Floral Park residents are raising concerns about just how transparent and communicative Empire State Development, the New York state economic development entity building UBS Arena at Belmont Park, has been with them about the construction.
Part of the $1.3 billion Belmont Park Redevelopment Project, construction on the arena began in 2019. The project is predicted to create $25 billion in economic activity, as well as 10,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs, 30 percent of which would be earmarked for local residents, according to ESD. UBS Arena, soon to be home to the New York Islanders, is set to open this fall for the start of the 2021-2022 NHL season.
Bill Kelleher, of Floral Park, has supported the project since its inception, but he has long worried about traffic, noise and environmental problems the arena could create. “Eventually, this project will be beneficial for Nassau County,” he said.
Now Kelleher and other Floral Park residents have voiced concerns about the transparency of ESD’s construction plans and its communication with residents about ongoing work. Kelleher, who attended early meetings about the redevelopment plan and the construction of the arena, said he never gained a “firm grasp” of ESD’s plans despite reaching out to the agency nu-merous times.
Communication with residents about ongoing work in the arena’s north parking lot, specifically, has been unclear, he said.
Kelleher, whose home is just 400 feet from that lot, said he saw bulldozers working there last week. Originally, ESD designated the north lot for “overflow,” he said. The lot, estimated to have between 2,400 and 2,800 parking spaces, was not slated for construction.
ESD has been unclear with residents about construction there, Kelleher said. “We’re still being told that this is an overflow lot,” he said.
He and others who live near the soon-to-be-open arena also expressed concerns about a fence that has recently been erected. The fence, Kelleher claims, does not match ESD’s construction plans, which are online and available to the public. He noted that the fence appears to be permanent, yet he was told by ESD that it was being temporarily fortified to protect residents like Kelleher from the construction.
Marion Philips, Empire State Development’s senior vice president of community relations, recently met with residents in the north parking lot to discuss the fence, Kelleher said. Philips told them that the fence wasn’t properly installed and is in the wrong place, according to Kelleher.
He said he would prefer an opaque fence, much like the one in the south parking lot that he credited State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a Democrat from Elmont, for securing and protecting Elmont residents from the construction. Kelleher said he had spoken to State Sen. Anna Kaplan about securing a similar barrier for the north side, to protect Floral Park residents.
Kelleher first contacted ESD about the construction in the north parking lot on May 21 by email. ESD did not respond until June 4, according to Kelleher. Altogether, he said, he has sent three emails that went unanswered.
“I’m fine with it,” Kelleher said of ESD’s construction of the UBS Arena and even in the north parking lot. “I don’t need to be handheld. [But] there’s a lack of unity between local residents, the Belmont Park Advisory Board and ESD.”
“Since the outset of the Belmont Redevelopment Project, Empire State Development has kept community stakeholders and local leaders informed of construction progress and any modifications on at least a weekly basis,” the agency wrote in a statement to the Herald, “and has worked closely with them to minimize the impacts of construction.”
“ESD’s transparent public review process has included more than 12 public meetings and hearings, dozens of meetings with local organizations and stakeholders, and months of public comment periods — which generated thousands of community comments,” the statement read.
The agency also addressed Kelleher’s concerns about construction in the north parking lot, claiming to have notified the community three days after Kelleher inquired about it. “We provide a weekly email called ‘Look Ahead’ for all community members which provides a detailed update on construction activities scheduled for the upcoming week,” the statement read. “The work on the North Lot was first mentioned the week of May 24 when we were notified by the construction company, and again the week of May 31.”
Solages agreed that unity among resident, the advisory board and ESD is necessary, and noted the importance of community input in an effort as impactful as the redevelopment project. “It’s all about communication,” she said. “We’re in a symbiotic relationship.”
Solages supported both the advisory board, the creation of which required a legislative effort Solages herself spearheaded, and the state-level Belmont Community Advisory Committee. As the representative of the state’s 22nd Assembly District, which encompasses Elmont and Floral Park as well as sections of Franklin Square, she expressed concern about the transparency issues raised by constituents like Kelleher.
Solages said, however, that ESD’s communication with local residents has improved since construction of UBS Arena began. “ESD has come a long way,” she said, noting that she has fielded complaints from constituents about ESD in the past, but that the agency has gotten better about responding. Solages made it clear that ESD must improve its communication with local residents about the work in Belmont Park. “We are all stakeholders in this project,” she said. “Communication needs to be involved.”
Over the past two weeks, ESD and residents have engaged in a conversation about the concerns raised, according to Solages. At an on-site visit by residents of Floral Park, local officials and ESD representatives sought to resolve the fencing issue. There was also a second meeting, which included local officials.
“When ESD received a complaint about the work from Floral Park,” the agency said in its statement, “it was immediately addressed with two conference calls with the Village Mayor and Council Members as well as an onsite walk-through with ESD and the construction team to ensure all concerns were understood.”
“There is a conversation happening,” Solages said. “We are now working together, and I encourage all parties to come to a resolution that works to protect the community and the community’s quality of life.”
“We’re hopeful for a resolution that takes the views of the community into consideration,” she added.