Rich Murdocco

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Cuomo Has Great Big Plans For New York But Actions Must Speak Louder Than His Words

A third track for the LIRR, a deepwater port for Shoreham, a refurbished Penn Station, a new Jacob Javits Convention Center, an international customs station at MacArthur Airport, and a serious study of putting a tunnel under the Sound to connect Long Island to Connecticut.

Apparently the Empire State’s policymakers have realized that Downstate New York needs more funding for things other than public education.

January has been a busy month for Gov. Andrew Cuomo—and it’s hardly halfway through. He gave his State of the State speech in Albany to highlight his ambitious $154.5 billion spending plan for 2016-17. Last week he went on a whirlwind tour that took him to Long Island as he hit all the right notes for local business groups, with countless men and women in suits applauding that the state government finally had a vision for our sagging infrastructure.

The relatively quiet Long Island Regional Planning Council sent out a celebratory email thanking Cuomo: “The LIRPC, as Long Island’s Chief Planner and one of the Region’s leading advocates, is outspoken in soliciting support from State and Federal leaders in addressing our Region’s needs. It is therefore appropriate that we salute the Governor and his leadership in addressing long-standing problems that adversely affect the Island’s sustainability. The LIRPC looks forward to continuing to work with the Governor, his administration and the State Legislature in helping to make Long Island strong, vibrant and livable for generations to come. Bravo, Governor Cuomo!”

The Long Island Clean Water Partnership implored their members: “Please take a moment to send a message to Governor Cuomo to thank him for his unprecedented investment in our environment and communities.”

Nancy Rauch Douzinas of The Rauch Foundation, which handles the annual Long Island Index project, expressed her encouragement: “This is a remarkable opportunity for the region and one on which we should capitalize.” Rauch went on to say: “Governor Cuomo’s vision is an exciting one that offers a dynamic future for Long Island. I urge Long Islanders to seize the momentum that his vision conveys and work together to achieve its extraordinary potential.”

Not to be a party pooper, but aren’t the tasks of investing in our infrastructure and protecting our environment some of the fundamental functions of government?  Especially if the transportation networks that  residents—and taxpayers—use daily are inadequate?

If Long Islanders are for some reason compelled to say “thanks” to policymakers for doing their jobs, it should be when these projects are completed.

Gov. Cuomo’s initiatives would amount to a hearty expenditure of money. Planning for the LIRR’s 9.8-mile third track along the Main Line in Nassau would cost $7 million, while the project itself is estimated to cost another $1 billion. A new Penn Station would run $3 billion, but Cuomo says that private bidders who profit from the retail options there would shoulder “nearly all” of the hearty price tag. Adding 1.2 million-square-feet to the Javits Center in Manhattan would require $1 billion. These large, bombastic proposals make spending $5 million to study the feasibility of a tunnel under the Sound seem paltry by comparison.  All of these big ideas carry hefty price tags. Although we can’t be curmudgeons and let cost impede our ability to think in transformative terms, the timing of these billion-dollar hits in rapid succession may be more than the economy can absorb. Pairing these charges with the exorbitant expense of overhauling La Guardia, factoring in potential cost overruns for the other MTA projects in the pipeline, as well as the sweeping programs intended elsewhere in the state, and the fiscal picture gets ever and ever murkier.

Our skepticism doesn’t mean that the project proposals aren’t exciting, but we cannot let our judgement be skewed because we are salivating over pretty renderings.  As exciting as these “new” reinvigorated proposals are, the reality is that much-needed projects already in the pipeline like East Side Access, the Second Avenue Subway and the LIRR’s double-track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma have been long delayed, and the capital funding to complete them are in jeopardy.

Although the third track for the LIRR is the most realistic proposal Cuomo has floated, other ideas, like the Sound tunnel, are essentially non-starters at this point in time. Despite this, few are questioning why New York State is spending $5 million dollars to explore a question that most know the answer to, and why Suffolk County is spending its own hard-earned and scarce dollars on asking the same question, which inevitably would lead to the same conclusion?

Considering the astronomical costs that these projects surely would carry, it is almost Quixotic to propose them without addressing a critical component of long-term regional planning: implementation.

We welcome big thinking. But doing so without properly addressing how to build or how to pay for them is the reason why so many of these projects have languished for so long.

All too often, critics use the concept of cost to torpedo any notion of big thinking. It’s an effective argument, but it usually is intended to stymie the exploration of ideas that could truly transform a region. In this instance, cost is not merely a go-to, knee-jerk reaction; it’s a legitimate concern.  State Sen. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), co-chair of the state Senate’s transportation committee, is skeptical that New York can afford the price tag of Cuomo’s big ideas.

“There is no doubt that we need a significant infrastructure investment here on Long Island,” Marcellino said this week. “The question is, are these ideas the best way to use these funds. Many of the proposals are not new and have, in fact, been around for quite some time.  The problems that have existed with these projects still exist and the solutions, to date, have not been sufficiently laid out.  There’s a multitude of questions that demand answers.  Logistics, property rights, traffic, community input, noise, parking and, of course, cost just to name a few.”

With so many projects in the pipeline, but few nearing completion, we should focus our regional efforts on amassing good will to build the LIRR’s third track, and the third track alone. This project has the most compelling reason for expediting it. It would eliminate a critical bottleneck for commuters and accentuate the effectiveness of the Farmingdale-Ronkonkoma double track as well as the East Side Access.  They’re both already underway. Giving Penn Station a makeover, on the other hand, has been a work in progress for decades. It could be a worthy investment in the long run, but it’s not as critical today as ensuring that the entire system is able to meet current and future demands.

Any policymaker or elected official can take to a stage and make promises. The exceptional ones are those who can get things done. Until these projects so crucial for Long Island’s economy are actually underway, let’s hold the applause.

(Photo: Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers “state of the state” address on Jan. 13, 2016. Photo courtesy New York State Governor’s Office/Flickr)

Caught Between MTA and Feds, Long Island on Fast Track to Nowhere

The federal government is proposing a multi-billion-dollar monumental expansion of the Northeast Corridor passenger rail line that, if realized, would run high-speed trains straight through the heart of Long Island.

Surprisingly, aside from a few well-connected insiders, most Long Islanders haven’t heard about this project, but they’ll get their first chance to express themselves at public hearing in Mineola on Jan. 12.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll get the turnout to hear what folks are thinking about the effort,” said Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, the Federal Railroad Administration’s Northeast Corridor Future Program manager.

Since 2012, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has been preparing a comprehensive plan for the Northeast Corridor (NEC) to improve service and resiliency of the much-travelled route between Boston and Washington, D.C. The goal is the creation of an investment program that will guide passenger rail service improvement projects through 2040.

The specifics can be found within the Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement. Additional information is at The Foggiest Idea, my online land use resource, which first broke the story in December on how the proposal could impact Long Island.

For us here, the proposal entails an all-new high speed rail network that stretches from Floral Park to the Village of Port Jefferson, where it travels 22 miles under the Long Island Sound via a tunnel to emerge in New Haven. Trains along the route might routinely reach speeds of nearly 160 mph, with stations placed at major existing transit hubs such as Ronkonkoma. According to the draft statement, “roughly 75 trains a day” would connect Ronkonkoma and Boston’s South Station through its proposed Alternative 3 route option.

The draft statement raises significant questions that extend far beyond the realm of “how are they going to build it?” The most disconcerting comes from the seemingly lackadaisical public input process. For the length of LI, a lone public hearing is scheduled at the Nassau County Municipal Building, 1550 Franklin Ave., next Tuesday.

Why are there public hearings set for Nassau County, New York City and other impacted areas, but not in Suffolk County, where a significant portion of this project is planned to be?

This isn’t to say that some local officials aren’t aware of the NEC Future project.

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano (left) and his counterpart in Suffolk, Steve Bellone (center), join Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a breakfast unveiling the governor's 2016 agenda.  (Photo credit: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)
Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano (left) and his counterpart in Suffolk, Steve Bellone (center), join Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a breakfast unveiling the governor’s 2016 agenda. (Photo credit: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)

Politically, this project is both ambitious and unrealistic. It strives to set the tone for a developmental approach that local governments could take in the next five, 10 to 20 years. But hardly any input is being solicited for the 1.5 million or so residents who would be affected. This omission is especially troubling, considering that the public is being brought into the fold now, even though the planning process began in 2012. Starting that year, meetings were held with various transportation and railroad agencies, including the Port Authority of NY and NJ, the MTA and LIRR.

In 2013, a meeting on the NEC future proposal was held with Nassau County’s Department of Public Works as well as with Suffolk County’s Department of Economic Development and Planning. Officials from both counties were briefed in September and October of 2014. Seemingly, these meetings outlined the project thoroughly, as the DEIS states: “Briefings on the program were also provided to Nassau and Suffolk Counties’ (New York) representatives to explain the program and discuss potential Long Island route options.”

In October 2014, an economic development workshop was held in Farmingdale to discuss the NEC Future proposal. As its agency reported: “Private developers, local planners, economic development professionals, and academic institutions were invited to the workshops to help understand the key factors that affect station area development, broader economic development, and barriers to development.”

Has anyone heard a peep from our two county executives about this high-speed rail plan? They’ve been briefed, supposedly, but not even a discouraging word has come from either Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone or Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, nor from their deputies or planning officials.

This week at the Crest Hollow County Club in Woodbury they delivered their “annual state of the counties report” to 800 people at the Long Island Association’s Executive Breakfast, but the big story was Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s announcement of his sweeping infrastructure plan for the Island that highlighted his support for a 9.8-mile third track for the LIRR’s main line in Nassau between Floral Park and Mineola—an idea that’s only been kicking around since 1988. Cuomo said he would ask the State Legislature to include $7 million in the 2016 state budget for a feasibility study. Ultimately the third track upgrade could run as much as $1.5 billion, but he said he’d commit the MTA’s next capital program to funding it.

Now, with the FRA’s ambitious plan for the Northeast Corridor coming down the line, what will happen to the MTA’s much-needed third track project? If Alternative 3, the option that uses Long Island as a viable option for increased rail service to New England, is selected, will the federal government utilize eminent domain to secure clearance on the new railway’s right-of-way? It certainly wouldn’t bode well for Stewart Avenue in Garden City, given what we know now.

Here’s another question: are our local policymakers within Suffolk County and the Towns of Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven aware that the federal government is looking to tie together the Island’s large-scale regional projects with a high-speed rail network?

When asked about the project, U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said in a statement, “Increasing long-term investments for passenger rail infrastructure is vital to the economic growth of New York and the entire region. I will continue to fight for increased federal funding to strengthen the Northeast Corridor’s critical infrastructure and improve the safety and efficiency of rail service.”

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority was mum on the plans.

“We have no comment on the NEC Future draft findings, which are still undergoing public scrutiny,” said Sal Arena, a spokesman for the MTA, which oversees the Long Island Rail Road. “The MTA has monitored the process from the beginning and will continue to do so going forward.”

Understandably, the MTA preferred to keep the focus on Cuomo’s plan for the LIRR, as he unveiled it at the event sponsored by the area’s largest business organization.

“Monies would be better spent to do the necessary studies for the LIRR’s Third Track,” said Kevin Law, president and chief executive officer of the Long Island Association. “The Third Track is real, albeit, it has been difficult to get off the ground. The NEC is a pie-in-the-sky alternative that will never happen, even if someone gives Long Island $100 billion or so to build it…. If you were starting Long Island from scratch, it could make sense, but not now.”

Planners agreed.

“The proposal makes no sense economically for the region, especially Nassau and Suffolk Counties, considering that we have more pressing priorities that have been around for the last half century that we haven’t been able to build,” observed Lee Koppelman, who served 28 years as the first Suffolk County Planner and 41 years as the regional planner for Nassau and Suffolk, and has been the executive director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. “Those examples include double tracking the North Shore LIRR branches, creating an extension of the central main LIRR line to Calverton in Riverhead, or finishing up the Second Ave Subway, which would tie into the East Side Access project. All of these pre-existing projects would all have economic positives that Long Island would benefit from.”

Koppelman raised an essential point that wasn’t addressed by Cuomo’s recent announcement at the Crest Hollow Country Club.

“The MTA is short roughly $20 billion in funding to meet the current needs of their infrastructure,” said Koppelman. “Where will the money come from?”

The master planner tried to look on the bright side.

“I am all in favor of the mantra ‘make no little plans,’” Koppelman said, “but there has to be some rationale, evidence of need for this type of large-scale project. In this example, this is merely top-of-the head type of scheming.”

Reached by CBS 2 News’s Carolyn Gusoff  for her on-air coverage of the NEC project, the LIA’s Kevin Law expressed his skepticism, whereas former Suffolk County Executive Pat Halpin, a Democrat, was optimistic.

“Of course, it’s feasible,” Halpin told Gusoff. “They do this all over Europe. The Chinese are doing it all through China, and there they have billions of people.”

But, as Gusoff discovered, most Long Islanders in the affected area had no idea this federal project was even in the works.

Alternative 3 isn’t the only avenue the NEC Future project could take. The other options include improving and maintaining the current corridor so that it is in a state-of-good repair, creating new NEC rail linkages in Connecticut, or, the most ambitious, building a new NEC “spine” that either cuts through Westchester County and eventually through Connecticut or an offshoot that cuts through the heart of Nassau and Suffolk counties.

According to Rebecca Reyes-Alicea, the FRA NEC Future Program manager, the costs range from $65 billion to $135 billion all the way up to $290 billion, but they’d be spread over time to make it less onerous. She told us that “the cost of doing nothing is so much greater,” explaining that all the current modes of transportation in the corridor, whether by rail, highway or air, are already at their capacity. What’s driving the federal effort, she stressed, are the number of choke points on the route now, plus the aging infrastructure—in some places more than a century old—and the region’s growing population.

“Long Island is such an important market in the Northeast but it doesn’t currently have inter-city service,” said Reyes-Alicea. “We want to connect cities by rail… It is a challenging concept to absorb [because] it’s looking out to 2040.”

Realistically, the NEC Future project faces enormous hurdles, thanks to the billions needed to build it, as well as the sizable expected pushback from residents and local elected officials up and down the corridor. For now, the main issue is the marked lack of input the public has had so far in the project’s promulgation.

Planning, especially at the regional level, must include stakeholders across all levels of government and expertise. A project of this magnitude affects states, counties and, on Long Island, myriad local village governments. Further, the environmental impacts to our region’s sole-source aquifer were mentioned only briefly in chapter 7.7 of the draft.

It is pretty damning that a project of this scale and breadth would not be mentioned once by any LI official during the various ribbon cuttings, groundbreakings or press conferences here.

Unfortunately, it seems that keeping the public in the dark about this proposal is the typical business of “planning” on the Island, and for the vested interests and stakeholders involved, business couldn’t be better. All aboard?

–with Spencer Rumsey

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Here’s A Big Idea For Long Island: Stop Thinking Small

Say what you want about Robert Moses, shown here looking at a New York City project, but at least he thought about our entire region as a whole. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Have you felt it? There has been an awakening in Long Island’s developmental zeitgeist.

Suddenly it seems that regional planning has become a popular idea.

It can be heard from the soapboxes of development advocacy groups, op-ed writers and policymakers who, up until a few short months ago, dismissed the concept of geographic cohesion as an academic exercise that gets in the way of “local” progress. But now these folks are seizing on it.

It’s funny how for so long the marketing of the “brain drain” illusion fueled so many policy recommendations on Long Island–and now it’s being pushed aside in favor of “flavor-of-the-day” regionalism.

Mere months ago, those in the “smart” growth camp argued that less restrictive local development is what’s needed to curb the supposed exodus of millennials from our region. The reality is that millennials aren’t so much leaving, but that our region is experiencing a birth dearth. In short, how can anybody flee a region if they weren’t born here in the first place? It is on this shaky demographic ground that these urbanists first built their approach to solving Long Island’s woes. Only now are they beginning to backtrack on that narrative.

The shift is so large that even Mayor Paul Pontieri of Patchogue, long considered the benchmark of downtown redevelopment efforts by developers and smart growth groups, is placing a six-month moratorium on all development. This is not surprising. The village rapidly built upwards of 700 apartments without really addressing the long-term impacts of such growth. Now they want time to absorb the surplus they have created.

The change in policy is readily apparent, with Suffolk County adopting the Regional Planning Alliance Program and other initiatives to encourage more coordination. As such, the “think local” commentators and advocacy groups are jumping ship to stay relevant within the new broader policymaking environment.

Despite the pendulum swinging towards a regional cohesion that will unify many of the larger real estate projects that are being proposed, don’t expect the transition to be easy.

The sad truth is that Long Island’s leadership isn’t really cut out for regional thought. The little fiefdoms of Nassau and Suffolk counties are fueled by the “me-first” mantra of local politics, as well as the hard-headedness of residents who refuse to alter the status quo. As such, regional planning policymaking has always faced an uphill struggle. In its absence, a fervent parochialism has taken over, bringing out the best, and the worst on the Island.

Economically, our region stagnates while aesthetically it thrives. Long Island’s middle-class neighborhoods are pristine, schools near-stellar, but our current system of “build now, worry about it later” is far from sustainable. We simply are not creating the fiscal growth necessary to maintain so many political and jurisdictional fiefdoms.

Thus far, the solution for many of these economic concerns has been a loose adherence to urbanist values, in other words: increased density, walkability and sustainability. All these values are well and good. But while developers and advocates give lip service to these valuable principles, they have done very little to put them into practice. In a Suffolk analysis of completed transit-oriented projects (located near Long Island Rail Road stations), roughly only 23 percent of residents in those developments used the train to commute to work.

Long Island’s history doesn’t make matters any easier. When one looks back, it’s easy to see why the regional planner became a pariah by self-proclaimed localists who espouse urbanist values, yet do little to grapple with the reality of LI’s auto-centric suburbia.

Robert Moses, New York’s master builder, has cast a long shadow over any cohesive effort on Long Island. Moses is often cast in the public’s mind as a planner of colossal proportions—and the mere mention of his name taints the entire notion of large-scale thought in the mind of new-age urbanists. In reality, Moses was a builder who did not particularly enjoy the company of planners, who tended to have a little more compassion for the communities that were in his way, but that doesn’t matter much these days. Just evoking his name is enough to conjure up images of government bureaucrats steamrolling their way across Long Island, and so the concept of large-scale planning gets unfairly slammed.

After the era of Moses, Suffolk actively worked to contain the rampant suburban sprawl, which one can argue was facilitated by his accomplishments. Following Suffolk’s lead, local town offices created their own planning departments, which varied in degrees of effectiveness. Some municipalities took the task of planning more seriously than others, and aside from Suffolk’s advances in open space protection, Moses was one of the last truly geographic unifiers Long Island has seen.

It is by rebuking Moses where the proponents of the hyperlocal movement found their strength. Cities in particular benefited from this Jane Jacobs-esque approach to policymaking. Thanks to her grassroots activism decades ago, irreplaceable Manhattan neighborhoods like SoHo and Little Italy have retained their character. Moses would have demolished them for his cross-town expressway. Published in 1961, Jane Jacobs’ seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which criticized contemporary urban planning policy, helped inspire a community-oriented revitalization that preserved much of what would have otherwise been lost during the road building boom.

On the other hand, suburban residents have benefited from Long Island’s local point of view since the first Europeans reached the shores of Shelter Island. By the 1920s, countless private developments incorporated as villages for the sole purpose of maintaining their character and exclusivity. Of course, the problem is that this policy left the Island with a disgraceful, racist, even anti-Semitic legacy. Until 1948, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on another case, Levittown had a clause in its standard lease that said each new home could not “be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”

Although the Island may still be one of the most segregated suburbs in the country, in more recent times local villages have experienced a renaissance of sorts. Developers have found the boundaries of Long Island’s villages easier environments to conduct business within, and thanks to advocacy and lobbying from groups like Vision Long Island, the transit-oriented philosophy caught on across Nassau and Suffolk counties. In what many would call a region inhospitable to big developments, this ability to ramp up density downtown in certain villages was a major accomplishment.

It is in this environment, with this history, that fervent localism is fostered at the expense of thinking broader and acting bolder.

As much as regional policymaking can be domineering in its execution thanks to the specter of Moses and his liberal use of eminent domain, local policymaking suffers from shortsightedness. Aside from municipal services, special districts and hundreds of school districts that are as redundant as they are costly, these multiple layers of government effectively block the large-scale, big-picture thinking that is needed in order to adequately address Long Island’s economic and environmental problems. Our water quality continues to be polluted, our transportation networks no longer meet our 21st century needs, and our idea of promoting economic growth is opening another big-box retail store.

In the end, it’s not so important whether growth is local or regional. All that matters is that it responds to community needs, and is based upon data-backed analysis. Unfortunately, only those who stand to gain the most from additional development are steering the conversation about Long Island’s future. In the New Year, the goal should be not only to continue bridging the gap between local and regional approaches, but to solicit more input from the people who matter the most: the residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties. After all, it’s their future we’re supposed to be talking about.

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

The Trouble with Thinking Regionally Comes When It’s Time to Act

Route 110 Bus Rapid Transit
An artist's rendering of the Route 110 Bus Rapid Transit. (Photo credit: Parsons Brinckerhoff’s)

“Think regionally.”

An easy concept to grasp, but for Long Island, exceedingly difficult words to act upon.

After decades’ worth of patchwork development strategies, the pendulum seems to be swinging back toward regional thought.

First there was Suffolk County’s approval in July of their new Comprehensive Plan, an action followed last week by the County legislature approving the creation of a Regional Planning Alliance Program.

These are substantive developments, but the question remains: When regional planning is conducted on Long Island, is it genuine?

Not exactly. The Regional Planning Alliance Program is an achievement, but at the same time it is potentially a tool that can be used to undermine data-driven planning efforts.

Over the last year, the philosophical shift to regionalism has been brought about by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who has championed massive-scale projects and bus-rapid transit, a proposal that Long Islanders aren’t exactly clamoring for. His intent is to bring about regional cohesion, going so far to forge regional alliances between Islip and Brookhaven.

It is one thing to create an alliance between two townships that share a border, but another to bring together municipalities across the span of Long Island. Sometimes it seems as if Bellone is planning not to accommodate the future needs of the county, but rather to please New Age urbanists and developers.

For example, his idea for the Route 110 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system looks good in a trendy presentation but it may have little practical value, considering it doesn’t do much to actually sync up where Long Islanders work and travel. Is there demand to go between Stony Brook University and Patchogue by bus? How many people are clamoring to go between the SUNY campus and Patchogue Village? And what about those who live north and south of the Route 110 Corridor? Do residents of Amityville and Huntington actually work in Melville, the proposed service area of Bellone’s BRT?

Despite the legitimate questions this approach raises—seven out of 10 town supervisors in Suffolk reportedly opposed the measure out of concern that the county was infringing on their zoning authority—the bill still passed. The County Legislature is following the same regional theme of quasi-cohesion. The Regional Planning Alliance Program seeks to, as Long Island Business News’ David Winzelberg wrote, “incentivize multi-governmental collaboration on developments that affect a wider area than the town or village in which it’s located.” The reason for the strong opposition? The bill requires the towns’ participation in the program in order for projects to be eligible for “designated county resources.”

The Towns, including Islip and Brookhaven which are working together on the Ronkonkoma Hub project, say that the County is infringing upon their local right to control zoning. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, a level-headed veteran policymaker, said he “opposes this legislation as an infringement on its zoning and land use powers and the county’s intention to withhold viable funding…unless the town permits the county oversight…is wholly inappropriate.”

Their pushback isn’t exactly surprising. Towns on Long Island do not take too kindly to other levels of government coming in and telling them what they have to do. This program is no exception.

The county claims the measure is merely offering “assistance” to save the towns both time and money for large projects, while providing a newly established list of consultants who would be pre-approved by the County Department of Public Works.

The pressing concern isn’t so much about the sovereignty of Suffolk’s 10 townships as it is about the role for the residents. Is this newly crafted program a mechanism that is designed just to expedite the development process? There is a huge need for inter-municipal cooperation, but should the goal be making the development process easier for builders or smarter for the community?

If you ask the Long Island Builders Institute, or the developers themselves, they’d say that the red tape is too costly, Long Island is a horrible place to build, and not worth their time and money. Ask Bellone, with his grand visions of projects tied together by mass transit, and he would agree. After all, there is a brain drain to plug.

Environmentalists would give a resounding no. Developers already get density increases in zoning decisions, they’re allowed to play fast and loose with zoning variances in their development proposals, and they are so politically connected that they can push their projects along and ride roughshod over significant environmental concerns.

Here’s the truth. Both sides are right—and wrong.

For Long Island to improve its long-term prospects, the townships must not fear this new regional alliance but embrace the notion of increased communication between towns and county government about important projects. The public should accept the reality that our region has problems that require regional solutions and not fight every idea tooth and nail. They have to see beyond their backyard fence.

But policymakers cannot allow this new alliance to merely exist as a tool for developers. There is a reason why mega-projects like Jerry Wolkoff’s Heartland Town Square have resided in planning purgatory for so long. Many of them just aren’t that good, despite the hype, and they don’t address our region’s true needs.

While well-intentioned, the new regional alliance proposal lacked specific details to assuage all concerns. As an editorial by the Riverhead Times-Review put it, one legislator went so far as to say during the vote that “something stinks.” Something just doesn’t seem quite right, especially considering that many of the town supervisors, and the public for that matter, did not find out about the measure until the last minute. For an alliance that seeks to aid the planning process, which is fueled by data and driven by the public and stakeholders, this marked lack of transparency isn’t a good start.

More troubling is the bill’s supporters’ insistence that projects need speedier approvals. As reported by the Long Island Press, “Proponents urged the Legislature to pass the bill as soon as possible to accelerate a billion dollars’ worth of projects already approved but awaiting funds to start work.” All too often, when the word “accelerate” is associated with development, the end result is higher density urban sprawl that the region is unprepared for—and can’t sustain environmentally.

Politics and special interests cannot continue to mire the process.

If anything, this regional alliance is the opportunity to take a step back, and honestly look at Long Island, assess our regional needs objectively, and implement workable solutions on the local level. Regional planning isn’t about heavy-handed mandates from the mountaintop, but rather, thoughtful, detached analysis that has a beneficial community impact.

Our problems do not stop at the town line or the county border. It’s time we stopped acting like they did. But while we’re talking about the big picture, let’s not give the Island away to the development lobby while we look the other way.

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Long Island Suffers When Nassau and Suffolk Can’t Get Their Act Together

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. (Photo credit: Suffolk County Executive's office)

Up until last week’s piece on the Nassau Coliseum, the focus of my work for the Long Island Press has been mostly a critical look at recent planning efforts undertaken by Suffolk County. Notable examples include my analysis of the flawed Connect Long Island plan, criticisms concerning the Suffolk County’s lackluster water protection planning efforts, and my take on the recent “regional planning alliance” that was formed to shepherd through the Ronkonkoma Hub.

The focus on Suffolk is intentional – simply put, Suffolk County is where the urban planning action (if it can be called that) is on Long Island. With roughly 46,000 acres of vacant open space left, multiple opportunities for redevelopment, and room for expansion, Suffolk is where any meaningful development policies can still be enacted on Long Island. Suffolk County’s policymakers routinely discuss land use issues. In Nassau, they toss tax breaks at political insiders while praying for the best. Even worse is that planning is needed just as much in Nassau as it is in Suffolk. Nassau is a stagnant county, and even worse off in regards to regional planning. Simply put, there is no body of work to build future strategies upon.

Suffolk has a rich legacy of planning efforts that over the course of recent administrations has become watered-down and special-interest driven, which is a disservice to the process itself. Good policies have been enacted, continued and expanded, but others leave room for improvement. And that is why I write about these important issues in the first place.

Late last week, Suffolk released the latest iteration of its “Comprehensive Master Plan.” Entitled Framework for the Future, this document lays out the county’s growth strategies through 2035. Interestingly enough, Suffolk already produced such a plan in 2011, and the Long Island Regional Planning Council studied Sustainable Strategies for Long Island 2035 in 2010. Both documents are detailed and lengthy (the LIRPC plan is around 230 pages), making the 76-page document just released by Suffolk seem quaint by comparison.

Compared to the other efforts, the new report reads like a series of disjointed press releases from the Suffolk County Executive’s office. Essentially it is the same series of solutions that are pushed routinely. A true inventory that quantifies regional needs is missing. Where is a detailed housing analysis, data-backed commercial and industrial analysis, transportation assessment or the like? In the past, the county’s housing studies alone were 120 pages. In total, the latest plan, minus the introductions and the platitudes, has a mere 48 pages of written analysis. Quality vs. quantity is not the argument here because much of what is presented is clearly recycled content from the administration’s previous press releases, statements and Suffolk County reports. The previous studies were lengthy and dense – each page filled with facts, figures and recommendations.

By itself, the latest version is not a bad document. The data included in it covers several years as it should. Arguably, the 2011 plan did all of the groundwork already, but what is troubling is that the current document released by the Steve Bellone administration makes no reference to any of the previous 2035 plans, even in passing. There has to be a better way to bring cohesion to these efforts.

And they must go beyond photo ops and luncheon appearances featuring smiling county executives. At least, Suffolk provides a fertile ground for policy debate, creation and incubation. Not so west of Route 110. Recently, Nassau’s comptroller of all people had to take the reins to bring about a much needed discussion of the county’s future, hosting a series of public hearings and even going so far as to write a strategic plan in regards to retaining LI’s millennial generation. Time is running out for Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano and Suffolk County Executive Bellone to make a coordinated meaningful difference in meeting the Island’s ever-pressing needs.

Our woes don’t respect the county line, and we have to stop planning at the regional level like they do.

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s veteran master planner. Murdocco is a regular contributor to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Despite Hype, Nassau Coliseum a Monument to Poor Planning

Here's a rendering of what Forest City Ratner’s redeveloped--and scaled down-- Nassau Coliseum would look like.

Could change finally be coming to one of Nassau’s most underutilized sites: the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and the 77-acre sea of asphalt that surrounds it?

It’s certainly long overdue, but don’t hold your breath because you never know what will happen on Long Island until the shovels are in the ground.

Recently, Forest City Ratner, the site’s Brooklyn-based developer, announced that it plans to spend $261 million (partly backed by foreign investors) on building a new, downscaled 13,000-seat arena, as well as a 1,500-seat movie theater, restaurants and various retail venues.

With more than 600,000 square feet of development being proposed for the coliseum location, a majority of which is the arena itself, the current proposal is “a pittance,” as Newsday pointed out, compared to what the Town of Hempstead allows under its recently changed as-of-right zoning. Nevertheless, Hempstead town officials approved the master plan May 26.

Will Bruce Ratner, the man behind Forest City Ratner, be the savior of Nassau County, or be yet another character in Nassau’s long-running narrative of hope and failure?

After all, he already owns the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which will become the new home of the New York Islanders’ hockey team, so it’s not clear how motivated he’ll be to replace them with a viable sports franchise. Whatever he does, Nassau will still own the coliseum. All Ratner has promised to do is reportedly pay the county 8 percent of gross revenue and 12.75 percent of parking revenue, with a minimum guaranteed payment of $4 million slated to increase 10 percent every five years during the 34-year lease.

The “Hempstead Hub” has been the scene of grand visions before, with the most recent being Isles owner Charles Wang’s Lighthouse Project. Unquestionably, his $3.8 billion scheme was grandiose when he first unveiled it in 2004. But, after bowing to pressure from the Town of Hempstead, he scaled it back significantly, calling for a renovated coliseum, two 36-story towers, a five-star hotel, a convention center, a sports complex, a residential community space for offices, retail businesses and restaurants, a movie theater, open space and a canal. A canal, mind you, in land-locked Uniondale! In total, Wang’s wonderland would have occupied more than 10 million square feet.

The Lighthouse was so immense because the county required that any proposal put forward must also cover the costs of overhauling the coliseum—a prohibitive provision that necessitated high density development to offset the expensive renovation. Compared to Wang’s idea, Forest City Ratner’s project looks boring, but it requires little to no public funds. Nor does it require a referendum like the failed proposition to have the county borrow $400 million, which Nassau voters resoundingly slapped down in August 2011 because they didn’t want taxpayers paying for the renovation.

And that is just what happened at the county level. When it comes to development, the Town of Hempstead is typically perceived as risk averse. Supervisor Kate Murray led the charge to rezone the Hub site to be more suburban in nature. Restrictions in density and a maximum 9-story height limit were put in place to curb any future proposals on the Lighthouse scale, preventing Wang-like levels of density but still allowing 5.4 million square feet to be built.

The prospective political leanings of the project’s future residents may have also impacted the Town’s decision making, some observers said. With its offering of new apartments and condominiums, The Lighthouse would draw more Democrats to live in this traditional Republican bastion, which didn’t help grease the wheels with the Township. Hearsay aside, the fears of density—a legitimate reason to shrink the project thanks to the Meadowbrook Parkway’s multiple choke points and no access to mass transit—killed the Lighthouse off for good. Simply put, starting with Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, Mineola made promises to Wang the county couldn’t possibly back. On Long Island, local towns have the police power over land use, not the county.

This is the environment in which the current plan for the site has thrived, so it’s not surprising it barely accounts for roughly 11 percent of what is presently allowed on the site thanks to zoning. Why is everyone so proud of such a relatively lackluster plan?

The answer lies in the broken expectations so endemic to Nassau County.

Unlike Suffolk, its more far-sighted neighbor, Nassau has a pretty dismal record when it comes to regional planning. All one has to do is examine the placement of subdivision after subdivision on what were once wetlands on Nassau’s South Shore, or try driving north/south on any main Nassau road to see that in one of the nation’s oldest suburbs, planning didn’t place high on the priority list.

To further complicate matters, Nassau is entangled in a complex web of multi-layered political jurisdictions that are corrupted by the corrosive influence of patronage and backdoor dealings.

All of this leads to a system that is fundamentally broken, which brings us to the new coliseum proposal.

Many policymakers see Ratner’s plan as an opportunity to inject life into the county. With a scaled-down venue slated for a limited run per season of NHL games with the Islanders and a better utilization of the large swaths of space around the venue, the project does have potential.

But potential and reality are separate concepts, and the latest chapter in the coliseum saga may not live up to the hype. Between Nassau’s chronic inability to get out of its own way, and the increasingly bitter legal infighting between Ratner and Syosset-based Blumenfeld Development Group, whom Forest City had brought on board to handle the retail component, the project is already going down the typical Nassau path of disagreement and disappointment.

If government in Nassau had less patronage, more transparency and a strong regional vision, the coliseum would’ve been renovated already, and the site’s vast asphalt acreage would’ve been put to a higher use. While Suffolk’s approach is at times flawed, at least Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has a vision, and is sticking to it. In Nassau, it’s hard to see what the vision is. Industrial Development Agency (IDA) tax breaks are attempted to be given to Costco so it can build a new facility in Oceanside because it’s supposed to be a “tourist destination”, unsightly billboards are pitched for the Long Island Expressway and LI’s only professional sports venue loses its principal tenant thanks to political gridlock – all while promises of a better county are constantly being made.

In the end, the real losers are Nassau residents, who pay the highest property taxes in the nation, and all they get for their money are layers of government that can barely do more than serve themselves.

Rich Murdocco writes about Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s veteran master planner. Murdocco will be contributing regularly to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.

Paranoid Planning Opponents Invoke UN’s Agenda 21 to Block Good Ideas for Growth

Wyandanch Village, an ambitious new transit-oriented housing development, rises up next to the Long Island Rail Road station, where it figures to be a factor in the blighted area's rebirth--not a beach head for UN domination.

In an age when local government can barely fix a pothole, some people insist on claiming that the United Nations is actually driving development policies across the globe in its diabolical desire to usher in a New World Order—and our region is right in their cross-hairs.

These conspiracy theorists point to Agenda 21, a UN initiative to build in an environmentally sustainable manner by conserving energy and concentrating density. They claim it has a very dark side that will strip us of our sovereignty, starting with our property rights.

Those are tough words indeed. But not only are those assertions wrong, they are irreversibly hurting the planning process—a legitimate undertaking that governs land use decisions at the most local of levels where environmental and economic problems hit closest to home.

This “conspiracy narrative” is a threat to sensible ideas like allowing a higher density of development in villages’ downtowns instead of increasing suburban sprawl; developing “walkable communities” that allow residents to satisfy their day-to-day needs by relying less on their cars to get around; and permitting more rental units in general while concentrating new development in the areas around the Long Island Rail Road stations.

Listen carefully during any presentation on sustainability, smart growth or walkability, and those wise to the Agenda 21 conspiracy are positive you’ll hear the undercurrent of policymakers parroting what the UN, their overlord masters, have instructed them to do and say, wittingly or not. Even Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has drawn criticism from this conspiracy crowd for his development proposals to revitalize Wyandanch, among other innovative proposals.

Newsday railed against the global conspiracy theorists in an editorial about “Agenda 21 paranoia,” dismissing them for posing obstacles to “a saner development pattern for Long Island” by invoking their “favorite evildoer of intrigue-lovers, the United Nations.”

The original plan to make sustainable development a priority emerged from a UN conference at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. But even today, as those who attend public meetings of town boards and zoning officials on LI know, the term is often cited to oppose “smart growth” and other planning proposals. In 2012 the Republican National Committee approved a resolution calling Agenda 21 “destructive and insidious,” a “radical” plan of “extreme environmentalism, social engineering and global political control.”

Conservative critics of Agenda 21 claim that enviro-nuts don’t respect your property rights, that the UN wants to seize your land and drive you, the hapless resident, into “compact prison-like cities,” where the sheeple bleat and march lockstep into the proverbial grinder. To these conspiracy theorists, planning is a myth—it’s just an excuse to do the UN’s bidding, while ignoring Thomas Jefferson’s calls from beyond the grave condemning our misguided country’s newfound love of socialized land use.

Is Agenda 21 really that evil and powerful? According to the American Planning Association’s Agenda 21: Myths and Facts, Agenda 21 is “not a legal document, and does not infringe on the sovereignty of any nation or the independence of the planning process.” Planning expert Andrew Whittemore in Citylab summed it up neatly: it is “a non-binding, 1992 United Nations action plan aimed at aiding world governments in pursuing sustainability.”

But, according to the conspiracists, the UN is pulling the development strings across the globe, even in Hauppauge and Mineola, Hempstead and Great Neck. Somehow, the UN—an organization that has to focus on global security, the proliferation of terrorism in the Middle East, the mass exodus of refugees, the complex politics of preventing thermonuclear war and making sure the world’s most fragile economies don’t collapse—is worried about the housing unit yield per acre of developments with names like Deer Brooke Pointe at Oak Hollow. These anti-Agenda 21 critics grossly overestimate the effectiveness of government, especially at the local level where land use is the principal police power.

All one has to do is look at the hundreds of failed proposals, lawsuits and resident protests when development is pitched even remotely near a residential subdivision to see that the UN is pretty bad at establishing a New World Order. Residents always need to be cautious regarding development, but attacking the urban planning process, which is driven by resident input and fueled by scientific data, is not only a fallacy, it debases all legitimate efforts for smarter development.

All too often, armchair philosophers and pseudo-real estate experts argue for unfettered growth, with little to no regard for the consequences. Many of these pundits conveniently forget that more often than not, zoning was put in place by the public in response to the unrestricted development standards of the past. In urban areas like New York City, light and air standards, Federal Acquisition Regulations and other requirements rose from oppressive construction efforts. When the builders and developers alone had their way, cities, and the neighborhoods within them, withered and died.

Who’s to blame for the rise of the Agenda 21 conspiracy and widespread fear of sustainability and smart growth? The planners themselves, the developers and the local governments that oversee land usage.

By communicating to constituents how development works in their municipality, local governments can head off the conspiracy theorists at the pass. By communicating why a parcel is zoned, why that zoning may or may not be antiquated, and why smart growth principles work near bus stops and train stations, prescient planners can take the wind from the Agenda 21 conspiracists’ sails. Lastly, developers should communicate why, exactly, they’re pitching more density—whether it’s due to changing market conditions, higher probability of financing or whatever else drives such decisions. While you can never get the politically extreme to bow to reason, you can influence those who just want to see their community become a better place to live.

Together, backed by data, studies and a professional, resident-sourced vision, we can foster what our region needs—an idea of not only how we can manage growth, but how to anticipate the Island’s needs 10, 20 and 30 years from now.

With streamlined, open and honest communication at every step of the way, development and preservation efforts will be more productive, easier to implement and more effective—and the Agenda 21 distraction can give way.

Rich Murdocco writes on Long Island’s land use and real estate development issues. He received his Master’s in Public Policy at Stony Brook University, where he studied regional planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s veteran master planner. Murdocco will be contributing regularly to the Long Island Press. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.