Belmont foes take to the street

Dozens raise voices against arena project

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The clouds parted and the sun shone through on a crowd of some 50 people gathered at the front gate of Belmont Park on Sunday. They had assembled to voice their opposition to the Belmont Arena project slated to break ground next spring, and to continue educating the public about the project’s impact on the surrounding communities.

Coordinated by the Belmont Park Community Coalition, residents from Bellerose, Elmont and Floral Park gathered to raise their voices against what many saw as a lack of transparency and partnership with the communities. With placards and posters, residents shared sentiments such as “Enough stupid development,” alluding to Empire State Development Corp., the state agency that oversees all private development of public land; and “Pilots belong in planes,” a reference to PILOT, programs, or payment in lieu of taxes, that have been the bane of some local communities.

“We need to send a clear message to Governor Cuomo that this is the wrong project,” coalition attorney Norman Siegel said. ESD has not done its part in bringing community stakeholders to the table, he added. The Urban Development Corporations Act that governs such projects provides for a partnership between developers and local communities. Now, six months after Cuomo’s announcement that the New York Islanders hockey team would be given the right to develop open space at the raceway, community members still feel excluded when it comes to determining the scope and character of the project, he said.

Not in my back yard

“Who in their right mind would want to have a stadium outside their back door?” Elmont resident Charles Phillips asked rhetorically. The Barclays Center, the Brooklyn arena where the Islanders have played since leaving the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in 2015, “hasn’t benefitted residents in downtown Brooklyn,” he said. People moved to communities in Nassau County because of the quality of life, he continued. “I own property in Brooklyn and Elmont. This arena will change the whole texture of this community.”

Plans for the arena complex call for an 18,000-seat hockey venue, a 250-bed hotel and 435,000 square feet of retail space. “It’s not just the hockey games,” Floral Park resident Terry MacDonald said. “Two hundred events a year? There’s going to be all kinds of pollution, not just air quality,” she said. “There’ll be noise pollution and light pollution, too.”

MacDonald was also concerned that the project developers made no comprehensive study of the area before submitting their designs under the original request for proposals. “They put a power plant right next to a school,” she said. “It’s like they never even looked at where they were going to build.” And like many others, MacDonald was concerned about congestion. “The Cross Island [Parkway] is going to be impossible,” she said. “They haven’t really thought it through.”

“The streets can’t handle that many cars,” Bellerose resident Michael Weisborg agreed. “They have plans for some parking,” he said of the roughly 3,500 underground parking spaces that are part of the current plan. “But what happens when the events are over and all those cars try to leave? Or when they try to get into the lots before the game?”

Siegel said he would like to see a coalition-sponsored study of the impact that the arena will have on the surrounding communities. In theory, that would be part of the environmental impact study currently being carried out by AKRF Environmental. That study “is supposed to be fair and balanced,” Siegel said. But he expressed doubt that the firm’s findings would be impartial, because of its past association with the Sterling Project Development Group on other sports venues, including the New York Mets’ Citi Field.

Two-thirds of all sports stadiums or arenas fail to benefit the communities in which they are located, Siegel said.. Local communities cannot even be certain they will gain from the construction phase, he said, because while “Governor Cuomo has said he’d guarantee jobs for local communities — for minorities, for veterans and the handicapped — he hasn’t told us what percentage of the workforce would be drawn from these communities, and he hasn’t given us anything in writing.”

Residents have been battling since 2012 to ensure that development of a 43-acre parcel at the raceway meets the communities’ needs and have successfully opposed two other efforts. Coalition members said one of their chief concerns is that a casino could slip in “by the back door,” according to Phillips. “We don’t want to see the kind of thing that’s going on at Aqueduct,” he said.

Coalition members have also been lobbying for creation of a permanent citizens’ advisory board similar to those that are part of the governance at Aqueduct and Saratoga racetracks. The committee that was established earlier this year differs in its temporary character and in its status as a creation of ESD. Funding for such a committee had been included in this year’s preliminary state budget discussions but was missing from the final budget, according to a petition circulated by coalition members. The petition also implies that the current committee does not answer the requirements of the Urban Development Act.

Smart development

Demonstrators said they were concerned that the biggest disruption to their lives would come through displacement of homes and businesses. “The developers say there will be no displacement,” Siegel said. “But they can’t guarantee there’ll be no secondary displacement.” For example, a substantial new retail development would mean the inevitable shuttering of some existing businesses — especially mom-and-pop stores — that could no longer compete with larger franchise establishments. And an increase in necessary public services — police, fire and emergency services — could translate into higher taxes, which could, in turn, displace homeowners unable to afford the increases.

“We’re not opposed to development,” community activist Tammie Williams said. “We want smart development, and we want transparency.” Williams stressed that Sunday’s event wasn’t simply a protest, but was undertaken out of a desire to educate the communities about the full impact of the project. “We need to knock on doors and help everyone understand what this will mean,” she said.

“We want voters, not donors,” said New York City Councilman Jumaane Williams, a candidate for lieutenant governor said. “Governor Cuomo has to understand: You are his constituents. Land is precious,” he added. “If you give land to developers, they can’t just create jobs at a base level.”

Asked what they would like to see in place of the proposed complex, many said they would like more parkland. “Most of the surrounding communities have recreational parks,” Phillips said. “We’re the only community that doesn’t have any.”

“We have 50 people here today,” Siegel said. “If we don’t grow our voices, we will lose. Are you willing to make some noise?” he challenged the crowd. “It’s crucial that we stay united and say no to the arena and no to ESD. I’m very clear about what we’re doing: This is a fight.”