Hundreds of residents from Elmont, Floral Park, Bellerose, Queens and beyond gathered at the Elmont Memorial Library from Jan. 8 to 10 to voice their hopes and concerns about the proposed Belmont Arena project.
Empire State Development officials held the public hearings to gather community input about the Draft Environmental Impact Study released in December. Residents and elected officials criticized the report because, they said, it omitted too many important details.
Nassau County Legislator Carrie Solages, a Democrat from Elmont, said the lack of details about a promised community center, Elmont Road Park renovations, tax breaks for the arena, and help for the county Police Department’s 5th Precinct and Elmont Fire Department were unacceptable. Solages said he believed the project could boost the area’s economy, but he said the community “deserves more than a handshake and a promise.”
“This project may be good for the county in terms of sales tax, for the state, for the sports world, but if it is not good for the community, then we all fail,” Solages said.
Subhed: Will Elmont benefit?
Traffic generated by the Belmont Arena project has long been at the forefront of residents’ minds, and the impact study only confirming those worries, with the state expecting arena events to generate about 4,000 more cars on local roads and parkways.
For this reason, local elected officials have repeatedly said that the Long Island Rail Road’s Belmont depot would need to be upgraded and opened as a full-time station to mitigate the traffic, but when Empire State Development and New York Arena Partners announced that only two trains would be available during arena events, officials spoke out against the proposal.
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, said he was there when, in late 2017, New York Arena Partners and Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised that Belmont would get a full-time train station as part of the arena deal. Elmont residents must now drive to the Jamaica or Valley Stream stations to use the LIRR for their daily commutes, so the promise of a 24/7 Belmont station was a welcomed announcement.
When Kaminsky and residents discovered that not only was a full-time station not in the offing, but also the developers would ask arena goers to come early and stay late to reduce traffic, he criticized the lack of “realistic solutions” that Empire State Development had presented to the community.
“The fact that you’re asking people to change their traffic behavior as a part of your plan outlines just how unprepared you are,” Kaminsky said.
Even arena supporters like Mark Fishbein, of Bayville, said the train station would be essential for the local community and the employees who would work at the arena. Fishbein said he grew up in Queens and believes traffic on Hempstead Avenue and Hempstead Turnpike would be a problem, and might chase away business at Belmont. Other local supporters, such as Elmont Cardinals Club President Jon Johnson, gave impassioned speeches about finally having development Belmont Park after its parking lot had served for years as a place for local car dealers to store their excess inventory.
While project opponents have argued that Belmont should be home to businesses that would bring about smart jobs for local residents, Johnson said that the project’s proposed retail village and the estimated 10,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs that it would create would make it an ideal place for teenagers and young adults to find jobs and start careers.
In a bid to keep jobs local, Town of Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen submitted a Project Labor Agreement to the developers to secure most of the jobs for local union workers. As part of the proposal, arena developers and local unions would also conduct job training and recruitment programs for residents of Elmont, Floral Park and Hempstead.
“Our goal in the Town of Hempstead is to ensure that as many of these jobs as possible are kept right here on Long Island and the communities that will eventually live with the redevelopment,” Gillen said.
Several hearing attendees said they did not see the retail village as a positive. As residents shared stories of failing retail centers across Long Island and the U.S., Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, said he was not pleased with the retail village or the scale of the current project, adding that smart development “is not intended to jam as much development possible on a given site but to create a focused, walkable main street area that this development does not contain.”
Subhed: Residents: Scale it back
When Empire State Development opted for a retail village on Belmont’s southern parking lot, it meant that parking for the arena and village would be moved to the northern and eastern lots of Belmont Park, much to the dismay of Floral Park residents. They comprised a majority of local people attending the public hearings, and submitted more than 900 letters opposing the scale of the project, which residents said would encroach too far into their neighborhoods.
Floral Park-Bellerose School District Superintendent Michael Dantona said that currently only a fence separates the Floral Park-Bellerose School from the northern lot, and expressed concern that students and local families would be exposed to the sights and sounds in the lot. He and other Floral Park leaders asked developers to construct a large sound wall or berm to separate the lot from the school’s field.
“To allow for the unobstructed visual and physical access to the school’s field is irresponsible,” Dantona said.
Floral Park Police Commissioner Stephen McAllister added that the amount of traffic from the arena project could reduce emergency response times. McAllister said that the Draft Impact Study erred when it stated that emergency response vehicles could bypass normal traffic and be unaffected. Village Trustee Lynn Pombonyo said the error was evidence of a lack of research by Empire State Development.
By the end of the hearings, many residents agreed that the project should be scaled back and the retail village should be nixed. While some argued that the Islanders should play at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, Elmont Chamber of Commerce President Paul Sapienza said that the waning Belmont Racetrack needed more popular businesses to prosper.
“No horse racing facility can survive by itself,” Sapienza said. “The Belmont Racetrack is a jewel, and with a proper project it can be a gem for generations to come.”
Residents can continue to submit comments and concerns to Empire State Development at BelmontOutreach@esd.ny.gov before the deadline on Feb. 11 at 5 p.m. ESD plans to submit its Final Environmental Impact Study for review in the spring, and if approved, construction should begin in May.