Can They Dig It?
It’s probably time to replace the six big plastic barrels blocking the end of the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway. They’re unlikely to stop a go-cart, let alone an SUV failing to make the turn onto Jericho Turnpike. Sand has spilled out of their crushed shells and their yellowy orange warning color has long since faded. A discombobulated traffic barrier blocks the rough patch of overgrown shrubs and green leafy trees standing straight ahead. A bold black arrow points to the right. Taken as a whole, however, you can find something poignant about this place where Robert Moses met his match with the Republican enclaves to the north and their stalwart Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in Albany in 1973.
Here, Moses’ plan to build a suspension bridge across the Sound concluded, about five miles too soon. There should be an historical marker or a commemorative plaque. But failure, at least in the realm of master planning, is rarely rewarded, though it is often celebrated by those who fought back.
So, in keeping with the spirit of the great Power Broker himself, what better way to pay homage to RM than to construct a multi-billion Cross-Sound link right at this spot? That’s the hope of Vincent Polimeni and his son Michael, whose Polimeni International group want to finish what Moses started.
Only this time, rather than drive through some of the richest property on the North Shore, these guys would dive below ground, at least 150 feet below the floor of the Sound, to reach Rye, NY with a six-lane tunnel 18 miles long. They’d use the same technology barreling under Manhattan right now to create the Second Avenue subway. And they would charge tolls.
“Keep in mind that the Second Avenue Tunnel literally goes under the richest real estate in the world,” says Pat Halpin, who’s done some political consulting work for the Polimenis on this project. “The important thing here is that disruption is virtually zero. They’re going through granite, we’re going through sand.”
“It’s old hat in Europe,” says Michael Polimeni in his office, where he proudly shows their provocative PowerPoint presentation on the merits of their audacious proposal—which would connect Route 135, also known as the Ralph Marino Expressway, with I-287 in Westchester. It was in Europe where his father Vincent got the idea (the company has opened several shopping centers in Poland).
In 2004, Polimeni senior was sitting at a bar at the Warsaw Marriott, when he got into a conversation with a group of officials of Hatch Mott MacDonald, the engineering firm that helped to build the Chunnel, the rail tunnel under the English Channel. Over a few drinks these guys told him how far the triple-bore technology had advanced since the Chunnel, and that got him to thinking, “Why not use it here?”
Polimeni International has already spent $3 million conducting preliminary studies and lining up a team. They figure they would use a public-private model to finance the $10-to-$12 billion dollar tunnel by selling bonds. And if they get approval, they hope to complete the work in 2030, when the Whitestone Bridge will be 91 years old, and the Throgs Neck 69. Right now Michael is 30, and his father is 66.
“If it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I’ll give Michael my ashes in a vase,” says the father.
“And I’ll put them in the keystone!” says his son.
In the meantime, they’ve been talking to every official who will listen to them, from a village mayor to a county executive to a U.S. Senator.
“I’m here,” says Michael, the point man on the project. “I’ll take calls from anyone.”
They know they have to dispel any misinformation in the public realm and they’ll need strong leadership in the political realm to make it work.
“We’ve got the right guy coming on board: Mr. Cuomo,” says Vincent, referring to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. “He likes it. He’s a big thinker.”
What they want now is to retain proprietary control of the results of the next $2-million regional feasibility study they would commission. “There are jackals in the industry,” Michael says with a wry smile. “You do all the work in the hunt and they lie in wait and come in at the end.”
“We actually think it has merit,” says Adrienne Esposito of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, who has met with the developers. “The devil’s in the details. Conceptually we think it’s a good idea to have another exit off Long Island.”
But, like all “good idea” projects here on Long Island, it’s not just the politicians or the environmentalists who call the shots.
“The likelihood of it happening is very dim indeed,” says Koppelman, who cited the North Shore communities whose opposition helped contribute to Moses’ downfall and are likely to do the same to this tunnel. “You’ve got some very influential people there. On the other side, the community of Rye doesn’t see any advantage to them.”
The infrastructure for Moses’ bridge remains as a mute reminder of what can happen to the most ambitious plans without local support. In Suffolk another developer is haunted by his struggle to transform a dilapidated, defunct mental health institution into a thriving new community.
A Crazy Place for a Town
Pilgrim State Hospital opened in 1929 on almost a thousand acres in Brentwood to care for the mentally ill, an aim of Gov. Al Smith, who, interestingly was also Robert Moses’ greatest patron. Today the facility, now known as the Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center is just a shadow of its former self.
In 2002, developer Gerald Wolkoff bought 462 acres for a reported $21 million and unveiled plans to create a $4 billion Heartland Town Square, with 9,000 housing units, a million-square-foot “lifestyle” center, 3 million square feet of Class A office space, a convention center, and even an aquarium. And the new location would have 20,000 full-time jobs, the developer claims. So far, Wolkoff, 74, says he’s spent $50 million to keep the project on track.
“This has become a passion of mine,” Wolkoff says. “As long as I have a breath, I will continue to work on this development. I believe this year we will get approval on it.”
His goal is to create an urban-style zoning density within a “smart-growth community.”
“All we want to do is drop a little Manhattan here, meaning that everything is within walking distance,” he explains. “Most of the people will live and work in my development.” He says his instant town will help keep young people and empty-nesters from leaving Long Island for more comfortable climes.
“The planning of suburbia was the most ridiculous planning!” exclaims Wolkoff. “Everything was so detached you don’t even know your neighbor who’s 50 feet away! Most of the time you come home and you turn on the television because you’re too tired to do anything!”
Though the developer may have a valid sociological point, a seasoned regional planner like Koppelman wasn’t entirely buying the Heartland proposal here.