Last Belmont study public hearing meets LIRR demands from state officials

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Village of Floral Park Deputy Mayor Kevin Fitzgerald speaking at the public hearings. (Photo by Jed Hendrixson)

At the last of three public hearings on the redevelopment of Belmont Park hosted by Empire State Development, state officials pressed the issue of a full-time Long Island Rail Road station.

State Sens. Anna Kaplan and Leroy Comrie and state Assemblyman Ed Ra said last Thursday that their constituents were contacting them about the project, and they all addressed Empire State Development’s plans for a Belmont station.

“The redevelopment of Belmont Park has the potential to be a force for good in the community,” Kaplan said. It is critical that the voices of our community are heard through this process, she added.

“We need to see a realistic, comprehensive public transit plan that actually works and would alleviate the inevitable traffic that this project would generate,” Kaplan said.

Transportation issues have been prominent during the public hearings that began last Tuesday. Local elected officials and residents have expressed concern that the draft environmental impact study, or DEIS, does not properly mitigate what would be a large influx of traffic in an already congested portion of the Cross Island Parkway and surrounding neighborhoods.

The impact study was approved by the Empire State Development board in December and the hearings are part of the proposed General Project Plan.

The study found that there are unavoidable adverse impacts on the Cross Island Parkway, a major highway bordering the development, that cannot be mitigated, according to the development agency.

Highway segments on the parkway were analyzed northbound and southbound between the Southern State Parkway and Jamaica Avenue. Thirty-seven segments were studied, and it was determined that up to 88 different adverse impacts are likely during weekday morning and evening peak hours as well as Saturday mid-day, evening and night, according to the environmental study.

The parkway already operates at congested or near-congested capacity at peak hours and would be the designated route for approximately 85 percent of those visiting the proposed project, the environmental study states. Widening the parkway is neither practical nor feasible, according to the study.

Empire State Development plans to continue developing a transportation management plan “to influence the behavior of event-goers” involving staggering arrival times, carpooling and public transportation, among others to try and alleviate the strain that would be placed on the parkway.

Comrie, who represents several southeast Queens neighborhoods bordering Belmont in the 14th District, echoed Kaplan’s remarks.

“Any final project must include a full-service LIRR station with east and west access with a park and ride option that serves our public 365 days of the year,” Comrie said. The cost of the station should be borne by the project developer and not the public, he said.

Comrie is the new chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions.

Though most speakers were only allotted three minutes to voice their opinions at the hearings, Comrie’s microphone was not stripped after the buzzer rang, and he continued speaking for another two minutes.

“Any final project must also include a long overdue, significant expansion of the Cross Island Parkway to proactively deal with the traffic that is there now,” Comrie said. “That’s why I’m late, I took the Cross Island Parkway.”

Comrie said he was disappointed that the initial traffic study did not include the communities of Bellerose, Cambria Heights and Queens Village.

New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer has previously asked the city Department of Transportation to take a closer look at Empire State Development’s plans for redeveloping Belmont Park.

In a letter to Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, Stringer outlined the specifications of the project and in particular six intersections that are located in Queens that would experience negative impacts as a result of the development.

The project calls for construction of an 18,000-seat arena for the New York Islanders, 435,000 square feet of retail space, a 150-foot-tall hotel and use of several parking lots on the site.

Ra called the addition of a full-time station a critical point of the traffic mitigation of the project, and doubted the feasibility of the current plans for trains to and from hockey games on a daily basis.

“We should have this opportunity not pass us by to make this a full-time LIRR station,” Ra said.

“Development must be balanced, responsible and not harm the residents of a community,” New York City Councilman Barry Grodenchik added after Ra. Grodenchik represents the neighborhoods of the 23rd District, including Bellerose, Floral Park, Glen Oaks, New Hyde Park and Queens Village.

Drivers attempting to avoid the increased traffic congestion the project would bring to the Cross Island Parkway may begin driving through local neighborhoods, according to Grodenchik.

“It is incumbent upon the Empire State Development Corporation to work with the MTA to bring regular Long Island Rail Road service from points both east and west to the existing Belmont Park station,” he said. “We live in the Death Valley of mass transit out here in eastern Queens.”

Village of Floral Park Deputy Mayor Kevin Fitzgerald, who attended all of the public hearings as his village’s liaison to the Belmont redevelopment, delivered 676 letters of opposition of the project to Empire State Development, in addition to the 901 letters delivered by village resident Christy Reisig at last Tuesday’s hearing.

In the most passionate testimony of the evening, Elmont resident Michael Walker pleaded with ESD to reinvest in the community and provide local residents with their own means for engagement, like parks, pools, sports fields and senior centers.

“Me and my son have to go to different areas for him to do certain things,” Walker said. Walker’s son, 9-year-old Michael Walker Jr., received a standing ovation and loud cheers from the hundreds of people gathered Thursday night after his own remarks.

“I’m very proud to be able to speak somewhere where I can be acknowledged by people,” Walker Jr. said. “I feel like we’ve been speaking for too long and nothing is being brought into play.”

Though comments on transportation and congestion dominated the hearing, some speakers focused on labor concerns.

An affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, 32BJ, is the largest union of property service workers in the country, representing over 163,000 employees and is concentrated in the Northeast. Executive Board member Alfreda Simpkins is worried that no assessment of job quality for building service workers was include in the impact statement, she said.

“Before we authorize new development, and especially one of this magnitude, we should understand how it will affect the people who will operate it every day, and provide options to ensure that it upholds local wage standards,” Simpkins said. “If a goal of the project is to maximize economic growth and opportunity, it is only appropriate that the same goal should extend to the workers who make it run.”

“We need to see a commitment from the developers that they will be using union labor and providing job opportunities,” Kaplan said in her earlier remarks.

Before the hearings last week, Hempstead Town Supervisor Laura Gillen hosted a news conference with union officials, calling for job opportunities for local residents living around the project area.

According to Simpkins, the redevelopment could create approximately 400 property service jobs. A labor agreement has already been reached on the hotel site and Simpkins said she hopes that similar commitments to good jobs with strong benefits will be reached for all workers involved.

“This is an exciting time for all with the return of the Islanders to Long Island and we want to ensure that the Belmont Park redevelopment is a safe and welcoming space with high standards for all those working at the Belmont Park Arena and surrounding complex,” Simpkins said.

Thursday’s hearing concluded the public hearings phase for the draft impact statement.

 

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