Belmont civic leaders question Empire State Development’s actions

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Local residents protested development of a sports venue at Belmont Park during a public hearing in December. The Belmont Park Community Coalition recently sent a letter to Empire State Devlopment Corp. requesting to meet to discuss the project. (Photo by Rebecca Klar)

Members of the Belmont Park Community Coalition are asking to meet with the Empire State Development Corp., saying that the group has learned about updates to the proposed Belmont Park development through the media, not the agency itself.

The coalition also raised questions about the environmental review of the project in a letter to Howard Zemsky, president and chief operating officer of Empire State Development, a state agency.

In December, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the New York Islanders would be returning to Nassau County. New York Arena Partners, a joint venture between Sterling Development and Oak View Group, plans to create an 18,000-seat arena, a multipurpose event center, a retail center and a hotel on 43 acres of state-owned land currently used for parking spaces at Belmont Park.

The proposal was in response to an Empire State Development Corp. request for a proposal. The Islanders beat out the New York City Football Club, partnered with the Related Companies, to build on the land.

New York Arena Partners is paying $2 million to AKRF, the environmental planning and engineering consulting firm chosen by the Empire State Development Corp. to conduct an environmental review.

The coalition wrote in the letter that this “appears to create a conflict of interest.”

“Newsday has reported that AKRF has been chosen to conduct the environmental review of the project because of AKRF’s involvement in the reviews for Barclays Center, Citi Field and Yankee Stadium,” the letter from the coalition states. “We are concerned by the frequency with which AKRF is chosen by ESD to conduct environmental reviews.”

The letter goes on to say that AKRF has been chosen to review other Empire State Development Corp. projects, including Atlantic Yards, Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Victoria Theater redevelopment.

Aubrey Phillips, an Elmont resident and vice president of the Parkhurst Civic Association, said the Empire State Development Corp. continues to find loopholes in the law.

“Regardless of whether this arrangement complies with the State Environmental Quality Review regulations … we believe such an arrangement precludes a truly independent assessment of the environmental impacts of the project,” the letter states.

Phillips said the question everyone should be asking is, “How could you pay someone to come up with an unbiased view of what’s happening in that area, if in fact you’re paying them and they will become the arbitrator of what’s being presented from that site?”

Phillips said the issues date back further in the process.

Phillips said that a committee is being formed by the Empire State Development Corp. with members of the community to have input, but said that should have happened before the request for proposal was submitted.

Although when exactly the committee should be formed isn’t explicitly laid out in the law, Phillips said, it is the intent of the law.

“As far as we are concerned the formation of this committee after the decision has been made is fundamentally flawed,” Phillips said. 

The coalition’s letter is not the first time the group voiced concerns to Empire State Development.

At a public hearing a few weeks before the final decision was made, members of the community protested the idea of an arena, saying they wanted development that would bring sustainable jobs.

In a statement, the Empire State Development Corp. said that “through numerous Community Listening Sessions, two site tours, an extensive interview process with respondents, briefings with the LIREDC and local elected officials, and review of over 470 received written comments, ESD has ensured robust community engagement every step of the way and is committed to continuing to do so.”

 

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