Coliseum Casino: Let It Ride

It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

Foxwoods Casino. Oh no, this just wouldn't do. Too pretty for Long Island. Next!

There is a renewed hullaballoo surrounding the proposed Shinnecock casino at the current site of the Nassau Coliseum. A deserved hullaballoo, I might add. The very thought of a casino in the middle of our bustling, albeit struggling, suburban landscape inspires clamorous debate among the many stakeholders that exist in relatively tight quarters. Even lame duck Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy is quacking about building a casino at his beloved Yaphank facility claiming that it’s better suited further away from Nassau County residents.

Unfortunately, it will be a cold day in hell before Long Islanders in either county have a say in the matter. People you have never heard of in positions you didn’t know existed will never allow a casino to be built this close to New York City because it would potentially devastate the interests of the people they represent from upstate New York, Connecticut, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. I offer this, not to quell your enthusiasm but to issue a gauntlet of solidarity and self-determination: either we all get behind this, or we drop it from the start.

So let’s have a debate among ourselves. Long Islander to Long Islander. But allow me to establish some ground rules. First, take the emotion out of the ensuing discourse by recognizing that while there is no magic elixir to cure our financial illness on Long Island, Nassau County in particular, we must not allow ourselves to be constrained by classic NIMBYism. There’s nothing wrong with thinking big. Conversely, big thinking doesn’t always ensure positive outcomes. But the only journey that guarantees failure is one that never begins. Taxpayers can no longer afford pusillanimous behavior from elected officials who acquiesce to a vocal minority. (Yeah, I’m talking to you, Huntington! Oops. Getting emotional. My bad.)

Further, in order to have a proper discussion we must move past the question of legitimacy; that is, whether the tribe has the right to construct a casino on this parcel. For the purposes of examining the potential impact of this type of development, let us assume that it is within their right to strike an agreement with the government to build on this property. Lastly, the only other stipulation I entreat you to heed is to refrain from casting racially motivated aspersions toward members of the Shinnecock Nation. It detracts from the merit of the debate.

Here are my assertions. Let the debate begin.

If you build it they will come. A casino nestled within such a populous community has the potential of being the largest-grossing casino in the nation. Factor in the public transportation access to this area from New York City residents and this is an irrefutable fact. The impact upon the local economy would be seismic. According to a 2008 study published by the Taylor Policy Group of Sarasota, Fla., the estimated impact of the gaming and related industries of the Seneca Nation in western New York is $820 million annually. The study places this figure in context by stating that “the impact of the Nation exceeds that of the [Buffalo] Bills and the [Buffalo] Sabres combined and approaches that of the SUNY Buffalo campus.” This project would create thousands of sustained jobs and provide badly needed work for the local trades, generate healthy revenues to the Long Island Power Authority and local municipalities, and have an incredible halo effect on the travel, tourism and hospitality industry.

A casino would not create a seedy culture. This particular assertion is hotly debated. Casinos conjure up images of mafia hoods and prostitutes. Never mind that you can already 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 in a leisure suit with a name badge, our puritan alarm sounds and the torches and pitchforks come out. I’m not condoning the use of escort services, but merely pointing out our collective hypocrisy with respect to our view on what’s acceptable and where. Prohibiting this illegal indulgence is far more manageable than scouring Craigslist and cracking down on neighborhood massage parlors.

This actually is the best location for a casino. The modern casino is part of an extensive array of business and cultural services. They tend to be aesthetically pleasing (think Wynn, not Trump) and boost the viability of a convention center, sports complex and entertainment arena. If a gaming operation was paired with a family destination nearby (think Great Wolf Lodge), imagine the combined economic possibilities of family and business travel. I might also remind everyone that Roosevelt Raceway was a gigantic gambling facility. It amuses me to no end that we can build a refuse-burning facility with a Garden City address down the road, but a casino with a hotel, sports arena and convention center threaded by a coordinated transit hub that connects local retail and commerce is a non-starter.

This development would ease traffic. Yup. I said it. The amount of money generated by a full-fledged hotel, casino and convention operation with a family amusement center would fund the long-desired transportation hub between the railroad, Museum Row, and the local shopping destinations. It’s all right there; you just can’t get there from here at the moment.

The Islanders are worth fighting for. This team stood by Long Island for decades. Hell, they even looked pretty good at the end of this season and their prospects for next year are even better. This is our only professional sports franchise. Like I said, the Islanders are worth fighting for.

Hofstra would benefit greatly from this development. Hofstra University is emerging as the largest and most vocal detractor of this project. This is completely understandable given the fears gambling inspires. The two most salient points the University is making are that college kids shouldn’t have this type of access to a gambling establishment and that its proximity will have a deleterious effect on the school’s image from the perspective of parents considering sending their children to the school.

First of all, kids are gambling online and addicted to video games. This will be the addiction cross to bear for this generation. As for the perceptual aesthetic and moral issues of a peripheral gaming establishment, it’s hard to imagine the current “approach” to the University being any worse. I love the Hofstra campus but the immediate surroundings, including the dilapidated coliseum, leave much to be desired. Hofstra is a serious stakeholder that would and should be able to ask for the sun, moon and stars when the infrastructure is fully developed here. President Stuart Rabinowitz has done more to enhance the reputation of this institution, from which I proudly hold a degree, by hosting the Presidential debate, building a medical school and improving the overall academic standing of the school. Hofstra is already bigger than its environs and will continue to be so for decades to come, casino or no casino. Besides, you tell me which option sounds worse to a parent in Nebraska with a child considering a top-notch school in New York:

(A) Columbia University in Harlem,
(B) Fordham University in the Bronx, or
(C) Hofstra University on Long Island.

By now, I’m confident several of you vehemently disagree with these assertions. I welcome your commentsbelow and look forward to continuing the conversation.

With that, let the games (of chance) begin.

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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/