Not So Fast, 2012

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few.

Gearing up for 2012, Long Island let’s not forget about 2011.
Gop Candidate FieldThe heroic mission of the U.S Navy Seals to rid the world of the face of terrorism has created a new paradigm for the 2012 elections. Before this global event consumed the national political headlines the term “birther” was rekindled by Donald Trump’s potential bid for the Country’s CEO job which monopolized weeks of national broadcasts, only to have POTUS Obama hold a live news conference to finally provide his birth certificate after two years of countless debate, articles and even books on the topic. The seriousness of the global threats facing our nation weighed against such previous headlines certainly re-shifts the current debate played out in the news cycle.

Over the last several weeks we’ve had former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announce their exploratory committees and GOP power broker Haley Barbour surprisingly bow out of running. Shortly we’ll see if former Utah Governor John Huntsman, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels and Congresswoman Michelle Bachman officially declare their intentions to run for President.

On the Hill there was a fierce budget debate with clocks ticking down on cable news of a looming government shut down. Next up on the docket the debt ceiling vote. Get ready.

Now Democrat operatives are staging protests at Republican House Members town hall meetings across the Country using Congressman Paul Ryan’s forward looking budget as a wedge issue for 2012. A recent Rasmussen Poll shows those aware of the plan 51% of Republicans favor Ryan’s budget plan and 52% of Democrats oppose it. But a plurality of voters not affiliated with either party have no opinion. Again a classic example of party line support with the battleground being the independent voter’s support.

Without a doubt there are substantial issues that must be addressed in order for our Country to prosper. Sustaining isn’t good enough, growth should be our objective. Social Security, Medicare, cutting the deficit, sound job creation and pension reform are of all hallmark concerns.

While the national debate rages on through 2012 here at home there are local issues playing out that will have a significant impact on shaping Long Island. Including the lighthouse project, an island based casino, legacy village in Yaphank and Wolkoff’s mini-city in Brentwood to name a few. Oh, and while it is not significant to the “shaping of Long Island” I do predict very localized, heated debate on the zoning of Sonic fast food joints springing up on the Island. We’ll have to see if resident’s craving for burgers and roller skates will outweigh the traffic jams that may snarl local roads.

When you look at voter participation of national elections to local elections here on the Island the numbers are quite far apart. Let’s turn to Suffolk County as an illustration. The 2008 Presidential race between Barack Obama and John McCain had 75.18% of registered voters come to the polls. That’s substantially higher than the 61% national average from that year. The last off year election in Suffolk County was in 2009 where a mere 20.81% turned out county wide. Go back to 2003 with the race for Suffolk County Executive between Ed Romaine and Steve Levy to see a somewhat respectable 32.38% turnout.

Political strategists have spent campaign dollars trying to drive out presidential year voters in off years with limited success.

There are many root causes of voter apathy at the local level. One reason is that there is substantially less television coverage of local races with Long Island’s news market dominated by New York City based and national cable news. Secondly there is not enough public awareness demonstrating the importance of local elected offices. An extreme few can actually describe the job function of a County Comptroller, but yet they’re asked to vote for that office in an election. Don’t dare to ask your average registered voter to name both their Assemblyman AND County Legislator. Yikes. (No offense to all my friends in those offices).

Some thought needs to go into New York’s stiffer voting rules compared to other states. Many states in the Union have more convenient absentee voting rules and gives the electorate the ability before election day to cast their ballots through early voting. Giving people more flexibility to vote with today’s more demanding work and home environments should be studied further outlining its pro’s and con’s for such a reform.

What out of the box ideas can “electrify” the electorate to fill in a circle on their paper ballots for County Executive, Town Supervisor and local Legislator this year?

All the snazzy mail put out by these candidates won’t do the trick. Long Island’s media; Newsday, News12, TV55, the Long Island Press, the Patch and weeklies do an admirable job touting local elections, but we need a wider net to cast in more voter interest.

One idea in the true spirit of bi-partisanship is to have all the Presidential, U.S Senate and House candidates who are running in 2012 join together, along with the main stream media to promote a “vote local” initiative this fall urging everyone to vote in their local elections. At least then we’d have a new, high profile delivery method to bring more voters to the polls this year. Well call that idea very unlikely.

We then need to consider a wide-spread “calling of the guard” for Long Island based stake holders and media to join together to create our own non partisan “vote local in 2011” initiative. We have many groups with substantial monetary and human capital where through the use of PSA type outreach can connect with every Long Islander multiple times with an important, yet simple, education campaign on why it is important to vote in your local elections. If groups like the Long Island Association, HIA, Execuleaders, Melville Chamber, Hispanic Chamber, ABLI, Long Island Angels, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, our higher educational institutions such as Hofstra and Dowling along with our many trade unions pooled resources for a “vote Long Island” campaign, the message would certainly drive voter participation higher in local election years, including 2011.

Unfortunately the Sonic debates, the chants to keep the Islanders here and the potential for winning the slots at a local casino won’t be enough to drive out presidential year voters en masse this November. But hopefully Long Island pulling together can far eclipse recent off year voter turnout by educating the public on why 2011 is just as important as 2012.

Avalon Bay Huntington: Brick and Martyr

On Tuesday of this week I participated in a panel discussion at Hofstra University on the subject of social media and its impact on real estate development. The premise sounded fairly innocuous and the invitation was extended to me by Gary Lewi of Rubenstein Associates, a man whom I admire greatly, and phrases things in such a way that you can actually feel yourself getting smarter as he speaks. Gary served as moderator for the discussion, and the room was a veritable “who’s who” in the real estate world on Long Island replete with names such as Blumenfeld, Breslin and Rechler.

As a graduate of Hofstra, a friend of Gary and an acquaintance of several people in attendance, this was sure to be a home game. I have also never met a microphone I didn’t get along famously with.

The subject matter, however, was anything but innocuous. My co-conspirators on the panel were serious professionals, and the audience of nearly 200 people was fully engaged. Everyone in that room had a stake in the future of Long Island development, and the stakes in this economy are high and rising. Though I had certainly prepared for the discussion, it occurred to me that I was probably the only one on the panel without a Facebook page, LinkedIn profile or Twitter account. To make matters worse, my real estate experience isn’t much to brag about unless you count the home my wife and I purchased at the height of the market. Somehow, I don’t think my peak residential investment in Glen Cove was going to impress the likes of Wilbur Breslin.

Seated next to me was Adam Isserlis, the director of digital media for Rubenstein and a colleague of Gary’s. Adam is exceedingly bright and well-spoken, leading me to frequently make the “I wholeheartedly concur” face, accompanied by the patented “that’s what I was going to say” nod.  Each of the panelists had unique insights into the issue of NIMBYism on Long Island and how social media amplifies the cries of “no” and “never,” giving additional heft to anti-development activists.

From the outset it was clear that the failed Avalon Bay project in Huntington Station had become the official “smart growth” martyr, and we panelists were presenting to a well-heeled lynch mob looking for someone to hang. More than the Lighthouse project, Pilgrim State, or (insert idea here) in Calverton, the fall of Avalon has stung this community in a way I wasn’t fully prepared for.

Predictably, the prevailing sentiment in this room was that the elected officials in Huntington buckled under pressure from local NIMBY activists who were highly organized online and brandished social media and anonymous posts on local media sites as weapons of micro-destruction. Familiar calls for fewer layers of government and greater political courage were sprinkled throughout the discussion, but the prevailing sentiment was that social media was the dangerous new tipping point in the fight against development.

This was a rich discussion that only scratched the surface of the myriad issues that plague the Island. You’ve heard them all before: Creating transit-oriented development requires changes to zoning that affect residents in an area targeted for re-development. Building affordable housing units with any significant density might require expensive upgrades to the sewage treatment infrastructure. More housing could mean more families, which increases the number of children in a school district and school taxes as a result. Vertical development is an aesthetic affront to those who migrated from urban communities for the promise of trees, lawns, and privacy. Open space is limited and cherished. These are only some of the focal points of the debate over development on Long Island.

The upshot of the forum was that social media is indeed a significant part of the mix, but it is not a panacea for either side of the development divide. Because the discussion was lively and lasted more than two hours, it is impossible to encapsulate in this column. Besides, the real meaty discussions typically happen after the fact as people are more comfortable talking about white elephants when the microphone is off and guests are filing out. It was during this time that more than one person commented to me that the real problem with Long Island was the prohibitive zoning and that developers in other parts of the country often built first then applied for permits later.

Is our zoning infrastructure burdensome and confusing? Sure. More often than not, applying for a permit makes you feel like you’re being punished for doing the right thing. It’s a maddening process. Are there too many fees, hidden taxes and hurdles impeding our ability to create meaningful “smart growth” communities? Of course. Is it bizarre/troubling/ridiculous (I could go on) that Nassau County Fire Marshalls carry firearms? Don’t get me started. Was the death of Avalon Bay’s Huntington project a shame? Personally, I think it was. Did the political leadership in Huntington Town demonstrate a higher than normal level of cowardice by acquiescing to a small, vocal minority? Again, I believe so.

But none of that excuses a culture of asking forgiveness instead of permission.  We’re three million people sandwiched on a thin strip of land buttressed by water. For the landlocked, it’s called an island. It might be okay to take certain liberties in parts of the world with wide open spaces (Alaska, Texas, Siberia), but when you’re living in close quarters there are going to be more parameters than usual. And something like erecting a building will entail a few more regulations than plunking down a big box store in the middle of the desert. You don’t have to be the mayor of anywhere on FourSquare to know that. Even Facebook requires permission to see someone’s profile. Or so I’m told.

For more on the demise of Avalon Bay, check out the Press cover story penned by colleague Spencer Rumsey:

http://www.longislandpress.com/2010/10/07/the-new-battle-over-affordable-housing-on-long-island/

Shinnecock Casino At Nassau Coliseum

Shinnecock will have many chefs in their kitchen (I’m resisting the “too many chiefs” reference) as they try to establish a casino in any state that begins with “New” and ends in “York.” Look no further than the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the six Off Track Betting regions in New York State, none of which turn a profit.

Lighthouse Project Canal
View of the Lighthouse Project and Tall Ships Manned By Little People

The Shinnecock Nation is set to finally receive federal recognition. This status gives the tribe the ability to apply for a Class III gaming license, which would allow it to operate a full-fledged, high-stakes gaming facility. The biggest question is, where? Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano would like the ball to stop on his number on the roulette wheel and he has tens of millions of reasons for it.

As this column often serves as a bully pulpit for Indian rights, I will spare you all the reasons why “federal recognition” is such a sham and why the Shinnecock Nation should be able to build a 100-story casino in Southampton. Instead, allow me to explain why this is such a good idea for Long Island.

Indian casinos do not guarantee prosperity for the tribe in possession of the license or the community surrounding it. But an Indian casino based in the heart of one of the most populated regions in the nation does. A casino at the Nassau Coliseum site would be the single largest gambling facility in the nation. It is simple math. The Nassau “Hub” would finally be realized with an infusion of public and private money, fast-tracking infrastructure spending that would make Robert Moses blush.

This casino would serve as the nucleus for a burgeoning entertainment epicenter. All of the commercial, retail and residential “new suburbia” dreams would become reality as developers flock to construct a supporting economy within the glow of the Lighthouse Project. This presupposes that a deal could be reached with the Rechler/Wang power duo.

This project would have a negligible impact on traffic in the area to quiet the NIMBYists by funding a total overhaul of the public transportation network. A light rail system connecting the Casino to the Hempstead train station and Roosevelt Field? You got it. Widened roads with greater access to the Hub? Not a problem. Twenty-story complexes to house industry and residents surrounding the complex? Why not 30?

Of course, there are those who will fight tooth and nail against a casino on Long Island because of the filthy underbelly it represents. For many, casinos conjure up images of mafia hoods, prostitutes and bootlegging. Never mind that you can gamble in dozens of OTBs, buy lottery tickets on every corner, find a hooker making the rounds in industrial parks, or get a happy ending at any number of corner massage parlors. The moment a high-priced call girl takes up residence on a casino barstool looking for an out-of-town businessman with a leisure suit and a name badge, our puritan alarm sounds and the torches and pitchforks come out.

But let’s assume for a moment that Kate Murray of Hempstead, Ed Mangano of Nassau, Randy King of Shinnecock, and Charles Wang of everything else, are all in agreement that this plan should move past both the drawing board and the planning board. Then assume that the residents, community groups and environmentalists join hands and sing the praises of this proposal. Then assume the Islanders win the Stanley Cup. (OK, that was one step too far.) Even with all of these obstacles cleared, the single biggest one might surprise you: the gaming industry itself.

Technically, there is nothing that restricts sovereign Indian nations from building casinos on Indian land. Nothing, that is, but for the bigger sovereign known as the United States. Gambling operations existed on tribal land well before the U.S. government established the rules of engagement under Ronald Reagan with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988. Even still there is theoretically nothing that would prevent a tribe from ignoring this Act (it’s a unilateral law, not a treaty) and opening a casino. It’s the gaming industry that operates within U.S. territory that provides the insurance policy against any casinos not blessed by the United States. The U.S. government would run any gaming manufacturer out of the country if it dared sell or license technology and support to a non-licensed operator that didn’t have U.S. approval. This is enough to dissuade any gaming company from doing business with tribes without an agreement in place with federal, state and local governments, which leads to the next issue…

Shinnecock will have many chefs in their kitchen (I’m resisting the “too many chiefs” reference) as they try to establish a casino in any state that begins with “New” and ends in “York.” Look no further than the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and the six Off Track Betting regions in New York State, none of which turn a profit. NYRA only recently emerged bankruptcy but is still bleeding cash, New York City OTB just went into bankruptcy, and horse racing in New York is in danger of extinction as a result. This is due more to the financial mandates of the state than it is to the decline in betting revenues. New York State is in such dire financial straits that it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Albany acquiesces to the desire of the Nassau Republicans to revitalize their hopes for the Hub. Add to the mix that Sheldon Silver, hands down the most powerful politician in the state, detests gambling and you have a recipe for failure.

But the most powerful foe in this process won’t be the most immediate one. The “powers that be” with interests in Las Vegas simply cannot afford to allow a casino so close to New York City. Atlantic City might as well disappear completely. One can point to the success of the casinos operated by the Oneida and Seneca Nations located in upstate New York, not to mention Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, to understand that the closer to New York City you place a casino, the more successful it is. Then track the number of flights from the tri-state area with Vegas as the final destination and consider how important this market really is. A large-scale, sophisticated Class III gaming facility 40 minutes from New York City by train and in the center of Long Island is death for all the others. The politicians in New York City will be damned if they lose one reverse-commuting thrill seeker, the politicians upstate can’t afford the potential revenue and job losses and New Jersey, well, to hell with Jersey. 

By going public with his discussions with Shinnecock, Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano is about to come face to face with the biggest challenge of his young administration. It’s no secret that the prior administration handed him a giant sack of financial meatballs and this could be the single most significant game-changing move. How he maneuvers through this process will either establish a new gilded age for Nassau County or set the stage for a calamitous one-term footnote in Long Island government history. Either way it will test the mettle of the dream team from Bethpage and set the tone for the next three and a half years in Nassau County.

The Heavy House Part III: Return of the Jed, I

lukeskywalkerThis is the final installment of my “Heavy House” column series covering the Lighthouse Project, but only the beginning of our coverage in the Press. A column allows the creative freedom to express opinions about this or any subject, but our news coverage will provide greater insight into the progress of what may or may not be a turning point in the future of development on Long Island.

For the moment, acrimony between the various stakeholders of this project is taking center stage. While I relish the role of armchair warrior because of the clarity it provides, it is also an uncomfortable seat when you see smart people who can’t seem to get out of their own way. I’m talking about the people so close to this project that it appears they can’t see the forest through the trees. County Executive Tom Suozzi has grand visions for a new suburbia. Charles Wang has the land, assets and means to make significant strides toward smart growth. Scott Rechler has the experience and ability to re-imagine our community. Kate Murray has the tools and political support to move mountains in the Town of Hempstead. And Long Islanders have the need to move toward a more intelligent future. In short, we all want the same thing.

When Robert Moses planned our little slice of heaven he did so with all the resources and facts that were available to him. One can easily argue that his motives were provincial and at times even racist, but no one can dispute his legacy of exerting unprecedented control over some of the largest public works projects in the United States. The challenge before us today is to re-plan the Island based upon dwindling natural resources and a crumbling infrastructure. This takes great vision. With that, I humbly (OK, obnoxiously) propose several guidelines as a launching pad for a new tomorrow with the Lighthouse Project as a proving ground.

Open space. Instead of a ballpark or other manicured garden areas, let nature exist, well, naturally. The brilliance of Frederick Olmstead’s Central Park design is that is was “created” as the Earth intended it to be. It wasn’t carved in pieces—it was enhanced. We have a tendency to pave over everything in sight and work diligently to recreate so-called natural landscapes that require an incredible amount of energy to maintain. It’s interesting to note that it was actually a young Robert Moses who revitalized Central Park in the 1930s after it had fallen into disrepair under siege from rampant vandalism.

Smart Growth. The basic theory of smart growth is to create an environment where people can live, work and play. I would add one more item to the list— harvest. Community growing areas are tantamount to the re-visioning process. Instead of putting in fountains and statues, set aside a couple of acres to harvest the land. Take Will Allen (www.growingpower.org) from Milwaukee who supplies locally grown produce to thousands of urban families from city-based gardens. Given our natural resources, can’t we do the same or better?

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). A building code is not a master plan. Long Island needs a plan that encourages pockets of development that are energy efficient or—best case scenario—energy independent. Instead of carping at developers for attempting to maximize profits through high-density designs, encourage them to do so. Want to build a six-story building? Current building codes essentially mandate basic LEED certification as it is. Want to build 10 stories? Build to the Gold LEED standard. Want 16 stories? Build to Platinum LEED standards. Want to add in commercial space and, oh I don’t know, a coliseum? Get serious about cleaning and recycling water to protect how our aquifers are recharged. It’s like creating the tangible version of carbon offsets. More than any other incentive—from low-cost bond issuances to PILOT programs—developers want density. The greater the density a developer seeks the more they should be required to build in a self-sufficient and sustainable manner.

There are scores of topics to be considered, with these three only scratching the surface. While this is the last Lighthouse installment in this particular column series, we intend to highlight many more of these types of initiatives. If you listen closely and eliminate the politics from this project you will realize that everyone wants the same thing: Safe, smart, efficient and environmentally sensitive development that will shape the way we interact with the land and help create a sense of community. Arguing against any of these principals would be silly. Unfortunately, everyone is so busy posturing and yelling that it appears the voice of reason is being drowned out.

There is one underlying theme to every single issue that surrounds the Lighthouse Project. That is the inescapable fact that Long Island has no master plan. Robert Moses can’t help us now and frankly he probably wouldn’t even know where to begin. For example, the last comprehensive study on our groundwater supply was the 208 Study in 1977. I was 4 years old. Our idea of development has been strip malls, single-family housing units and golf courses, which brings me back to the point of the first installment in this series: We need a new regional planning board.

This is about so much more than the Lighthouse; as the oldest suburb in the nation we will live and die by what happens next. No matter what, the other suburban areas in this nation will be watching and taking our lead. The only question is whether they will be following it or walking away from it. Either we come together to establish a sustainable plan for the future or sit by idly while the youth of Long Island continue to vote with their feet and leave us in droves.