Hundreds of Long Islanders formed a sea of blue on Monday, wearing Belmont baseball caps with the letter “o” replaced by the New York Islanders logo as they waited in the heat to witness history — the groundbreaking of the Belmont Park redevelopment project.
It includes a 250-room hotel, a community center, commercial office space, 350,000 square feet of retail space and a 19,000-seat arena for the New York Islanders. It will be funded by Sterling Project Development, which has agreed to pay $1.3 billion toward the project.
“Today is a great day for hockey,” National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman told the crowd. “It’s a great day for the Islanders, and it’s a great day for Long Island.”
According to state officials, construction of the project will generate $2.7 billion for the local economy and $850 million from its operations each year. The project will also create 10,000 construction jobs over the next few months and 3,200 full-time jobs.
Additionally, they said, Elmont will benefit when the developers repair Elmont Road and Hendrickson Avenue parks, as well as from a new Long Island Rail Road station, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo said is “long overdue” for the community.
Cuomo added that there are three potential benefits to the project: bringing a new LIRR station to Elmont, revitalizing the economy and returning the Islanders to Long Island. “Three things all together in one project — the technical economic development term for that is a ‘hat trick,’ my friends,” the governor said, holding up his own blue hat.
Cuomo also said that the land was previously “widely unused” as parking lots, and called the project one of “the largest and most impactful that have been done in the entire downstate region in a long, long time.”
“I’m in full support of this,” Elmont resident Jon Johnson said before the ceremony. “It’s important that it all happens.”
Other Elmont residents did not agree, however, as a group of civic leaders filed a lawsuit on Sept. 21 challenging the legality of the project.
The suit asks a Supreme Court justice to “regard the project null and void.” It also asks a justice to prevent the developers from altering the structure of Belmont Park unless they obtain New York state legislative approval for the project and invalidate the Town of Hempstead Board’s approval of the final environmental impact statement because it allegedly did not provide the community with written notice about the resolution before the vote.
“The State of New York plans to take up a major redevelopment project for our community,” Lori Halop, of the Belmont Park Community Coalition, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the state has chosen to ignore the surrounding communities and our concerns about the current redevelopment proposal.”
In the lawsuit, the civic leaders claim that Belmont Park is public land and cannot be sold to a private developer. It cites the state’s Public Trust Doctrine, which states that “people’s trust may not be diminished or infringed without specific authorization by statute by the state Legislature,” and alleges that the coalition and civic associations’ requests to discuss the state’s compliance with the statute have gone unanswered.
It goes on to list a number of Elmont residents’ concerns about the project, including traffic congestion on the Cross Island Expressway, the proposed use of propane under the arena and the plan’s water demand.
“The residents of Elmont and the surrounding communities will be reduced to the City of Las Vegas where the residents have fake lawns [and] additional water restrictions,” the lawsuit reads, “while the Belmont Park occupants will enjoy the benefits of the Water Authority of Western Nassau County on the backs of 40,000 Elmont residents.”
Finally, the lawsuit alleges that state agencies violated the Urban Development Corporation Act, which civic leaders argue, states redevelopment should only occur in areas where there are "substantial and persistent unemployment.” The unemployment rate in Elmont, however, is virtually zero, and the average household income is $96,000.
“Elmont is not blighted,” said Joyce Stowe, president of the Tudor Manor Civic Association. In a statement, she and Bob Barker, president of the Locustwood/Gotham Civic Association, said they object to the “representation of Elmont as being blighted and depressed,” and were concerned that a misrepresentation of the community’s socioeconomic status would lower property values and stigmatize “our students’ academic accomplishments.”
But Jon Johnson said he thought the allegations were unfounded. “It’s disingenuous for a civic group to say they represent a large portion of Elmont when they don’t,” he said, adding that “to put out that the community wasn’t involved is disingenuous,” noting that he was a member of the project’s Citizens’ Advisory Committee.
Jack Sterne, a spokesman for Empire State Development — the state agency that led the redevelopment planning effort — said that the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but offered, “We will vigorously defend our actions so we can move forward with this project, which will deliver thousands of jobs and billions in economic activity to Nassau County.”
County Executive Laura Curran, who is named in the lawsuit, also said she does not comment on pending litigation, but she did say, “It’s incredibly important to engage with the surrounding communities, and the Elmont train station will go a long way in mitigating traffic.”
The suit comes only a few weeks after Village of Floral Park officials filed their own lawsuit against the project, alleging that there was a “coordinated effort among state officials to clear the path for New York Arena Partner’s proposal,” even before Empire State Development put out a request for proposals on the project due to a “secret master plan” that NYAP sent the agency.
In response, Jason Conwall, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said, “We don’t comment on pending litigation, but we know a stunt when we see one, and we’re confident the courts will agree.”