The Death of Nassau Coliseum: A Harbinger of Suburban Decline?


Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum is one of the last remaining old time hockey rinks. But this will be the last year that the New York Islanders play there. The old barn has long been slated for replacement. It is an old building that requires expensive repairs. Many attempts were made to reach an agreement for a new arena with Nassau County. Sadly, the team’s new location will be at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn; on Long Island physically, but not a part of the island’s suburban tradition. The team will retain the name, but Long Island effectively is losing its team.

Suburban Decline, Urban Ascent?

Some observers, like Mark Byrnes in CityLab, see this shift as further evidence of suburban life and the elevation of the urban core.1 But instead it is another frustrating case of a small, highly visible not in my backyard (NIMBY) movement in suburbia on one hand, and, on the other, an unwanted development foisted upon urban residents without due process through eminent domain.

Two Arenas

The New York Islanders haven’t been very newsworthy for the last decade – save for their volatile ownership situation, but their transition from one of the National Hockey League’s oldest buildings in Long Island to a new building in Brooklyn has been a very public ordeal. It’s a story that involves local politicians thwarting construction of a new arena that would have cost taxpayers nothing, a failed referendum to finance an alternative proposal that would have required public funding, and ends with the Islanders moving out of Long Island into the controversial Barclay Centre. Even if the Barclay Centre proves to be a viable and enjoyable venue for the Islanders, it will forever remain one of the most disastrous developments in the history of professional sports.

The Old Barn

Nassau Coliseum is the second oldest active building in the National Hockey League. The arena was built on the site of decommissioned Army/Air force base Mitchell Field.2 Nassau County acquired the land in 1960, a year after closure. Nassau Coliseum officially opened on February 11, 1972.3 The cost of the project was $32 million ($179 million, adjusted for inflation).4 The Coliseum sits on 5 acres of a 77-acre plot in Uniondale, the rest of which is mainly surface parking.5

The site is intersected by two major roadways, and is across the street from Hofstra University and a golf course. It is right down the street from Levittown, the prototypical post-war American suburb. It is the type of place where one might assume that building large scale projects should be relatively simple.

The Lighthouse Project

In 2000, software billionaire Charles Wang bought the Islanders for $190 million.6  High end estimates suggest that Wang might have lost as much as $208 million between 2000 and 2009 on the team in large part due to   having one of the least favourable lease agreements in professional sports.7.8 “The need to refurbish the ageing building provided a perfect opportunity to put the team on a solid financial footing.

Wang proposed a plan to develop the area surrounding the arena. The Lighthouse Project was expected to take 8-10 years to complete at a cost of roughly $3.74 billion.9 The plan included a renovation of the Coliseum, a 60-story tower designed to look like a lighthouse, housing, athletic facilities, a new minor league baseball stadium, restaurants, and a new hotel.10 The transformation of the Coliseum would have entailed lowering the floor of the ice rink to accommodate additional seats, increasing capacity from 16,300 to 17,500 during hockey games, 18,500 for basketball games and 20,000 for concerts, while adding 50 luxury boxes.11

The proposal would also have brought a 125,000-square-foot athletic complex including two ice rinks (a practice rink for the Islanders, and another for the public), a basketball court, and a fitness club where the Islanders and the Arena Football League’s New York Dragons (also owned by Wang) would have trained.12

The project would also have included moderately priced housing, which is lacking in Long Island. Long Island County was also exploring enhanced public transportation to the future development, including bus rapid transit.13

Phase two of the project would have included a conference center, a sports technology building, residences, and the 60-story lighthouse (including a 500 room luxury hotel).14

Building a new arena on such a large parcel of land surrounded by sparse, low density development should have theoretically faced few obstacles, given that the owner was willing to finance the entire project. Unfortunately, the project drew the ire of some local residents. Robert Zafonte, president of the 3500 member East Meadow Civic and Community Association, had this to say:

''The high-rise disturbs me,'' he said. ''It seems to be totally out of character with the nature of the suburban area here. It is not consistent with what Long Island is all about – residential, small homes. I don't think it belongs here.15''

The Lighthouse Project was approved by the county in 2006, but stalled when Wang was unable to secure zoning approvals from the Town of Hempstead.16 Republican Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray, lobbied intensely by a small group of local residents, decided that the project would result in too much traffic.

Not in My Backyard

In an attempt to salvage the project, Charles Wang and the Lighthouse Development Group partnered with Rexcorp to create a scaled down version of the project. The most notable change was that the Lighthouse would now be 30 stories, rather than 60.17

But as Pearl M. Kamer, chief economist of the Long Island Association pointed out, “When you cut density on any project, you cut revenue.” He argued that under the proposal, scaled back to meet Murray’s demands, it would be difficult if not impossible to generate enough revenue to finance the project.18 This meant that the new proposal would likely require public funding, in contrast to the original proposal which would have been entirely privately funded.

Wang eventually reached an agreement with Nassau County to build a scaled down version of the Lighthouse Project, pending an August 2011 referendum. Since the stripped down project would have yielded less revenue than the original proposal, the project would only have been viable with $400 million in public financing.19 The funding would have necessitated a 4 percent property tax increase. Voters rejected the proposal by a 57-43 margin.20

The End of the Lighthouse Project

With the end of the Lighthouse Project, Wang entered into a 25 year lease with the Barclay Centre soon after. The Islanders will begin playing at the building in 201521, though they already played their first exhibition game at the arena on September 21st, 2013.

Losing the Islanders will result in significant economic losses to the county. Nassau County’s comptroller estimated that had last year’s NHL lockout lasted a full season, the county would have lost $62.2 million in economic activity, and the Nassau County treasury would have lost $1.1 million in  of ticket taxes, as well as a share of concessions and parking fees.22  Those are substantial loses for a county of less than 1.4 million residents.

While Charles Wang has frequently been blamed for the relocation, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman lays the blame squarely at the feet of local politicians.

"This is a situation that is not of the Islanders' making,” he said. “The responsibility for what's happened really lies with Nassau County and the Town of Hempstead. For the fans in Nassau, not just of the Islanders, but of circuses and rock concerts and the like, it's a shame.23

The Uncertain Future of the Coliseum

Though this seems like the end of the Nassau Coliseum saga, the future of the arena is still up for debate. Barclay Centre part-owner Bruce Ratner has proposed a $229 redevelopment plan for the arena. The project would include renovating the Coliseum, building restaurants, an ice rink, bowling alley, movie theater and other facilities.24  

The Ratner proposal faces many hurdles, including luring an American Hockey League (NHL farm team) club to replace the Islanders. The Islanders AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (also owned by Wang), could potentially move from Connecticut to fill that void. Additionally, the Islanders are still slated to play 6 home games (out of 41) per year at the Coliseum.25 One columnist at Forbes has speculated that Ratner, who would own both the Nassau Coliseum and part of the Barclay Centre, might well decide to keep the Islanders in Long Island after all if he can secure approval for the new project.26  

Imposing an Arena on Brooklyn

The Barclay Centre differs dramatically from the failed Lighthouse Project. The Barclay Centre was part of the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project built in run down commercial area of Brooklyn, despite local opposition. Mayor Bloomberg used eminent domain to seize the “blighted” land to allow for construction.

Brooklyn had been without a sports franchise since 1957, when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.  

The Barclay Centre was initially proposed in 2004 when real estate developer Bruce Ratner purchased the New Jersey Nets for $300 million. Ratner planned to move the franchise out of New Jersey and into the lucrative Brooklyn market. The project was initially projected to open in 2006.

The attempt to use eminent domain to seize the land was brought before the New York Supreme Court, delaying the process. The court eventually ruled in Ratner’s favour.

Ratner’s years of frustration with the project lead him to sell a majority share of the Nets to Russian businessman Mikhail Prokhorov for $200 million.

Due to construction delays, the Nets signed a deal to play in Newark at the Prudential Centre until the Barclay’s Centre was complete.

Construction of the $1 billion arena began in January of 2010. The Barclay’s Centre was open to the public on September 21, 2012. Just over a month later, the Islanders announced their agreement to play at the Barclay’s Centre.

The Barclay Compromise

The Barclay’s Centre wasn’t a bad solution to the stalemate in Nassau County. The arena is new, and Brooklyn is a lucrative sports market. The Long Island Railroad provides direct service to Atlantic Terminal, meaning it will be more convenient for many Long Island residents to access the Barclay’s Centre than Nassau Coliseum. However, the 15,813 seating capacity is far short of most modern NHL arenas, and many seats have partially obstructed views.

At the same time, the failed Lighthouse Project was a missed opportunity for Nassau County. The community still hasn’t rebounded to its 1970 population, which fell by 100,000 during the 1970s. Estimates suggest that the $4.4 billion of private investment into the Lighthouse project would have created 75,000 construction jobs and 19,000 permanent jobs thereafter.27 Moreover, it would have resulted in expanded public transit options on Long Island. Lawrence Levy, executive director of the National Centre for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in a 2009 interview described the project as “potentially a game-changer.”

Even ignoring the direct economic losses, the failure of the Lighthouse Project sent a clear message to businesses that Long Island will only accept investment on its own terms. The fallout is impossible to measure.

Wither Suburbia?

There is an ongoing dialogue between observers over whether suburbia is a “market outcome”, or whether it is an artificial creation of government policy. The truth is likely in the middle. Suburban communities are regulated, subsidized, and taxed in many different ways. Zoning restricts the ability to build corner stores and cafes in residential neighbourhoods. Wasteful road projects connect many uneconomic housing developments to cities. Land-use regulations drive up land prices, which are passed on to homebuyers. Suburbia is certainly a market outcome in the sense that decreased transportation costs, dispersed entertainment and communications options, and preferences for larger backyards mean that many people would happily pay the market cost of suburban housing. But its particular shape is not a market outcome. Neither, for that matter, is the shape of any geographical area.  

There are good reasons for regulating land-use. Separating factories that emit noxious odours from residential communities makes sense. The trouble is that land-use planning has gone from a health and safety measure to an economic tool. In Uniondale it was used to ensure that additional traffic didn’t impose costs on drivers, who would prefer not to bear the costs of congestion. In Brooklyn, it was used to ensure that developers and the municipal government could extract value from property that wasn’t on the market. The market outcome would have been allowing the Lighthouse Project to proceed, and the New Jersey Nets to remain in New Jersey (or perhaps to move to Uniondale). The Barclay’s Centre doesn’t represent a triumph of the city. It is the net result of contrasting political meddling in two different jurisdictions.

Perhaps There Are No Real Lessons Here

While we shouldn’t read too much into isolated incidents, there does seem to be an increasing propensity for suburban communities to prevent dense development – from the Bay Area to suburban Toronto –  and for cities to use eminent domain to ram through those same types of developments.  

This is a story about politics, not economics. And sometimes politics leads to some really bad outcomes. That may well be all there is to it. Either way, the Islanders will be moving to Brooklyn next year. Fans should enjoy the old barn while it lasts. It is the last of a dying breed.

Steve Lafleur is a public policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, an independent think tank based in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His primary research interests are housing and land use policies, transportation and infrastructure, criminal justice policy, immigration, inter-governmental fiscal relations, and municipal finances. His work has been featured in most Canadian newspapers including the Toronto Star and the National Post.