Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Grandstanding and Politicking

I mentioned to reader Mike From Garden City in Monday's comments section that Long Island loses if both sides devolve into screaming at the Lighthouse Re-Zoning Hearing. Yesterday's hearing was full of grandstanding, frustration, and a tension among residents that we had not yet seen in public. Given the screaming, the booing, and, at times, the disrespect, I would say that Long Island lost...but that doesn't mean the Lighthouse Project is lost.

I will follow my usual protocol for this, since others have already begun writeups, and share some of my key themes and take-aways. I also have some news about what we can expect moving forward.

Kansas City?

Somewhat lost in the high emotion of the re-zoning hearing was that the Islanders played a preseason game in Kansas City last night, at an arena that was barely half full (some estimates had the crowd as low as 3,000 - though other figures had it slightly over 9,000). From an Islanders perspective, this proves what many (including myself) have said all along: Kansas City was never truly an option.

The best evidence of this? Charles Wang was at the Lighthouse hearing all day - and Chris Dey, Islanders President, was there for the evening session. Neither attended the game.

FGEIS Submitted

Yesterday, the Lighthouse unveiled the over 4,000 pages worth of a Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) and submitted it to the Town of Hempstead. The Town, as Lead Agency, now has the duty to review the document, accept it, and issue what is called a Finding Statement, in which they outline their impression of the document and certify it is both complete and correct. The clock is now ticking with this.

Opponents Out, Challenged

Garden City - as I predicted on Monday - had a significant presence at the hearing, with everyone from the mayor to numerous trustees voicing opposition. Most of it was the same arguments about "urbanizing Long Island" and "eyesore towers" (I'm sure the smokestack is a much better view), as we've heard before. It always interests me that these individuals claim they want to have a conversation yet run out of the meeting as soon as they are finished speaking about how awful the Lighthouse is.

However, yesterday we decided to take matters into our own hands. A few of us, including regular commenters on this site, Art Feeney from The 7th Man, and Dom from Islandermania decided to engage the Garden City crew that remained during the first break. The conversation turned tense at times, because we pointed out some instances of hypocrisy, and the fact that they never spoke as harshly in public as they did in private. On the whole, it was amiable, and we did our best to get our points across.

Our conversation with a gentleman from the Eastern Property Owners' Association was most telling. He was against every potential option for the site, and when loyal reader Marc finally asked the gentleman what he DID want, he said I just want to be left alone. It's telling.

There were other opponents who seemed to want it both ways, saying they were in favor of a new arena but not the rest of the Lighthouse. Either these people are uninformed, or they just want Charles Wang to make a donation to Nassau County.

Still others fixated on the height of the buildings, at the expense of everything else. One kept saying "If 40-story buildings are the answer, let's build them from here to Montauk Point."

This brings up an interesting point that we should probably discuss in a full blog post. The Lighthouse has now done 213 public outreach meetings, even though the "Meet Me at the Lighthouse" commercial could do a better job of explaining the content and benefits of the project, and there has been constant (if strange) media coverage. So many people, however, still did not know what was in the project and did not understand the benefits.....and we need to ask ourselves if that's the fault of these citizens, or of the Lighthouse.

On the whole, the opposition was present, but they lacked a coherent narrative. A reader (please remind me which one of you it was) had an excellent point: if these opponents convince the Town of Hempstead to vote against the Lighthouse, they were never for it.

Rhetoric Sharpens...On Both Sides

I don't remember any Lighthouse hearing being so rough, with both supporters and opponents cheering loudly, booing loudly, and yelling at each other throughout the proceedings. Tensions were clearly high, as people on both sides realized that this was end-game. I think the real story here is that it took so long for the debate to take a nasty turn in public.

Town Board Grandstands - Lighthouse Answers, Stumbles

Most meetings like this are for grandstanding, and the Town Board did not disappoint. Councilman Anthony Santino was clearly the attack dog yesterday, as he asked most of the tough questions yesterday (even though all board members except Councilwoman Angie Cullen and Supervisor Kate Murray joined in on the act at some point or another). We should be used to this, since those of us who went to the February 24 hearing remember that two gentlemen who wanted to landscape their body shop in Bellmore were grilled about types of plants and other minutia for 45 minutes. It is not surprising, then, that the Town grilled the Lighthouse for almost 5 hours yesterday.

There were many legitimate questions, including those about water usage, sewage capacity, the types of streets built on the site, and the view of the large buildings from different vantage points. However, in my opinion, there were also times when the Town Board crossed a line. We spent 10 minutes at one point discussing what constitutes a "building," for example. Councilman Darcy questioned a proposed new traffic light by asking what would happen if somebody ran the light. Councilman Santino questioned the findings of the Lighthouse traffic consultant, even though other government agencies signed off on the methodology. Many Board members asked why certain streets were not included in the traffic study when the Town of Hempstead itself defined the scope of the environmental review and did not ask for those streets to be included. At times, Board members would ask questions and then, after they were answered, loudly ask them again, claiming that nobody answered them. It seemed very strange to me.

The Lighthouse seemed prepared and provided answers, sometimes after searching through their information to be sure the figure was accurate. However, they did not come off as fully prepared in certain instances. Their traffic consultant, a pre-eminent expert in this field who has received awards for his work, made a mistake on the stand (seeming to present a figure as the total number of new car trips as a result of the Lighthouse when he was actually presenting the new car trips per peak hour) and was taken to task by the Town Board for a long, long time. Transportation is one area where the solution must be improved as the project build-out goes on, and this consultant did not make himself look good. Other consultants were subject to grilling as well, with some feeling caught off guard by the Town's line of questioning. This is odd since Scott Rechler is such a veteran of these proceedings; he knows how they go, and he seemed the most composed at the Lighthouse table.

On the whole, I believe the Lighthouse has answered many key questions, and many mistakes they made were ones of presentation. At the same time, the Town Board asked many legitimate questions that need answers, but they also seemed to ask at times for a solution that would solve all the existing problems of Long Island. This is not possible; the Lighthouse is a catalyst that will hopefully lead to more good decisions and ensure the long-term economic and social viability of Long Island.

Media Slant

Adding to this Theater of the Absurd was a ridiculously slanted piece in Long Island's major newspaper, in which a reporter calls the Town Board "polite," the Lighthouse Project "unprepared," and dismissed supporters as "union members" (there were union members there - as is their right - but they were not the only supporters, not by a longshot). Even more troubling is that this reporter began to parrot the same lines a Town of Hempstead source gave to my friend BD Gallof - an impression that did not match those of the people actually in the room.


Both sides expressed a need for "certainty" - with Charles Wang reminding everyone that his October 3 deadline is now 10 days away, and the Town of Hempstead reminding everyone that they want to make sure the project that is approved is the one that is built.

General Impressions

There were a few observations I have that didn't really seem to fit anywhere else, so I'll put them here:
  • Even though the split was about 75-25 in favor of the Lighthouse most of the day, and it was never below 60-40, a disproportionate number of speakers were against the project, and many supporters did not get to speak. It was also interesting that, as Chris Botta noted in his liveblog, I was asked to "wrap it up" when 30 seconds over time, when many opponents were able to speak for 6 minutes instead of the allotted 2. Since you were asked to state your position on the Lighthouse in the sign-in cards, it makes you wonder.
  • It is well known that County Executive Tom Suozzi kicked off the political gamesmanship by criticizing Kate Murray in the press. Could some of this tough questioning have been a response to that?
  • Kate Murray conducted a flash poll at the end, asking supporters and opponents, in turns, to stand up. At least 75% of the room stood in favor of the Lighthouse.
  • Organized labor, through leaders like John Durso and James Castellane, is standing up strongly for the Lighthouse
  • Kristen "I'm Running by Not Running" McElroy was nowhere to be found. Some prominent Democrats have admitted in private that nominating her was akin to "punting the Town of Hempstead away"
  • The hockey issue is still upon us, with some supporters speaking only about that angle, and almost all opponents trying to tie supporters together as nothing more than "mindless hockey fans"
  • It is now up to the Lighthouse and the Town to get together and reach an agreement that is amenable to both sides
  • We can't let up now....the passion for this hearing did not even come close to matching that from the public hearing on August 4, and we cannot let this downward trend continue.

Bottom Line

I will not sugarcoat or gloss over the facts and say this was a banner day for the Lighthouse Project. It wasn't. There were many troubling things coming out of yesterday, including a more vocal (though still small) opposition, a Town Board that handled questions strangely and seemed at times to favor negative speakers, and a Lighthouse that, while answering questions well, did not seem prepared for the grilling they received. The tenor seemed different, with supporters regularly booing negative speakers, and citizens yelling at both the Town Board and each other from the floor of the Adams Playhouse.

That having been said, I am not going to go Chicken Little and scream about how the sky is falling, either. The Town Board got its chance to grandstand in public, the Lighthouse now knows what to expect, and the real work will continue behind closed doors. It is time for the adults to stand up, take control of this debate, and make it clear that, for the sake of Long Island, this project cannot and will not fail.

I have a ready comparison for this: Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation to the Supreme Court. Ms. Sotomayor was grilled by Senators about minor things, given some disturbing labels, and elicited concerns out of some public. However, she still sailed to confirmation.

I spoke to roughly 10 people yesterday, all of whom had more experience with the Town Board than I, and, to a person, they all described yesterday's hearing as little more than kabuki. These sorts of hearings are for grandstanding, they said, but the Town Board will not let this fail at the end of the day. They know too much is at stake - including their jobs.

Regardless, we need to continue doing what we're doing and advocating in a strong but respectful way for the Lighthouse Project. We have come too far, and we have fought too hard to let this die now. I still believe this will get done, though the timeframe is debatable.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I pulled Joe Ra from the Town of Hempstead aside for a quick discussion during the first break. I asked him, straight-up, what it would take for us to see a vote on re-zoning. Mr. Ra told me the Town must adopt the Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement (FGEIS) and issue its Finding Statement before the vote on zoning can come. Based on previous history, I think I have a good idea of the timelines we can expect.

Everyone, mark the following day on your calendar:

October 20

This Town Board meeting will be held 4 weeks after submission of the FGEIS, and it will hopefully give the Town (assuming FP Clark doesn't stop working again) ample time to review the document and decide whether it meets the legal burden of being complete and correct, doing everything possible to mitigate negative impact on the environment. We could see a vote to accept the FGEIS on this date, though some sources I've asked believe this is not possible.

Now, here's where things get interesting. If the Town of Hempstead follows its past behavior, they could vote to accept the FGEIS and then schedule a vote on re-zoning for the next Town Board meeting:

November 10

A week after Election Day.

Buckle up, everyone. The next few weeks might be a bumpy ride.

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  1. Kansas City is not an option?
    Don't be misled by last night's attendance.
    A properly managed sports team owned by the Sprint Center's owners (AEG), who can subsidize lower than market ticket prices through parking and concessions, could make a go of it in Kansas City.
    Kansas City is a good sports town. The Chiefs are solid, the Royals have done well despite losing teams.
    Zack Greinke was pitching last night. Bad timing for this exhibition game.
    How many fans would have paid exhorbitant prices to see the Isles play an exhibition game in the Coliseum last night?
    If the right person/organization (AEG) with deep pockets made Wang the right offer.....
    good bye Long Island.

    DO NOT fall into the NYcentric trap Nick.

    Who is AEG?
    The world's largest owner of sports teams and sports events, the owner of the world’s most profitable sports and entertainment venues, and under AEG Live the world's second largest presenter of live music and entertainment events after Live Nation. It owns or operates the Staples Center, the Home Depot Center and beginning in fall 2007, the XL Center and Rentschler Field.

    DO NOT discount Kansas City.

    Especially when AEG is bigger than Wang.

  2. Kansas City is not an option despite how much money they may have. You can't buy a fan base. They had their chance to make a statement and that was an embarrassment. They were giving away tickets last night and couldn't draw flies when they knew the NHL was watching. KC already failed with hockey and there is clearly no reason to go back.

  3. Nick, I was extremely disappointed in the TOH yesterday. I believe they were unprofessional and completely unprepared. They acted as if they had never read one single document the Lighthouse Project has submitted. They were a complete embarrassment to themselves and all of Long Island. This being said I believe they are completely in over there heads.
    I know Oct. 3rd is just around the corner and I will be at opening night at the Coliseum but I hope Queens calls with a great offer of a spanking brand new arena, and a chance to develop some of the surrounding property. I am not giving up on the Lighthouse but I really am so sick of this BS that it would serve the TOH right. They don't deserve the Islanders. They deserve an empty arena and weeds growing out of the parking lot. I'm so pissed at all the grandstanding. I don't know how after all the time and money Mr. Wang has the patience for this.

  4. "You can't buy a fan base."

    Sure you can. Bring in a young exciting team with recognizable League Stars (KO, Tavares), and low overhead (Isles are WELL under the cap), play some exciting hockey, have a symbiotic economic platform where ticket sales, concessions, parking, television, radio and all ancillary revenues go into one pot, market the shit out of the product in a town that has NOTHING else to do in the winter months, and you've got a decent chance of becoming successful.
    How much of a "fan base" did Nashville have?..and they had to carve their niche with an expansion team. Not a young established squad.
    I daresay that there was nary an Islander
    "fan", much less a "fan base" on Long Island in 1972.
    Roy Boe and Bill Torrey would have had an easier time in 1972 developing a "fan base" in a town that wasn't heretofore a hotbed for a competing team (Rangers) than they had with the Islanders.
    Economic models and marketing dynamics are very different now than they were the last time the NHL tried to be successful in Kansas City.

    Just my opinion....

  5. Nick, how can these people actually adopt a 4000 page FGEIS report when they haven't even taken time to review the DGIES because it was too long??? Isn't it an insult to Wang and the Developers who spent all this money and time to prepare these reports only for these board members to let them sit and collect dust???

    Ive sent ya a few emails about this but you had no response...Thats ok, nick, I still support the the LHP and your blog anyway...I cant take days off from work and I have no transportation so I do what I can by making friends and family send letters and making phone calls expressing their concerns... I'm doing what I can, we all have to look at the world from outside our paradigms, imho...

  6. I left out that I also send everyone and there mom to this blog as well...

  7. Islespassion - that's really the big problem here. Dorothy Goosby was the only board member who said she read the DGEIS, and yet she repeatedly asked questions demanding to know why streets the Town did not ask the Lighthouse to study for traffic weren't studied for traffic. I can't tell you how many questions were answered "We covered this in the DGEIS"

    That could definitely play a role in how long this takes, and in the meantime we need to continue to call Town Hall and email to let them know we want this and all concerns need to be discussed in the spirit of solving the problem, not throwing up roadblocks.

  8. Nick, can you please explain to me why the distinction was made during the meeting that there will not be a "new" coliseum but a refurbished one? Refurbished could mean a new bathroom? I would think a new coliseum would be a centerpiece of the build, thanks...

  9. At this point, it seems that Charles Wang is going to have to scale the project down a bit so the Board can save face and appove this thing. If the Board can't tell their constituents that they were able to get some concessions from the project, they will set up CW as the bad guy. I know concessions have already been made but it doesn't seems like it will get approved in its current form.

  10. Anon1 - the Lighthouse has been pretty consistent from the start that this is a renovation of the existing arena. However, that could mean some incredible things, as these before and after shots of Angel Stadium in Anaheim show:

    After the renovation:

    The renderings shown at the hearing on Tuesday were very beautiful and a marked contrast to what we have now.

    Anon2 - you're right. If I can shamelessly plug this site (again), I'll be writing something later today about this.

    I've never been against scaling it down, just those who said Charles Wang should volunteer to do it before anyone knew what the Town was thinking. Now, both sides need to negotiate, and I think the Lighthouse realizes this. Stay tuned later today for more extensive thoughts on that.

  11. Nick,

    Did anyone ever suggest that maybe, just maybe, the TOH Board was making it look good? Now, as you know, I'm NOT one to defend them on ANYthing. However, could it be that they know that they will get a backlash from the NIMBYS when/if they approve this so they are trying to make it seem as though they really put the screws to Wang & Co. and "did everything they could to fight for the residents"?

    Then again, I could just be delirious from this whole process.

    I still believe there are only three possible outcomes.

    1. They approve it.

    2. They approve parts of it.

    3. They approve none of it.

    (If two happens, Wang could say ok, no, or negotiate)

    -Big Van Vader

  12. Hey Nick,

    Any idea when the Lighthouse might release those new renders to a wider audience (ie, on the website)?

    Disappointed to see that there might still be a few people here and there convinced that the Coliseum reno will amount to a new coat of paint. Read the documentation available and it's clear that we're talking a major renovation including demolition work. New seating, new concourses, a new exterior. When it's done, people won't recognize it.

    Am also disappointed with the tone of some of the coverage (Newsday), but have to wonder if the LDG could have intervened. Any project this size should have a GR/PR team, whose responsibilities include spinning the media.

  13. Big Van Vader - Sorry I missed you on Tuesday. I think what you're saying makes a lot of sense, and it matches what many politically-connected sources have said to me over the past few days. This is a chance for grandstanding and making it look like they're concerned - and at the end of the day, if both sides are committed to doing this, we will have an agreement each side can live with.

    BR - good to see you, it's been a while. I have nothing to add to what you've said, just that we shouldn't expect final renderings until after there is an agreement. They won't commission final plans until they know what's going to be built there.

  14. Well, unable to attend, what I got out of the event (from the Newsday blog) that my main beef (traffic) was the subject d'jour. I am glad that my thoughts were in the forefront of discussion there. Unlike most blogs, the traffic concern was a genuine concern; the TOH was very pointed in their questions to the LH people. At one point, CW was pissed off that a board member had asked for specifics. Wang was annoyed that his people had to actually give details!
    You know that is what is wrong with these rich demagogues; they splash their $$ around & figure they get a free pass. I know , adnausem, that he loses many $$ every year with the Isles, but he knew that coming in. All that came into focus about traffic from that meeting was the fact that the only solution the LH had was to widen the Meadowbrook Pky / Hemp. TPE exit & put up a traffic light! The other fact was they put the anticipated number of additional cars to the area during the rusk hours to be at 3800; imagine that! 3800 MORE cars to an area that is already in gridlock in the AM & PM drive times!
    No wonder the TOH board had an edge to their attitudes. After all, it is they that live there,so it is a passionate response. My feelings are that it will be a toned down LH project, dictated by the TOH, otherwise Wang will take his puck & go, as said by one TOH board member.

  15. Nick, sorry to take your place here, but...nyi fan, you miss the point.

    Mr. Wang got upset when they asked totally inane questions. Example - "what happens if someone runs the red light"? Did Santino really ask that? Really? What happens anywhere when someone runs a red light?

    Also, many of the answers were in the documents they already had, and asking the same questions again and again just showed that they were grandstanding and did not bother to read. Questioning the details of the details would have been fine - I also do not want a traffic disaster and want them to make sure of this. But that is not what happened.

  16. MW147 - don't worry about that, the site's for everyone to discuss.

    NYI Fan - nobody said traffic shouldn't be discussed, but nobody I've spoken to who was there believes those Newsday articles accurately reflected what happened. The traffic consultant was not as good as he could have been, but in the same vein Santino refused to accept his analysis - which is backed by the NY State DOT and the Nassau County DPW - because "I'm a driver and I know what it's like." Wang did lose his cool, which shouldn't have happened (it's worth noting that Scott Rechler seemed largely unfazed by the whole thing), but it came after 4 straight hours of questions about the same thing over and over again.

    I expect legitimate issues to be raised and discussed - but I also expect our elected officials to read the document they're supposed to critique. Neither position is unfair.

  17. One last word about the traffic - the Lighthouse traffic consultant did not have a banner day by any means, but he had an excellent point that needs to be mentioned repeatedly. There have been experiments, including one in downtown Minneapolis, that proved traffic could get better if certain roads are closed. That's because the primary goal in traffic mitigation is to eliminate choke-points, not necessarily to just add more capacity. Perfect example is Merrick Avenue from Glenn Curtiss Blvd. to the Waldbaum's shopping center, in East Meadow (near my alma mater, Kellenberg Memorial H.S.). There was usually traffic during the evening rush, but I noticed 2 things:

    1. The traffic lights were not synchronized

    2. Once I passed the traffic light after Front Street, traffic broke, and I did not have another problem for the rest of my trip.

    It would stand to reason that synchronizing the lights could help ease congestion on Merrick Avenue and make it easier to get through that traffic bottleneck. In the same vein, it would make sense to fix the interchange and that certain stretch of Hempstead Turnpike, since those are clearly bottlenecks. It shouldn't be the only solution, but it could provide a way to get more traffic through a certain area in a more efficient way.

  18. Excellent points, mw147- and of course the Nick followup! I personally find it insulting that the board could ask questions that PROVE they have not even bothered to read and injest what they have been given- and that a supposedly objective paper would not only ignore that fact, but have the absolute nerve to play switcheroo and make-pretend that these questions were anything but an admission of their failure to do their jobs adequately!

    And Big Van Vader, I think that your point could be part of this. The way that Santino was acting was COMPLETELY different than the way he has acted at every other meeting... and I always watch him because he is my own representative. I watched him stand in support of the project at the Marriott mtg and I have watched him be attentive and respectful at mtgs in the past... the obstinate disrespectful dicklike behavior he suddenly displayed at this most recent of meetings either has a purpose or he has multiple personality disorder.