In 2003, Wang’s Lighthouse Development Group met with Suozzi, who encouraged them to think big and plan for the entire site. It was a tall order. After one particularly unnerving encounter with a top official in the group, a Long Island attorney with close ties to developers and regional planners who was consulted on the project told his wife, “I wouldn’t let those guys build us a doghouse!”
So it made sense to many observers when Wang promoted his partnership with Scott Rechler, chairman and chief executive officer of what’s now known as RXR Realty, Inc., an actual big-name developer.
“Wang is not a builder,” says Lee Koppelman, former executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board and director of Stony Brook University’s Center for Regional Policy Studies. “Wang gave $60 million to Stony Brook for the Wang Center. That thing grew like Topsy! They were changing plans every other day. You don’t do that commercially and survive.”
By 2008, Wang and Rechler had assembled a presentable application to the Town of Hempstead for rezoning (the town had rejected the earlier version because it had typos and was missing maps and other materials). And then Wang and Rechler waited, and waited, and waited. Wang’s arbitrary deadline of Oct. 3, 2009 for a zoning hearing, which he’d pegged to the home-opener of the Islanders, came and went.
“We thought Murray and the Town of Hempstead were delaying the Lighthouse Project because they didn’t want anything good to happen on Tom Suozzi’s watch because he was a Democrat,” recalls a Nassau Democratic Party leader. “We didn’t know she’d drag it on this long.” Suozzi had tried to make the Lighthouse Project a key component of his “Re-imagining New Suburbia: the 90/10 Solution” campaign, even hosting a major event at the Coliseum.
Finally it became obvious to everybody that the Lighthouse was flickering, probably running on nothing more than candle power. The Press said as much last fall. But Murray claimed she just needed more time. To guide her, she had the Town hire Frederick P. Clark Associates, Inc., Westchester-based planning consultants, for about $150,000, to come up with a “scaled-down zoning plan.” By this summer Wang had stopped returning reporters’ phone calls, which was “very curious,” a top Long Island public relations executive observes. On the Lighthouse website, a statement posted by the group says, “We anxiously await Supervisor Murray’s decision.” The developers’ group noted it’s spent $19 million so far, amassing “10,000 pages” of environmental reports, and has conducted “200 community meetings.”
Pulling the Plug
The official day arrived for Hempstead Town on July 12, when Kate Murray unveiled her Mitchel Field Mixed-use District Alternative, known by its acronym, MFM. Instead of the Lighthouse’s “10-13.5 million square feet” for development, MFM’s total was “5.4 million square feet.” Instead of towering hotels, buildings would be limited to nine stories. Murray and Town Councilwoman Dorothy Goosby, a Democrat, hailed MFM as “vibrant,” “reasonable,” even “progressive.” The new plan would be “consistent with the suburban character” of the area. That drew a laugh from Long Island planner emeritus Lee Koppelman, a man who dealt with Robert Moses personally.
“It’s not a rural enclave by any means,” Koppelman says of the Nassau Hub. “It’s probably one of the most urban areas in the entire Nassau-Suffolk area.”
But, sadly, Murray’s MFM was D.O.A.
Newsday dubbed it “lackluster” and “disappointing.” Wang and his new BFF Ed Mangano issued a joint statement calling it “economically unviable.”
Koppelman was skeptical. “What Rechler and Wang are proposing is certainly a step in the right direction. Remember, that one small area called the Hub handles well over 15 percent of the total economic development of Nassau County… But in terms of down-scaling, I really don’t see how a developer can lose. First of all, the county owns the land. The developer doesn’t immediately have to lay out mega-millions of dollars just to purchase the real estate. And even in today’s depressed market, that real estate must be worth three-quarters of a million dollars per acre.”
Koppelman calculated that once the developers got the various zoning designations they sought, the property would be “easily worth more than a million dollars an acre. So, if it’s scaled down and Wang builds less residential, less retail or the hotels don’t go 40 stories in the air, I don’t understand how he’s claiming it’s ‘economically unviable.’ They may claim they’re not going to make as much profit, which is true. But the only question in my mind is how much of a price tag will Nassau add on for the reconstruction of the Coliseum. That was always the clincher.”
Another factor to consider is Mangano’s eager interest in getting the Shinnecock Nation to build a casino at the Hub, an addition to the neighborhood that doesn’t fit at all in Kate Murray’s plans, hence her friction with the county executive. Nor does a casino appeal to Hofstra President Stuart Rabinowitz, who doesn’t want his students nearby gambling away their lunch money, let alone their tuition, at the Indians’ poker tables. Of course, the county executive has his eyes on sharing the revenue the newly federally recognized tribe might rake in, but that jackpot is far from certain since a Connecticut gaming organization has just come out of the woodwork to challenge the Shinnecocks’ new status, which could take months or more to resolve.
And say the tribe does win its rights—what then? The gambling industry is suffering, whether in Atlantic City or across the Long Island Sound. A casino is no panacea, and even putting it at the Hub would just trigger another spat over zoning jurisdictions. Meanwhile, Islanders fans might want to place their bets on the distinct possibility that once the team’s contract expires in 2015 with the group that runs the Coliseum, these lucky puckers will be skating on firmer ice somewhere else, maybe Queens, or even as far away as Kansas City, which has also been courting Wang’s team.
So, what can you say about the Lighthouse Project today?
“It’s the most bizarre process I’ve ever seen,” says Halpin, the former Suffolk County executive.
“Poor Charles,” says a well-connected businesswoman familiar with the developers, “the guy should have stuck with computers.”
So, after a decade of work, Wang has little to show for his Lighthouse effort. Not a shovel has broken ground. But in another part of Nassau an undaunted development team is laying plans to dig deeper here than ever before.