When Michael Watt thinks about development on Long Island, he thinks of The Sopranos.
“You remember Uncle Junior’s living room?” Watt asks. He’s one of Long Island’s well-known consultants on development issues, the head of Long Island, Inc., and one of the former leaders of the Long Island Builders Institute. He’s trying to explain why so many ambitious ideas to rebuild our region end up dead.
Back in the day, Watt says, Uncle Junior’s living room was the definition of hip. It had all the ’60s touches, all the desirable amenities: the dark-walnut paneling, the thick shag carpeting, the color-TV console taking up space like a mini-Parthenon.
“Uncle Junior was so happy with it that he never changed,” Watt says. “So fast-forward 30 years and he’s sitting in what is, in essence, a museum. And right now Long Island is in danger of becoming Uncle Junior’s living room. We might become a museum that other people come to visit, but we’re not going to be thriving. And honestly, that’s where we’re headed. It’s unfortunate that more people don’t see that.”
But many developers and planners do see it that way, and some politicians say they get it, too. That’s why they’re all paying so much attention to the fate of a handful of multi-billion dollar projects on Long Island—some little more than competing press releases, some actually moving the earth around—to get a true sense of what the future holds for the really big ideas.
Everyone agrees the days of Robert Moses are long gone. The master builder, whose name adorns one of the best beaches on the East Coast, single-handedly changed how people lived, worked and played, not just on Long Island, but throughout the region. Moses could throw his weight around and make things happen. Some folks wish they could clone his successor.
“When you think about it, some of the greatest things in this state came from Robert Moses, starting with Jones Beach, the parkways, and the bridges on and off Long Island,” says former Suffolk County Executive Pat Halpin, a well-known expert on land-use policies. “Moses didn’t hesitate to take on the rich and powerful.”
Indeed, many of the parks we use today were once the playgrounds of the plutocrats. But all too often Moses brutally laid waste to many poor New York communities to achieve his ends. And the problems we face here, such as the crippling commute on the Long Island Expressway, the constipated mass transit system, the strangulating suburban sprawl and the anemic downtowns, are his legacy, too.
Now some say proposals like the Lighthouse Project for the Nassau Hub, the Heartland Town Square development at the old Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center in Brentwood or the Riverhead Resorts complex slated for the former Grumman airport at Calverton won’t fix what ails us. Developers counter that they’re trying to prove Long Island need not be a wasteland where big ideas shrivel up. This place can nourish ambitious projects again, and produce solutions to the mess we’re in.
But who will make the call?
“There isn’t one overriding entity that can determine what’s in the best interests of the region,” says Watt, citing Long Island’s balkanization as the culprit. “Years ago they tried to build service roads along the entire length of the LIE, but they were able to block it in Syosset. And there’s still no rest stop on the LIE. Sometimes the best interests of the region have to supersede the specific interests of the local community.”
How do you accomplish that in a democracy like ours? Moses, as depicted in The Power Broker, the Pulitzer-prize winning opus by Robert Caro, didn’t have much sympathy for public officials who failed to see things his way: “that the public say on public works must be limited, and, in general, ignored, that critics must be ignored, that public works must be pushed ruthlessly to completion,” as Caro wrote.
As many an ambitious developer has discovered, on Long Island, it’s the opposition that can be ruthless.
Richard Kessel has seen power wielded on both sides of many issues, from his opposing the opening of the Shoreham nuclear power plant when he was a civic activist to his proposing a wind farm off Jones Beach when he headed the Long Island Power Authority.
“There’s no question that it’s easier to oppose something and be successful than it is to propose something,” says Kessel, the present chairman of the New York Power Authority, “because the negative always attracts the most attention as opposed to the positive, which doesn’t… Public debate, dialogue and opposition are not such a bad thing. Long Island has rejected projects before and survived for many, many years. Ultimately things balance out.”
Still, there are developers and builders spending millions of dollars today who no doubt wish they had someone with the force of Robert Moses on their projects’ side, and thousands of hapless Long Islanders who are probably glad they don’t. And then there are the dreamers who start out as Moses himself once did, a powerless planner with a vision to make things better. We’ll get to them, too. But first, let’s look at what’s already on the horizon or trying to loom into view, starting with the most contentious.
Turning on the Lighthouse
Once upon a time there were hopes the phrase “Meet me @ the Lighthouse” would really catch on here, and the barren wastelands of the Nassau Hub would finally become “a place where everyone goes,” “where the people of Long Island come together either 20,000 at a time cheering in the Coliseum, or just two over a cup of coffee at an outdoor café.” Yes, if you could believe the glossy brochures, the $3.8 billion Lighthouse Project would transform “the 150 acres at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum site and the surrounding area into Long Island’s signature destination.”
Oh, it was going to be fabulous! With a Grand Canal, a Celebration Plaza, a Sports Complex, a gigantic convention and exhibition space, and an enticing mix of 2,300 residences, including lofts, condominiums and townhouses. And may you never forget the gleaming double towers of the luxury five-star hotel that were supposed to soar 60 stories above the Hempstead Plains. Alas, they started losing floors almost before the ink was dry; at last count the figure was down to 35 and shrinking fast. Oh, did we mention the New York Islanders would forever play their special brand of professional ice hockey there in a spanking new arena?
All but for the bounce of a puck, maybe it would have happened that way. But we’ll never know. What if Computer Associates founder Charles Wang had brought Alfonse D’Amato’s brother Armand on board to grease Hempstead Town’s Republican political wheels, as Newsday reported. Or say Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi had campaigned harder and gotten a couple hundred more Democrats to keep him in office. Last November’s eventual winner, Ed Mangano was, as one Nassau political insider said, “the last one in the room” when Nassau County Republican Chairman Joe Mondello was trying to come up with a challenger to Suozzi.
Twice, Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray reportedly rebuffed Mondello’s offer to run for the county seat. Although Murray’s surely comfortable where she is, she may come to rue her career choice, given the way things are going between her and Mangano these days. “They are not getting along,” an observer puts it mildly. The Lighthouse is apparently the reason.
Ten years ago former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato supposedly persuaded Wang to buy the Islanders with the promise that somewhere down the line the Nassau Coliseum, “a terrible dump,” as Kate Murray just described it this month, would be renovated. For quite some time there’d been plans afoot to revitalize the Coliseum area known as the Nassau Hub, with private developers brought in, and, if the price were right, countless fans would get a new arena and the taxpayers wouldn’t have to foot the bill (the renovation’s now estimated to be $350 million; once it was pegged at $25 million).