Veteran civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel has often represented the powerless against the powerful in his 50-year career. So when he said he had “some experience” in David and Goliath contests, it was an understatement.
Siegel spoke with the Herald last week to discuss his retention by the Belmont Park Community Coalition in its struggle with Empire State Development Corp. to make the proposed arena project at Belmont Park more transparent and the developers more responsive to community needs.
Siegel began as a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and served for 15 year as head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. He has represented clients such as the Ku Klux Klan, an Italian grandmother facing eviction in Little Italy, theater actors and actresses facing sexual harassment and a civic association in
West Harlem that sought to block expansion by Columbia University.
At issue in this case is a 43-acre parcel that Elmont civic associations have sought to develop in a way that benefits their community by bringing in skilled jobs. The coalition contended that the current proposal for an 18,000-seat arena to house the N.Y. Islanders hockey team falls short of that goal.
In two letters to ESD in February, BPCC complained that residents from local communities have been shut out of the discussions about the way the property will be developed, and how the communities will benefit. At the same time, BPCC representatives protested what they called “shady back-room deals.” Residents of Bellerose and Floral Park — communities that likely will be most affected by the development — have joined the BPCC in its opposition.
“ESD paid lip service to community involvement at the scoping session” on March 22, Siegel said in an interview with the Herald on April 4 — the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King. “But how much genuine interaction was there at that meeting? How many people from ESD were even present? Even the moderator turned out to be a paid professional presenter” and not an employee of either ESD or Sterling Development, the lead developer on the project, Siegel said. “I asked how many people from ESD were there, and I asked them to stand up.” The moderator tried to force Siegel to sit down, but he refused until four ESD employees finally identified themselves. “There,” Siegel said. “Those are the people you should be talking to right now.”
The meeting last month was only the second that was open to the general public, although ESD representatives did meet in two closed sessions with what they called a “citizen’s advisory committee” made up of nominees from various local elected officials. The only other public meeting, a listening session that was held on Dec. 10, was scripted, with ESD only permitting written questions submitted in advance on four topics.
“The process is supposed to be transparent and in the community’s best interest,” Siegel said. “But who decides what that is? What happens if the communities decide together that an arena isn’t in their best interest? According to the terms of the [Urban Development Corporations Act], the project must stop. Will it?
“Many arenas are built in communities like these,” Siegel continued. “They are supposed to employ local workers, women, minorities and veterans. Who decides the percentage in each category and the percentage of the total?”
Siegel also spoke of the impact of the proposed 435,000 sqare foot retail village on local businesses. “The developers come in with big specialty stores and franchises, and they push out businesses that are already there. Construction pushes down property values. Then, the developers try to buy up residential property at discount prices. Gentrification sets in and, ultimately, prices do rise. But in the meantime, a lot of people get scared and sell, because they can’t wait that long,” he said.
“These fears are based on historical trends,” Siegel said. “Local communities didn’t need either Citi Field or Yankee Stadium. These big projects are built for private companies that are owned by private individuals. And no matter how much they might say an arena will be 100 percent privately financed, the indirect costs to the community are often at least as high as the price of the arena itself,” he said. “In many cases, what municipalities waive is at least as valuable as what they pay out.” Loss of property tax revenues and discounted utility costs are common in this kind of project.
Siegel expressed concern about the relationship between AKRF, the firm retained by lead developer Sterling Development to conduct an environmental impact study of the site. “AKRF has done a number of these projects with Sterling. We need to have our own independent study by an outside firm, and we need to have that read into the record.” But he was equally wary about the damage that an arena would do to the communities themselves. “When I was first retained, two members of the coalition drove me around the area that’s going to be most affected. The residential areas are mostly quiet two-lane streets. Construction is loud. Events at an arena or stadium this size will be loud. And imagine what will happen when people drive out from the city or from other parts of Long Island and have to park.” Currently, plans only call for an additional 3,700 parking spaces at Belmont.
Siegel also mentioned the Belmont Park Long Island Railroad station that has figured in many discussions. “No one is really talking about how much that will cost or how long an upgrade will take,” he said. Estimates run as high as $150 million, with completion in the early 2030s.
“At a bare minimum, we need a negotiated community benefits agreement,” Siegel said. “And no one should underestimate the impact these civic associations can have. I see communities with a history of de facto segregation, and then I see black and white working together for a common goal. That in itself is a reason to be hopeful, whatever the outcome of our efforts on the arena. And we have at least 12 months before AKRF delivers its report, or before anyone breaks ground on construction.”