Monday, May 11, 2009

"Mixed-Use" Means "Mixed-Use"


Blogger's Note: Two things before we get into it. First, reader Mike 8 was nice enough to call our attention to a Newsday piece that says Kate Murray was a no-show at a planned Lighthouse meeting with Tom Suozzi and the Lighthouse group that was sponsored by organized labor. There will be more on this tomorrow, because I wanted to get this out tonight, but as usual I am disappointed and angered by the Supervisor's apparent disdain for this project.

Secondly, this is purely an opinion piece. I do not claim to be presenting objective fact here; it is merely my read on the current situation. I am hoping to get a dialogue going about the Lighthouse and its final form, and the best way to do that is as many reader comments as possible. Thank you in advance for that; you all add something vital to the blog.

Scale it Back?

Recently, there has been some controversy surrounding certain parts of the Lighthouse Project. After independent confirmation, this blog broke the story about the Town of Hempstead being critical of the proposed housing units because they feared the units would be occupied by Democrats. We have also covered Kate Murray's self-aggrandizing bio on the Town of Hempstead web site, in which she clearly states that she is protecting the "suburban character" of vacant parking lots - sorry, I mean neighborhoods - from overdevelopment. In addition, there have been criticisms from both opponents and cautious supporters of the Lighthouse saying that Charles Wang and Scott Rechler may have "dreamed too big for Long Island." I categorically reject this, but I can't deny the sentiment exists.

To many people, this begs the question - if most of the Lighthouse controversy is centered on the housing, shouldn't they scale down the project and maybe even consider eliminating the housing entirely?

This is a legitimate question, and I think people who bring it up are following the issue to a logical end. However, it does not work in reality. Here is my official position on scaling back the Lighthouse Project:
  • I am not naive enough to believe that the final project will look exactly like the renderings on the official Lighthouse site.
  • Removal of the 60-story building pretty early in the process shows that Charles Wang is willing to make concessions, despite opponents' claims to the contrary.
  • However, the housing component should be sine qua non ("not without which," something that can't be removed for those who didn't have Latin beaten into them in Catholic school like I did).
  • Without the housing, the Lighthouse is just a(nother) mall, and I believe it would cause more problems than it would solve.
The Final Scope

The laborious SEQR process mandates that the developer (Lighthouse) and Lead Agency (Town of Hempstead) must settle on a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), which the Lead Agency then owns. For the Environmental Impact Statement to be Final, the Lead Agency and the developer must settle on the Final Scope of the project. This means that the amount and components of the project must be decided (e.g. will there be 2200 housing units or 2400?).

We have already seen tweaks to the official Lighthouse plan, with the 60-story building being replaced by two smaller structures. As negotiations continue through the Public Comments period, expect everything except the Coliseum itself to be put on the table and discussed.

The Cure is Worse Than The Disease

Regardless of the discussions, I believe the housing component is a crucial linchpin that must not be removed.

I have spoken many, many times about the crucial need for higher-density housing on Long Island. Some people believe the housing component should be nixed because there is an oversupply of housing currently on Long Island. This belief simply misses the point. The automotive industry should not stop producing Kias because there is an abundance of unsold BMW's, and it is the same case here. A person who would want to rent an affordable unit at the Lighthouse could not afford any of the unsold $500,000+ houses on the market, so this argument is completely disingenuous.

This particular section of the market is so under-served that it forces many Long Island residents into the shadows and the back channels. Thousands of people live in illegal apartments carved out from single-family homes, and this presents both a risk to those living there (since the building codes may not be followed) and a strain to residential side-streets that suddenly become choked with parked cars. Apartments such as those in the Lighthouse are necessary, especially since other suburban areas are adapting to this reality.

Now, let's think about the Lighthouse in particular. Many younger people (like myself) fervently support the Lighthouse because, to them, it represents hope. It represents a commitment to the type of high-density housing that could allow the young to stay and be part of the solution in the area where they grew up, and it could also attract younger people from other areas looking for a vibrant community.

Many groups, such as the Long Island Progressive Coalition, have thrown their support behind the Lighthouse strictly because of the affordable housing and smart growth components. Taking out the housing component could open up a Pandora's Box of avoidable opposition (Blogger's Note: The aforementioned Long Island Progressive Coalition has threatened to pull support from the Lighthouse if the affordable housing is moved offsite. Could you imagine their level of opposition if the housing is gone completely?). Suddenly, the Lighthouse is not a beacon of hope for a younger generation that finds itself forced off Long Island. It's not the beginning of a new way forward. It's not in the vanguard of a new commitment to affordable housing.

It's just another mall.

A purely retail/commercial complex would liklely not attract the level of federal investment, and it could even contribute to the current problems caused by blind development. It could turn thousands of current supporters against the Lighthouse, and it could, in a perverse way, provide the kind of political cover politicians would need to kill the project.

We need the Lighthouse - not a mall.

Bottom Line

The Lighthouse Project has been billed from the very beginning as a mixed-use, smart-growth community that would represent a new way forward for Long Island. I believe turning away from that at this point would be utterly disastrous. Many people support the Lighthouse due to the housing component, and I myself became such a strong advocate because I believe strongly in mixed-use development for the future of suburbia. Eliminating the housing component could placate the Town of Hempstead in the short term, but it could also generate such fierce opposition from former project advocates that it could give the Town of Hempstead the political cover to deny the re-zoning application and render our new suburban dream dead.

There will be tweaks to the Lighthouse vision, but I believe the idea must remain the same. The housing component must not be removed.

Let's not forget, by the way, that this whole ridiculous situation could have been easily avoided. The Town of Hempstead has refused so engage with the Lighthouse and let them know what sort of a project they would approve. Therefore, we are left with this misguided political dance and endless speculation about what needs to be taken out of the process. Kate Murray and the Town of Hempstead need to engage the other principles on the Lighthouse and make it clear how we can move this forward.

I hope you enjoyed this. I have tried to stay away from pure opinion pieces, but I thought this merited a response. I hope this can generate a lot of discussion and debate; I want to hear from you whether you think I'm correct or you think this is the stupidest, most misguided thing you've ever read. Your opinions only add to the discussion.

I'd also love to hear from you, either in comments or via email, about pure opinion pieces on the blog. Please let me know if you think it adds to the discussion or takes away from the stated purpose of this blog. Thanks.

Please share your thoughts in comments. Petition. Email Me. Follow me on Twitter.

15 comments:

  1. I'm worried about the Mitchel Field housing project on the border of the coliseum property. If that zoning gets approved first, then in deed Murry will use it as "too many people" argument.

    If she ever shows up long enough to actually argue rather than just sending out press release statements.

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  2. I agree with 7th Woman. I'm starting to think that the Town of Hempstead is content keeping the average age of their residents at a young, ripe age of 65 and Republican.

    You've inspired me to write a post later. Check back on my site tonight. I'll have it up.

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  3. Anyone know how long the Mitchel Field proposal has been with the ToH? Seems to have come out of nowhere. If the Town suddenly approved it, ahead of the LH, that would speak volumes.

    Very good post, Nick. I have always thought that if the housing component was removed, especially the affordable housing, it would create instant opposition out of former allies (unions, community orgs, etc). It may very well be scaled-down, but the various components must remain in place. Smart-growth!

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  4. BR - you read my mind (again). I will do some digging into the Mitchell Field development to see what I can find out.

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  5. Kate Murray has this down pat. You can bend the rules to your favour as long as you don't "officially" break them. Her dad and her sister-in-law are cases in point. She is going to stall this process out as long as possible, miss every meeting (siting conflict of interest) and plant undermining seeds of discontent with the Lighthouse wherever possible. Sooner or later, she will have to launch her campaign and you know its going to reference not letting bullies push urban sprawl down Long Islanders' throats. Still, she will not publicly reference the Lighhouse project while doing this. Once she wins the election, the project will get rejected by the Town. I am still unclear of her overall motivation - perhaps Suozzi will shine too brightly if it goes through - but that is becoming less and less important.

    The only way to combat this is to get whoever Murray's opponent is in the fall election involved asap and get his/her campaign as pro-Lighthouse as possible and start calling Murray out in the press. It has been said not to demonize her, but I believe, if she is left to her own devices, she will slowly smother this project until she has regained the power to kill it outright.

    Paul in Canada

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  6. Nick, to answer your last question first - keep the opinion pieces coming. You have established yourself and one of the most knowledgable voices on the Project, so your opinions are always welcomed. I don't think it detracts from the objectivity of your reporting at all. Plus, as a blogger you have the right do do whatever you want!

    As for the housing component, I'm torn. Frankly, my support for the Lighthouse falls under two rationales. #1 is to keep the Islanders on the Island in a nice new/refurbished arena. #2 (or more truly #1A) covers all of the "community" benefits of the development...offering a true "destination" for LI, affording our young citizens an opportunity to stay and contribute on LI through affordable housing...etc. So while I view the housing as a key component, if my Objective #1 could be accomplished by eliminating this aspect, I probably wouldn't raise my voice in opposition. Just being honest.

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  7. MC - that's a fair and reasoned position, and thanks for the input. Honesty makes the conversation better, so no need to ever apologize for that.

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  8. Yeah, Nick. Honesty is great. Why can't we get a little honesty from Kate Murray and the TOH??? Oh, yeah. I forgot. They are politicians.
    And unless we take the offensive, we will LOSE our Islanders.

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  9. Nick - You hit the nail on the head with this comment:

    "The automotive industry should not stop producing Kias because there is an abundance of unsold BMW's."

    In addtion, let's not forget that unless we can figure out how to keep those between the ages of 22-34 on Long Island, there will be fewer and fewer individuals in their mid-thirties and beyond looking to buy the current housing that we have on Long Island. If all the young people move to Atlanta or Phoenix and start a family there, they surely will not be looking for houses in East Meadow when they can finally afford them.

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  10. I appreciate you're educated opinion...You make perfect sense and I back Charles Wang and the LHP...


    I resent anyone who believes the LHP is too big an endeavor for Long Islanders...It is an insult and simple minded...

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  11. nick, check this out...i would like to hear ur opinion on this.

    http://www.newsday.com/news/local/ny-postat1312757907may12,0,5601505.story


    I don't know about you, but i support this!

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  12. Alex - I've been critical of the money gaps both between the state and federal government and between Long Island and New York State, but secession is a bridge too far for me. It strikes me a lot like pulling housing from the Lighthouse. It sounds like a good idea but it will almost certainly create more problems than it solves.

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  13. The housing issue that you bring up is one of the main reasons that I no longer live on Long Island. To be honest with you, as a 28 year old, leaving Long Island is the smartest think I could have done when it comes to my own fiscal issues. It is leaps and bounds easier to find a job that can pay you enough to live and start to grow as a college graduate. My house is $110,000 in New Orleans, but would be over $300,000 to live in a very similar neighborhood back in LI. Why in God's name would I want to pay 3x to live in the same house? Long Island has priced itself right out of the market for 20 somethings. We're leaving in droves, who will replace us? Nassau County has lost population for 4 years in a row if I remember correctly. And the most screwed up thing is that barely anyone gives a damn enough to change that.

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  14. 19 Isle in NJ 22May 14, 2009 at 5:41 PM

    Nick ... always value your opinion ... that is why I come here ... You are the bearer of facts for the rest of us ... so as we formulate our opinions, you of course should be supplying your own. So with that ... get ready for me to blow off some steam ... because this problem with the TOH goes much deeper than Murray's resistance ... it's the general condition of our region ... and politicians on both sides of the aisle let it get this way ... because NYC and NJ are heavy democrat ... and the same crap happens here too. So consider this comment to be a long testamonial to your opinion on why the Light House should be built.

    As far as housing goes ... one of the problems in the entire NYC metro area is ... and Dannola made the perfect case ... NYC & it's suburbs have priced young singles and young families right out of the area ... There is NO WAY in hell I could afford any of the houses I grew up in on Staten Island ... I know this much ... in 2007 the house I grew up in as a young kid and also served as my first memories as an Islander fan sold for $700K and that was just as the market was declining. They asked for $750K ... to put that in perspective ... my parents bought that house in 1969 for $35K ... The house is a quaint legal 2 family on a 100'x35' lot.... forget about the $700k for a minute ... but the house was brand new when my parents bought it and they moved in there on May 10th 1969 ... 40 years and 4 days ago. They were only 24 years old paying rent in Brooklyn. Neither graduated college and were able to buy a 2 family house. Can you see a young couple with only HS diplomas in their early to mid 20s doing that today? Heck ... they couldn't come close to buying the same house my parents bought ... even with 20% down they'd have to get a jumbo mortgage ... and now that house is 40 years old ...

    Just for SnG's I put that scenario to buy my old house with a mortgage at Bank of America ... with 20% down to avoid private mortgage insurance AKA PMI ... A buyer would need $140K just to have a down payment ... BoA charges 1 point or 1% of the loan for Jumbos ... since that is a $560K loan it would cost $5,600 in points then as a rule of thumb expect to plop down another 10% of the D.P which would be about $14K in that case for lawyers fees, pre-paid interest, taxes and other misc. fees. How many young families do you know that have never owned a house that can just whip out $160,600 est.? ... then ontop of all of that ... the montly mortgage excluding taxes would be $3312 a month excluding property tax and home owners insurance payments. That should come out to be about $4k a month with property tax and insurance just for the liability of owning the house without any other expenses ... thusly requiring $48K a year just to own my old 40 y/o house on a 35'x100' lot in Staten Island.

    I've seen that house recently ... it's nothing special other than it's the house I grew up in.

    I've already made 2 home purchases in my life time ... none of them where I thought I'd ever live ... in central NJ about an hour south from Staten Island (I wanted to always live in LI, but housing too expensive ...even in Long Beach where I almost moved in 2001)... both my down payments were more than the purchase price of what my parents bought their first house for ... and my second home's deposit was 2 and a half times that ... and forget about closing costs ... geeeze ... and sure ... the house I live in now is the classic country style house with the big porch, huge paved driveway on a nice chunk of land ... probably the suburbia that Kate Murray is in love with ... but I have to drive over an hour each day to get to work at our Jersey HQ, and when I work at my company's NYC facility just south of MSG ... it takes me almost 2 hours ... I make those sacrifices in order to live in a place I feel safe in, has room, quiet, great community and is "affordable" and "reasonable" taxes (still not cheap) ... this house and land if it were only a 15 minute drive further north would not be affordable for me ... (similar homes sell for about $75K more and taxes are about $2K more a year in the adjacent county) ... I benefitted from a bum real estate market driving down home prices ... infact ... my neighbors two doors down bought their house in 2006 for $190K more than what I spent on mine ... and I have a pool, they don't ... it's safe to say that housing was WAYYY over inflated the early / middle part of this decade ... the houses are only 9 years old on this block ... and the original owner of their house bought that home for ... wait for it .... $189K... LOL!!! Oh boy ... things sure have gotten screwed up. I originally wasn't in the market for a new home ... I saw equity draining from my first home since I bought that in 2004 ... and sold it before all equity was gone ... and turned around and bought a great home that was in a severly depressed market ... at a lower interest rate then my first home... call it an investment in my future ... even though I am still single ... this is the best way to sandbag for my future family and have a great home at what will be considered a reasonable price once the market goes back up.

    The point I am trying to make is ... it took me 15 years of my adult life to save for my first home in fluctuating financial markets... and that is as a single person with no dependents ... and sure ... I spent my earnings on vacations, hockey, summer rentals at the shore, concerts etc ... and sure ... I earned only a modest wage ... nothing crazy so it took ages to save while paying rent... and I got the benefit of low interest rates and a depressed housing market to get what I have now or I wouldn't have this great house ... I feel very fortunate in today's economy that I have what I have ... even after all the years of saving, investing and sure .. splurging on life's simple pleasures.

    But I wonder ... HOW in the world are 20 somethings today in the NYC metro area ever going to be able to catch up under the burden of student loans, modest salaries, car loans, credit card balances built up on buying college text books and supply purchases (ok and some splurging), commuting costs and of course ... the inevitable tax and toll burdens that New York and New Jersey residents are going to endure the next 10 years ... and I'm not even goin to get into the quadrupling of the federal deficit in the next 3 years.. all these financial burdens for the average college graduate... and they haven't even been able to save a dime yet to put towards a home... and just you wait ... $4 a gallon gas will be back in full force in the near future.

    All this combined is what got the US in financial trouble in the first place ... making mortgages with little or nothing down ... endless spiral.

    When a place like McDonalds accepts credit cards ... you have to question what the hell is going on.

    So as you can see, this problem isn't just a Staten Island problem or a Long Island problem ... it's primarily a North East problem ... and it has spread to other metro areas nation wide with the recent run up in home prices the last 8 years or so.

    The Town of Hemstead being the FIRST suburb with Levitt Town now has the chance to be the FIRST to break this trend ... or young people and young families are going to be priced out .... and that will affect the entire standard of living for families in the future ... and who's going to be the tax base when finally all the last of the baby boomers retire in 15 - 20 years?

    The housing market in Long Island will only further crash when there are no young families left to purchase them ... a thinning of the heard mentality must stop. Young people and families need stepping stone homes to build up an equity base ... without runaway home inflation driving them out of the NY / LI market.

    2 bedroom condos, luxury town houses, luxury apartments for rent, and affordable aparments at a sustainable rate is still only a stop gap to the biggest problem ... YES ... I think the developers should scale it back at this time ... b/c providing all that housing at one time will flood the market and be tatamount to closing the barn yard door after the horse got out ... BUT .. they should be assured that with the future development ... that in 10 years should the market change for the better ... and demand for the units be sustained ... that a specified additional units can be added ... and in the 10 years from now through that time ... the developers, county and state will strive to improve traffic engineering and mass transit options to facilitate that promised expansion ... make it a criteria that is measurable ... and can be accomplished ... or else it's just like offering an average hockey player a $5M salary bonus if he can score 100 goals in a season ... sure ... nice bonus offer .. but in reality it's not attainable.

    As morbid as this may seem ... if Murray is woried about keeping older people in TOH because they are more reliably republican voters ... she's got to think of the mortality of her constituents ... we all can face the end of the road at anytime ... and inevitably we all do ... that being the case ... serving the young voters more now and being able to sustain the younger population not only solidifys the tax base ... but it also serves to increase the TOH voter base and it could even make new fans of her party. I think nationwide that is what hurt the Republican Party ... the Democrats grabbed the young and uniformed voter by the throat and created a cult like grass roots tidal wave ... and as you said Nick ... uninformed voters are still uninformed ... and maybe that is what Kate Murray is hoping for.

    Nick ... even if the Light Houses' plan is to have the residents ready in 8 to 10 years ... and that goal is met with all units approved ... that is an eternity in today's housing industry ... lets just hope Long Island can survive another 8 years with a declining young population ... if this was done when Wang first proposed it ... I think it would be OK.

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  15. 19 Isles - I agree, and maybe it will be scaled back due to necessity, but I hope it remains mixed-use throughout.

    Also, my friend - email me, you're always welcome to do a guest blog on here.

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