The development at Belmont Park faced growing local opposition last week as a new group surfaced to stand against Empire State Development’s plan for an arena, hotel and large retail space in Elmont. Tony Bhatti, a local resident and board member of the new Elmont Against the MegaMall organization, said his group was formed by Elmont and Valley Stream residents who are worried about the effects of having a large arena and mall at Belmont.
“A megamall doesn’t help our community,” Bhatti said. “We already have Green Acres and Roosevelt Field near here.”
Green Acres Mall is a 10-minute car ride away from Belmont, while Roosevelt Field Mall is 20 minutes away. Tammie Williams — a member of the Belmont Park Community Coalition, which opposes the current development plan at Belmont — agreed that the area was already saturated with retail space and that the proposed plan at Belmont would do little to help bring in customers to local stores on Hempstead Turnpike.
“Once people enter Belmont, they pay for parking and are contained within the gates, so they’ll stay inside,” Williams said. “They won’t be shopping at the stores that are already here.”
During a question-and-answer session between developers and local residents in the spring, many residents also questioned the viability of having a retail space at Belmont. Sterling Project Development Group Managing Director Richard Browne said he was confident that the mall would see traffic once it opened, explaining that improvements to the Long Island Rail Road’s Belmont station would bring shoppers from the city. Sterling is the lead developer as part of New York Arena Partners LLC, a consortium that also includes the Oak View Group, which holds an ownership stake in Madison Square Garden and the Islanders hockey franchise.
“Even if the commute would mean people have to get on a train, then on a shuttle, then on a bus to get there, they’ll still come,” Browne said during the hearing. “It’s something we’ve seen before in our other projects.”
While MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota refused to commit his organization to any upgrades during testimony before the State Senate earlier this year, he did raise concerns and doubts about the upgrades. The MTA is studying the issue and expects to issue a report this fall, but the railroad’s current five-year development roadmap includes neither timetables nor budgets for any upgrades to the station, whose cost could run as high as $150 million.
As Bhatti argued about whether adding a retail space in Elmont was necessary, he added that the mall and arena would create new traffic problems for local residents. Echoing what other local civic leaders and residents have said before, he described the everyday heavy traffic that occurs near Belmont, where Hempstead Turnpike and the Cross Island Parkway meet. He said that what would normally be a five-minute drive through the area in off-peak periods can take as long as 25 minutes during rush hour.
“And you want to add thousands of more cars going to the mall or to see the Islanders?” Bhatti asked. “It’s going to be a nightmare. It’s going to be like Midtown.”
With a congested Hempstead Turnpike causing headaches for commuters, Bhatti feared that drivers would funnel into side streets to escape traffic, which could increase the number of accidents that occur in those areas. Several residents also expressed their worries about the traffic that the arena and mall could create on Dutch Broadway, which, as the Herald reported last month, sees some the highest numbers of accidents and speeding violations in Nassau County.
“Dutch Broadway will be a secondary road that will be flooded with cars heading to and from the stadium, trying to avoid traffic on Hempstead Turnpike,” said Ferida Khan, a mother who lives near the Dutch Broadway School. And that traffic could begin as early as next year, when thousands of construction workers will begin commuting to the area when the project breaks ground.
ESD officials said that they are looking into all the concerns discussed at the public hearing. “Traffic analysis is a critical component of the environmental review process, and ESD will continue to work with the community on this issue,” agency spokeswoman Amy Varghese said.
But Bhatti and Williams said they do not believe the developers are listening to the community, given the small number of open public hearings since the project was announced late last year. They called the current plan rushed, and placed much of the blame on Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a supporter of the arena project, who pushed for the Islanders’ return to Long Island.
Elmont Against the MegaMall plans to reach out to local officials to ask them to oppose the current plan publicly. Bhatti said that the organization would send a letter to State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach who represents parts of Elmont and Valley Stream, requesting that he sign a pledge to stop the arena’s development.
As press time, Kaminsky’s office had not returned a call requesting comment, but he is on record as supporting development of the area generally. Bhatti cautioned that elected officials who are supporting the current plan might not have the support of local residents on Election Day.
Both Elmont Against the MegaMall and the Belmont Park Community Coalition are working to raise awareness among local residents about the current development plans and looking to find another use for the space at Belmont. Williams said she is excited to have the new group around and hopes they can work together for a community-focused development plan at Belmont.
“We need more people in the community to push back for slow, smart development,” Williams said. “They want to ram this down our throats.”