Five days before Sandy stormed ashore, a different kind of wind blew in from Brooklyn with the news that sent legions of Long Island hockey fans howling: After four decades, the Islanders would be leaving the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for good, come 2015. Their new home for the next 25 years, as team owner Charles Wang told the media throng on Oct. 24, would be “the state-of-the-art building called the Barclays Center.”
Far from a villain, Wang should be seen as “the real hero today,” said Bruce Ratner, the developer and majority owner of the Barclays Center, at the press conference. “He has kept this team in New York State!”
But Nassau County has lost its last professional sports team at the Coliseum, the pancake-shaped monstrosity built in 1972 that was almost obsolete from the beginning. For years, the arena has defied the best minds of generations of planners and developers who’ve pondered how to renovate it at practically no cost to the taxpayer while transforming the asphalt sea that surrounds it—the 77-acre centerpiece of the area known as the Nassau Hub—into a powerful center of prosperity. Last week in Mineola, Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano announced that the county would try again.
“Today will bring Nassau one step closer to ensuring that the Coliseum becomes an attractive destination for Long Island, and an economic generator that creates and retains new jobs and opportunities throughout the Hub,” said Mangano in a statement explaining that he’s picked a master developer for the site, Renaissance Downtowns’ Don Monti of Plainview, and that Ratner will give them free advice on what to do with the Islanders’ soon-to-be former home.
As countless concertgoers can attest, the venue has not lacked for excitement over the years, but its glory days as the home of “The Dynasty,” which LI hockey fans called the team that won the Stanley Cup four years in a row from 1980 to 1984—an accomplishment achieved by only eight other National Hockey League franchises since the NHL began in 1917—are long gone.
Surprisingly, more hockey fans could fit into the Coliseum than in the new Barclays Center—16,200 seats in Nassau compared to 14,500 or 15,150 in Brooklyn—which “we don’t think makes a material difference,” said Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, at the press conference. “The intimacy of this building is going to make watching hockey here a terrific experience,” he added.
Basketball fans already appreciate what the Barclays Center offers. Some 17,732 of them saw the Brooklyn Nets nip the Knicks Nov. 26 in their first meeting as crosstown rivals—a game that radiated with playoff fever. Thanks to Ratner’s deal making, the Nets and Isles, which both used to call the Coliseum home in 1972 when the b-ballers were then known as the New York Nets, will again be reunited under one roof.
Wang bought the Islanders in 2000 with his Computer Associates partner Sanjay Kumar, who’s currently serving a 12-year sentence for obstruction of justice and securities fraud. The team cost them $180 million. In 2011, when Wang was shilling for Nassau’s soon-to-be-defeated referendum to float $400 million in bonds to rebuild the Coliseum, he told WFAN sportscaster Mike Francesa that he’d lost about $240 million on the team. In the past, Wang blamed the decrepit arena for turning off top players who might otherwise have signed with him.
He’s also complained over the years that he was hampered by the county’s onerous contract with SMG, the Pennsylvania-based company running the Coliseum since 1991, because it cut into his revenue. The contract, which expires in 2015, hasn’t been much of a boon for Nassau, either, which has gotten about $2.6 million annually from the firm, according to Nassau Comptroller George Maragos. But it has certainly benefitted SMG.
SMG has had a “triple net lease,” says Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a developers’ lobbying group. “They pay for nothing: They don’t pay for parking improvements, they don’t pay for improvements to the building, they don’t pay for snow removal!”
The county has always had to pay its police to handle security and traffic at the Coliseum, no matter whether it’s hosting “Disney on Ice” or the Swedish House Mafia. SMG did not return calls for comment.
Bringing a private firm aboard to manage the public facility in 1979 was the result of a report commissioned by an advisory committee to the old Board of Supervisors that produced this headline in the March 25, 1977 edition of the Long Island Press: “Study Says Coliseum Wastes a Million.” The story in the Press, which ceased daily publication that very day until its present resurrection 10 years ago as this weekly, said, “The report may prove to be the most devastating news to hit the Coliseum since it opened its doors five years ago next month.”
As time has shown, the arena has never stopped making that kind of news.
Fast-forward to the 21st Century and a quick glance at the architectural renderings of proposals that have come and gone is revealing. The most ambitious scheme, by all accounts, was Wang and Scott Rechler’s Lighthouse Project, “where Long Island’s future begins,” boasted their promotional brochure. Its signature piece was two towers joined by a crosswalk, presumably shining in the night, but in one drawing looking more like the Eye of Sauron in Lord of the Rings gazing menacingly upon Middle Earth. The project never got off the ground.
For one thing, the Town of Hempstead put its foot down. The project was too big for an area already snarled in traffic and with infrastructure not up to the task. In 2011, after much back and forth with Wang and others, Hempstead’s zoning board issued a new mixed-use plan for the Hub that, according to the town, “permits a refurbished, renovated Coliseum” plus “solid requirements” for transportation, traffic, and infrastructure, as well as a “level of density” that will appeal to developers.
“Any proposal that will bring about reasonable and progressive growth is something that I welcome,” said Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray in a statement, “and the town board will work closely with developers to facilitate that.”
They’ll get their chance now that Mangano has picked a master developer for the Hub. In a press conference on Nov. 20 that some observers described as “surreal,” the county executive was joined by Monti, Wang and Ratner, who will advise the team, which also includes Rechler, Jones Lang LaSalle and the Spector Group, on what to do with the Coliseum after the Islanders leave.
“How does Mangano hold a press conference with the guy who just shit in his punch bowl standing next to him?” says one incredulous critic with ties to the development community who asked not to be named.
Others were more willing to cut Ratner’s involvement some slack.
“On first blush it looks like a clear conflict of interest,” says Dave Pennetta, president of the Long Island chapter of the Commercial Industrial Brokers Society. “But when you look into it, there’s not many people who have the experience, especially recent experience, in building a coliseum and I think, with that, there’s merits to having him take a look at it.”
Monti is “ecstatic” about working with Ratner, says Brandon Palanker, vice president of marketing and public affairs for Renaissance Downtowns, who said this team “finally came together fairly quickly.” He’s very optimistic that they’ll come up big.
“When you look at this moving forward you have the right pieces in place to do something that’s truly transformative for Long Island,” says Palanker.
“Given the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and the loss of the Islanders, this region could certainly use an economic shot in the arm,” says Kevin Law, president and chief executive officer of the Long Island Association, a business lobbying group. “Give Ed Mangano credit for trying to do something there!”
Nassau County Legislative Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead) is not quite ready to give him his due.
“We now have a fresh start and lot of big name developers onboard, but all that means little unless we can all agree to work together on a common goal,” says Abrahams. “At this point, we have still have not heard any details on what Mangano’s vision is for the future of the Hub property.”
Some observers say that losing the Islanders may be the best thing to happen for the Hub redesign. Having that property “no longer being held hostage by that sports franchise,” as one friend of the developing community put it who didn’t want to be named, opens up other possibilities.
One of the stumbling blocks has always been the parking problem. A surface lot is much cheaper than a parking garage, which costs about $25,000 a space to build. Some developers have said could add up to $150 million if all 6,000 current spots were included. A smaller Coliseum would have a smaller footprint.
“I think with the right formula and the right numbers, development will happen there,” says John Cameron, head of the Long Island Regional Planning Council.
Focusing on the area as a whole makes sense to Mitch Pally, head of the Long Island Builders Institute.
“It’s everything else that goes with the Coliseum that is really more important to the economy of Nassau County than the Coliseum itself,” he says.
As the Hub’s new master developer, Don Monti, put it: “We have been entrusted with the future growth of Nassau County.”
Islanders’ fans may be forgiven if they do not see it that way, but many others have heard this talk before, and only a set of final blueprints for a new Hub and shovels in the ground will prove the skeptics wrong.