we have sports pork. How sad that taxpayers are continually asked to pay for new stadiums. Public dollars are being used as corporate welfare to subsidize a private-sector business. The only real beneficiaries of these expenditures are team owners and their players, who earn far more than the average fan.

    It is impossible to judge the amount of new economic activities that these so-called public benefits will generate. Between selling the stadium name, season sky boxes and reserve seating, cable, television and radio revenues, concession refreshment and souvenir sales along with rental income for other sports, rock concerts and commercial events, it is hard to believe that the Islanders Hockey Team owner and Belmont Park developers can’t finance the proposed new stadium on their own.

    Professional sports are not an essential service and should not qualify for government subsidy. Scarce taxpayer funds would be better spent elsewhere. If this is going to be such a great financial deal, why don’t team owners float their own bonds or issue stock to finance the Belmont Park stadium rather than turn to taxpayers and government for support? Go obtain loans from banks, like medium and small businesses.

    Real business people believe in capitalism and build companies on their own. How sad that some don’t want to do it the old fashion way by sweat and hard work. They are looking for shortcuts in the form of subsidies at taxpayers expense and favors from elected officials. What is the cost of improved sewer, water, electrical, road, traffic signal and other infrastructure improvements? There is also increased fire, police and sanitation services. How much will taxpayers be on the hook to pick up the tab?

    The Belmont Park arena project promises all sorts of service options which are already available. Do we really need another “retail village” with various stores and boutiques? They also propose to offer new dining options, sports bars and restaurants. Next, there will be conference centers and meeting rooms along with movie theaters and concert facilities. All of these so-called benefits would just compete against existing shopping malls, upscale stores, restaurants, sports bars and end up stealing some of their customers. There are already plenty of hotels and colleges which offer conference centers. The same is true for movie theaters and smaller more intimate concert facilities.

    Since there are less than 60 Islanders home games, the facility will have to be leased out for another 100 events to turn a profit. Why would any rock band appear there, when they can go to Jones Beach Theater, Westbury Music Fair, Nassau Coliseum, Shea Stadium, Arthur Ash Stadium, Forest Hills Stadium. Madison Square Garden, Barclay Arena or Radio City Music Hall? The same is true for World Wrestling Federation, circuses, college sports or other events requiring space for several thousand participants.

    Sincerely,

    Larry Penner

    (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, Nassau County NICE Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ)..

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