Members of the Belmont Park Community Coalition invited representatives of the Empire State Development Corp. and New York Arena Partners to meet July 18 at Elmont Memorial Library amid ongoing coalition concerns about transparency, quality-of-life is-sues and an alleged conflict of interest.
The meeting also included representatives of civic associations from Elmont, Floral Park and Bellerose, Queens, as well as officials from organized labor and representatives of Sterling Properties, the lead developer on the project. Coalition attorney Norman Siegel also attended. The meeting was closed to the media at ESD’s request.
Coalition members have repeatedly taken issue with what they see as a process that is both less than open and fails to involve community members to the extent envisioned by the Urban Development Corporations Act. The act provides the framework for private development of publicly held real estate, such as the 43-acre parcel now in the planning stages as an 18,000-seat hockey arena and a 435,000-square-foot retail village. The project is also to include a 250-bed hotel and a 10,000-square-foot space for training and education programs.
Coalition and civic association members continued to express concerns about what they see as a failure to address such issues as the influx of traffic and the lack of what the coalition president, Tammie Williams, called “smart development.”
How people will get to events at the proposed facility has been an open question since the project was first proposed. The LIRR station at Belmont Park is a small, two-platform station off a spur line and would be unable to accommodate the number of people attending the 150 annual hockey games and events Arena Partners envisions. The station is currently only used during the horse-racing season, and the LIRR performed poorly during June’s Belmont Stakes meeting, stalling passengers in hot cars. In addition, local parkways and surface streets are already clogged during the evening rush hour, and while the proposed project will add an estimated 3,500 parking spots, local residents say they worry that people will elect to park on side streets in front of houses.
Transportation experts and LIRR Chairman Joseph Lhota are studying the problem, but an upgrade is unlikely before the fourth quarter of 2021 target date for the arena’s opening. “There’s no room to add capacity anywhere in the system,” former Federal Transit Administration official Larry Penner told the Herald earlier this year. “There’s no room to add platform or track space at Penn Station, and there’s no room to store any more cars, even if they were in the budget.”
Train cars of the type used by the MTA cost about $3 million each, Penner said. Building out the Belmont Park station is in the railroad’s master plan, but the project is not slated for completion until 2032, with cost estimates running as high as $150 million, he said.
Sterling Properties Managing Director Richard Browne said in Arena Partners’ original Dec. 10 presentation that the Belmont Park station was crucial to the project. And transportation issues form a key part of the impact study that is under way as part of the State Environmental Quality Review process.
“If they do the environmental impact study fairly, I don’t see how they can sign off on the transportation and traffic issues as they are,” Williams said.
At the July 18 meeting, coalition members renewed their calls for an independent environmental study and asked ESD for $50,000 to fund it. According to both Williams and attorney Siegel, such requests for information are not exceptional. They cited a decision in May by the Town of Oyster Bay to delay the Syosset Park development project to allow community members more time to study the project’s full impact, as well as independent testing of the former landfill. ESD declined the coalition’s request for funds.
The coalition based its request on what members contend is an inappropriately cozy relationship between Sterling and AKRF Inc., the engineering firm contracted to carry out the environmental study. The two companies have worked together on previous projects, including the Mets’ Citi Field. But according to ESD spokeswoman Amy Varghese, ESD contracted AKRF solely on the basis of its size and experience. She added that AKRF is not paid directly by either Sterling or Arena Partners and has no stake in the project’s outcome.
“The environmental impact study being done by AKRF is an independent analysis, ” Varghese wrote in an email. “The Belmont project has already been altered in response to robust public input.”
Williams said that ESD only scheduled a “limited number” of meetings open to comment from the community.
Despite civic groups’ concerns, talks appear to be proceeding amicably in at least one area. Representatives from local labor councils have met “a number of times” with Sterling’s Browne, and “we’ve had good conversations,” said Building Trades Council President Matthew Aracich, who attended the July meeting. “We’re trying to come to terms, to reach an agreement that is good for everyone.”
In awarding the Belmont Park project to Arena Partners in December, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he expected the project would generate as many as 12,000 union jobs. While neither ESD nor Sterling would be locked into a specific number at the meeting, “we are confident we will have an agreement,” Long Island Federation of Labor President John Durso said. “We believe this project will generate thousands of hours of work and create thousands of union jobs.”
Nassau County Office of Labor Commissioner John Skinner agreed, saying that while “it is impossible to say exactly how many union jobs the project will generate, it’ll be substantial.”
Echoing a sentiment he expressed in December, Durso said, “It really is a great day for labor.”