Long Island’s Belmont Arena Plan Hatched Long Before RFP

Long Island Construction Law did not create this content about Long Island Construction Employment. This article was written by David Winzelberg, and was published to the Long Island Business News on January 22nd, 2020.

An Islanders arena as the cornerstone of a massive renovation was being planned for Belmont Park long before the state issued its request for redevelopment proposals for the property, according to just-released documents filed in State Supreme Court.

Emails between the head of the New York Racing Association, officials from Empire State Development and Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office sent in November 2016, revealed details of an updated master plan for the Elmont horse-racing venue that included an arena for the Islanders.

The emails and master plan show that an Islanders arena was planned at least eight months before ESD issued its July 2017 request for proposals for the site and a month before the agency’s first Belmont RFP, issued in October 2012, was scrapped.

The documents, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by the attorneys for the Village of Floral Park, were filed in State Supreme Court on Friday as part of the village’s Article 78 lawsuit challenging the under-construction $1.3 billion arena/hotel/retail project by New York Arena Partners and ESD’s process in approving the Belmont Arena plan.

The emails were sent in November 2016 by Chris Kay, who was then NYRA’s CEO, to Howard Zemsky, ESD’s former CEO and Thomas Conoscenti, an ESD vice president. Conoscenti also emailed Dani Lever, Cuomo’s director of communication and Adam Schuman, who was then serving as Cuomo’s special counsel for public integrity with the updated NYRA master plan that detailed the development of the Islanders arena.

As LIBN reported in Feb. 2018, Kay had several meetings with Islanders’ ownership in early 2016 to discuss building a new home for the hockey team at Belmont Park. Before those meetings, ESD officials had already entered into negotiations with the frontrunner for their first RFP, the New York Cosmos, who were pitching a $400 million, 25,000-seat soccer stadium, 250,000 square feet of retail space, nine restaurants and a 175-room hotel for 36 acres of Belmont’s under-utilized parking lots.

But ESD abandoned its first RFP in December 2016 and subsequently issued a second RFP in July 2017, which was responded to by New York Arena Partners, the NYCFC soccer team and Blumenfeld Development Group.

A NYCFC spokesman said that the club believes the state’s RFP process was fair. He added that they entered the process with a substantial partner with the intentions of winning the bid.

Ed Blumenfeld, BDG’s president, said he had no comment on the newly released documents in the Floral Park lawsuit, but added that “the entire real estate community will be watching with interest the eventual outcome of this legal proceeding.”

Attorney Ronald Rosenberg, of Rosenberg Calica & Birney, who has represented Long Island real estate development firms that had bid on the Belmont project, said the newly revealed documents make clear that the government never conducted the legally required open and competitive contest for the Belmont Arena Plan redevelopment and called the RFP process a sham.

“It was hot-wired before the start,” Rosenberg said. “It was never about merit, or how development could or should benefit the neighboring community but a deal made in a smoke-filled back room.”

However, ESD spokesman Jonathan Sterne said its 2017 Belmont RFP followed “an independent, competitive process” and that the Islanders’ arena proposal was chosen because it scored the highest of the three responses. He called the 2016 NYRA draft master plan “old news” and immaterial to the ongoing Belmont redevelopment.

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“This is nothing more than a Hail Mary attempt by the Village of Floral Park to kill a project that is creating thousands of jobs and generating billions of dollars in economic activity,” Sterne said via email. “As we’ve said before, development efforts at this site were languishing with no viable proposals on the table, and the new RFP was designed to attract the best possible range of proposals to redevelop this site. The winning proposal was selected because it scored the highest on the clear, straightforward criteria outlined in our process.”

NYRA officials also downplayed the 2016 Belmont Arena Plan, maintaining it was only a draft independently created by NYRA’s former CEO and never approved by its board of directors.

“NYRA is in the process of assessing various options for a potential project at Belmont Park,” Patrick McKenna, NYRA communications director said via email. “No final determinations have been made regarding the size, scope or timing of this potential project. However, that document is irrelevant to this ongoing analysis and has played absolutely no role in how the NYRA board or current management team envisions the future of thoroughbred racing at Belmont Park.”

As reported by LIBN last October, NYRA has hired Grimshaw Architects, a London-based global architecture firm to oversee the planning and design for the anticipated renovations at Belmont. According to a confidential request for proposals NYRA issued in Sept. 2018 and obtained by LIBN, the Belmont remake could include enclosing much of the 13,000-seat clubhouse and adding heating and cooling to make it suitable for all-season racing; adding 60,000 square feet of office space to prepare for a possible relocation of NYRA’s offices from Aqueduct; new infrastructure and outdoor lighting to facilitate future night racing, which would require approval from the state legislature.

The RFP for the potential Belmont reboot, which could cost as much as $500 million, also mentions new luxury suites, new dining areas and new simulcast and sports entertainment areas, which would provide “hospitality consistent with and superior to other Triple Crown facilities” and possibly space for sports betting once it becomes legal.

Despite the denial by ESD that the Islanders arena had been predetermined, Floral Park Mayor Dominick Longobardi said the new evidence backs up what the village has been saying all along.

“If the intentions of both NYRA and ESD was to have this massive development from the beginning, our contention is they should have included all of the communities for input to ensure that in no way, shape or form that the people who have made their homes here suffer any damage to their quality of life as a result of the development,” Longobardi said.

Meanwhile, Judge Roy Mahon is slated to make a decision in March on whether to grant the stay requested by Floral Park and its co-plaintiffs that would halt the Belmont arena construction.

View a PDF of the full 66 page draft plan here: https://www.scribd.com/document/443927747/NYRA-Draft-Plan-2016

John Caravella, Esq

John Caravella Esq., is a construction attorney and formerly practicing project architect at The Law Office of John Caravella, P.C., representing architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors, and owners in all phases of contract preparation, litigation, and arbitration across New York and Florida. He also serves as an arbitrator to the American Arbitration Association Construction Industry Panel. Mr. Caravella can be reached by email: John@LIConstructionLaw.com or (631) 608-1346.

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David Winzelberg covers real estate, development, land use, retailing, franchising and white-collar crime for Long Island Business News.

An award-winning journalist who spent 20 years writing about Long Island for The New York Times, David’s work has also appeared in The Atlantic magazine, Forbes.com and has been featured on CNBC’s “American Greed.” A former adjunct professor of journalism and former editor of a weekly community newspaper, David is a frequent panelist and moderator at area business events.

He can reached via email at dwinzelberg@libn.com or at (631) 913-4247.