Even though it contains many pieces important to our community and, in my opinion, the long-term economic viability of Long Island, I've always tried to remember that the Lighthouse Project is, at heart, a business deal. This business deal, as we now know, came about because Nassau County does not have the money to renovate or replace its arena, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and it is often not profitable for private enterprise to just build an arena. We have a development that is meant to support the re-development of the Coliseum, and I'm thrilled for that. I never understood the perspective of disgruntled Islanders fans who claimed this as proof Charles Wang only cares about hockey, and I'm especially confused by the more hysterical among us who actually think Charles Wang and Scott Rechler's potential for making money off the deal single-handedly makes the Lighthouse Project wrong. To me, it has been a fact of life, and it makes me happy they proposed a project I can wholeheartedly support rather than only trying to line their own pockets or extort taxpayers for the money to build a new arena.
President, the second season of Mad Men was set, and Nassau County first received title to the land. Original plans from then-County Executive Nickerson included an entertainment and transit hub that would later live on in some form...you know it as Lincoln Center. Nassau Coliseum itself, as I've said before, was, according to original plans, supposed to be a 20,000 seat arena with an underground Long Island Rail Road Station. Instead, it is a compromise of a compromise, sitting in an asphalt jungle that has been badly in need of re-development.
This 77-acre stretch of asphalt has long been the Holy Grail for development on Long Island, and we were again reminded of this on Monday, when Newsday's Randi Marshall reminded us that other developers were interested in the property, and an overzealous headline writer claimed that, if the Lighthouse Project failed, "Hope is on the way."
I think Ms. Marshall did a great job in reminding people of this, and at this point I think it's important to discuss a few things I've found out, as well as some key take-aways.
The Coliseum Property is Valuable
They don't call the area around Nassau Coliseum the "Nassau Hub" for no reason - this is a valuable site that, as I said, we have been trying to develop for 47 years.
Other Developers Want the Rights
Image via WikipediaAccording to a few sources who are familiar with the convoluted Lighthouse approval process, this is not the first time other developers have involved themselves. Some have said that other developers were the main driving force behind Tom Suozzi backtracking and throwing the property out to a Request for Proposals (RFP) in 2006 - not because it was a "sweetheart deal," but because they wanted the deal for themselves. The Lighthouse proposal became bigger (and, in my opinion, stronger) as a result, because Scott Rechler and the 73 surrounding acres his Rexcorp controls became involved, but it still took valuable time (as much as a year) out of the process.
At this point, some of these same developers just want to remind us they're still around.
What Would Change?
It is well-known that Long Island is in dire need of many types of development the Lighthouse Project would offer. Tourism representatives have said Long Island loses millions of dollars every year because we don't have suitable convention space, and it is forcing people who want to spend money here to spend it somewhere else. At the same time, the dire need for increased density (which, according to the Long Island Index, people support) and apartment-style living have created a crisis on Long Island, as younger people who are educated with the choking school taxes we pay choose to make their lives somewhere less expensive.
At the same time, it is known that certain developments (sports arenas, convention centers) do not make money for private developers, and this is why governments often step in to provide funding. Other developments (condos, apartments, commercial/retail space) are known money-makers, which is why so many developers are active in these types of buildings.
We also know that walkable, mixed-use communities are the wave of the future, and they have been successfully implemented everywhere from Ballston in Arlington, VA to the Westgate complex in Glendale, AZ, to Town Square in Las Vegas (which I had the pleasure to visit - huge hat tip to Big Van Vader for letting me know it was there). Communities must adapt or die, and mixed-use is clearly the best way to go.
Given all these facts, here's the point: how would any other developments be vastly different from the Lighthouse Project?
At the end of the day, a new developer would probably approach the Town of Hempstead years down the line with the same proposal - a walkable, mixed-use suburban oasis - but likely without the Coliseum or convention center. The millions in convention dollars wouldn't come, and the millions of dollars (estimated at around $250 million) the Islanders add to our local economy will be gone. How is this a better deal for us?
We face large problems on Long Island, and I doubt any new project would be half as bold as the Lighthouse (something Matthew Whalen of developer Avalon Bay admits as likely within the Newsday article). Big problems require bold solutions - not the kind of half-assed compromise that got us here in the first place.
Proving My Point
Since this blog was 2 days old, I've been hammering the idea of the Coliseum as a "loss leader," something that loses money the developer hopes to make back with the other pieces of the Lighthouse. It's a simple economic fact, and one Mr. Whalen acknowledges in the piece:
"There are only so many ways to build buildings and make money on a site that would justify redeveloping the Coliseum. You're not going to get a park. It doesn't work like that." -Matthew Whalen, Avalon Bay, Long Island Builders Institute
It reinforces something I've been saying since this blog began, and for years before that: we have painted ourselves into a corner. Nassau Coliseum as-is is is not a major league sports facility, despite the delusions of some developers who think they could attract a NEW team to the building. Unless the government is willing to put up hundreds of millions of dollars it doesn't have and is unwilling to spend, a project like the Lighthouse is the only way to save the Islanders, renovate the Coliseum, and move our Island forward.
Symbolism is Strong
Many developers who commit to bidding in a new RFP if the Lighthouse fails are not so gung-ho to see it die. Many acknowledge something else Lighthouse supporters have been saying all along: this is a project that has come to symbolize what Long Island wants to be in the futur
red tape to develop Nassau's Hub into what it always should have been. However, the Lighthouse Project, given its inclusion of the Islanders, a new Coliseum, and other things the community needs (convention center), is still the best option for the site, and a few of the developers interviewed by Ms. Marshall even admit this.
We cannot sit back and wait for someone to ride into the sunset and "save" us when this project, which is the right solution for Long Island, has come so far. I hope our political leaders recognize this as clearly as many of us do.
Once the dust settles, I hope the Town can hold substantive talks with the Lighthouse Project in the interest of getting things done. After all, I think it's become clear who wins if the project fails.