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Construction continues on Belmont arena, one year after groundbreaking

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Hundreds of Long Islanders watched as New York Islanders players and elected officials plunged their shovels into a pile of dirt last September to mark the beginning of construction on the state’s nearly $2 billion Belmont Park redevelopment project. Now, a year later, that dirt patch is gone, and has been replaced with a large steel structure that forms the outline of the Islanders’ new home.

The facility will house a 17,000-seat arena for the hockey franchise. It will also feature the team’s four Stanley Cups on podiums that play game highlights when you press a button, and other Islanders memorabilia.

“We’re taking the best features of Nassau Coliseum” while improving on the aspects that fans didn’t like about the “old Barn,” Jon Ledecky, co-owner of the team, said in an interview with the Herald after the second period of Sunday’s NHL playoff game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, adding that the Coliseum was “past its expiration date” by the mid-1990s.

To that end, he said, the UBS Arena will have more seats in the lower bowl, so fans can enjoy the noise and intimacy they were accustomed to at the Coliseum, but will have more women’s restrooms, “because we find that’s a bottleneck,” and eight bars facing the ice so they won’t miss any of the action on the ice when they get a drink.

The arena will also host more than 150 events a year, and Irving Azoff, chairman of the Azoff Company, which represents recording artists, said in July that he expected it to draw musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Billie Eilish and Billy Joel. Azoff had spoken to managers about what they would like to see included in a new arena, and designed it with their input. It will feature two backstage areas for musicians and other entertainers, as well as an underground loading dock for their equipment.

The Oak View Group, lead developer of the project, is scheduled to make an announcement about the concert schedule when the arena opens in November 2021.

“Our second team is music,” Ledecky said, saying the arena is “Made for music, built for hockey.”

It was also designed with input from National Hockey League officials and players, he added, noting that he was very pleased with what he saw when he toured the construction site at the end of August. While there, he said, he wanted to ensure that the view from the back row would be just as good as from the front row, and that guests wouldn’t have to walk far to get to the arena from general parking. He recounted having to walk for 15 to 20 minutes to get to Shea Stadium from its general parking area when he was younger.

“I was delighted to see the progress being made,” Ledecky said of his recent visit.

Construction crews are now in the process of installing the roof, and Tim Leiweke, CEO of the Oak View Group, said he expected the roof to be two-thirds complete by the holiday season. “That’s the key to the whole project,” he said.

From there, Leiweke explained, crews could start working on the electricity and plumbing, and putting up drywall, which, he said, would be a “massive” undertaking. Workers have already installed one-third of the raker beams to support the stadium seats, he said, and once that is completed, they will begin installing the stanchions and the seats.

A new ice plant was delivered to the site on Aug. 17, with steel piping for the ice instead of the plastic piping at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Steel piping, Ledecky said, creates a smoother surface.

“We’re ensuring the best quality hockey,” he said, with Leiweke adding that he understood the pressure of making the new arena the “heart and soul of New York” as part of a “massive effort to get New York back on its feet” when the coronavirus pandemic eventually fades.

The redevelopment project is expected to generate some $25 billion in economic activity with the Islanders’ lease of the land. Developers also hope to fill 30 percent of the arena’s permanent jobs with workers who live in the area, and are investing $100 million in transit and infrastructure enhancements, including the first new Long Island Rail Road station in almost 50 years.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority started work on the new station on July 14, and has set up a “laydown” area for temporary storage and the assembly of construction equipment on the north side of Superior Road, in Floral Park. Crews have also begun digging holes for the platform footings, MTA officials said, and are building the platform supports. Concrete has already been poured in some of those supports.

Workers are expected to continue excavation and concrete placement for the platform footings on both the north and south sides of the track over the next few weeks, officials said, and will begin installing underground utilities soon.

In the meantime, a group of Elmont civic leaders is continuing to appeal a State Supreme Court justice’s decision to allow construction on the project to continue. They filed a document in the New York State Supreme Court system in June stating their intention to appeal, just 27 days after Justice Roy Mahon dismissed their case. They are now awaiting a conference date.

“We disagreed with the judge’s ruling,” Aubrey Phillips, vice president of the Parkhurst Civic Association, previously told the Herald. “We believe we have a very strong case.”

In their original lawsuit, filed last year, the civic leaders claimed that Belmont Park is public land, and thus cannot be sold to New York Arena Partners — a consortium comprising the Islanders, the Oak View Group and the Mets’ Wilpon family — under the state’s Public Trust Doctrine. They also alleged that state agencies violated the Urban Development Corporation Act, because Elmont does not have “substantial and persistent unemployment,” and included a number of Elmont residents’ concerns about the project — including traffic congestion on the Cross Island Parkway, the plan’s water demands and a proposal to install two 30,000-gallon propane tanks underground to heat the arena.

In his 13-page decision, however, Mahon ruled that Empire State Development, the state agency tasked with promoting development in New York state, had adequately addressed each of the group’s concerns. “It was not required to consider every conceivable environmental impact, mitigating measure or alternative,” he wrote, “and it was not required to reach any particular result.”

Mahon also explained that Belmont Park had never been considered public parkland, and the state did not therefore violate the Public Trust Doctrine.

But Phillips disagreed, pointing to an 1892 U.S. Supreme Court decision that every state has permanent title to all lands within its borders, and holds those lands in a public trust.

He also said that Elmont residents were already feeling the effects of the construction, with lower water pressure and reduced home values, and noted that the group will also file a claim in federal court that the development violates the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

Leiweke declined to comment on these allegations, saying he would let them play out in court, but vowed that once the project is finished, “the neighborhood is going to fall in love with it.”

“We don’t look at the past,” he said. “We look to the future.”