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The Islanders' Move: A Harbinger of Suburban Decline?

The Islanders' Move: A Harbinger of Suburban Decline?
Reuters

The NHL’s New York Islanders recently announced that they'll be moving to Brooklyn, playing in the new Barclay's Center starting in 2015. It may seem like a simple, 30-mile move from one arena to another. But really, it's just one more reminder that the mid-century suburb has peaked.

Critics are predicting that the move is the beginning of the end for the Nassau Coliseum, located in the planned suburb of Uniondale.  It’s now the second oldest arena in the NHL (the oldest, Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden, saw a sweeping renovation before last season). It’s also the second smallest NHL venue, with only Winnipeg (a franchise that sold out each of its home games last season) holding fewer seats. With changing times and few improvements, the Coliseum had long been seen as the biggest burden for the Islanders’ future, leading to frequent rumors of relocation.

But moving was not Plan A for Islanders owner Charles Wang, who realized that the Coliseum and its surroundings would require a facelift to stay viable. The arena and everything else around it (seas of surface parking and auto-centric roads) offered no extra incentive to attend a game (the Islanders have made the playoffs only four times since 1994).

The team proposed a project called The Lighthouse; a $3.75 billion project that would bring apartments, hotels, offices, restaurants, stores, an athletic complex, convention center, and a minor league baseball ballpark into one compact urban village.


An aerial image of the Nassau Colliseum and its surroundings. Image courtesy Google Maps

It was a particularly ambitious urban vision, 150 acres of land rezoned into a Planned Development district. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called it "a 21st economic engine for Nassau County and the entire region." Schumer imagined suburbs everywhere would be studying a completed Lighthouse project "to see what the future is when we’re talking about suburban development and continued suburban vitality."

Wang’s vision for the Lighthouse was to be entirely funded by private sources. But Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray opposed it, preferring a renovation of the Coliseum and little to no additional development. Murray eventually unveiled a re-zoning of the site that would permit building heights of no more than nine stories (squashing two proposed 30 plus-story towers) and limiting the amount of housing units to 500 (Wang’s proposal had over 2,000).

While the new plan was scaled down, Wang required a $400 million public subsidy to build it. Regardless, labor unions and tourism officials still saw the Lighthouse as something that would generate new tax revenues, paying off any initial public subsidy.

Unfortunately, it was voted down by Nassau County residents in the summer of 2011, with one voter telling the Associated Press at the time, "if it was so good why didn't the owner pay for it himself?"

The loss made the Islanders departure from Nassau County all but inevitable. And with the announcement of its move to Brooklyn, fans are realizing the end of an era not only for the team, but for what the team represented.

Dan Saraceni captures the symbolism of placing the Islanders to Nassau County in a recent article on Islanders blog, LighthouseHockey:

Forty years ago, Nassau County was given a gift. A professional sports team for suburbanites who chose to move their families out of the crowded boroughs and into Long Island's lawn-covered landscape. A unique and special place in post-War America had grown and advanced to the point where it was ready to compete economically with the urban center of New York.

The dream remained unrealized. Nassau County's economy is as dependent on New York City as ever.

Nassau Coliseum and its surroundings represent the physical values of a suburb rooted in mid-century principles; its commercial, residential, academic and entertainment facilities all comfortably separated from each other, often by winding, pedestrian-unfriendly roads. Perhaps more appropriately, it's almost walking distance from Levittown, the most famous of early mass-produced suburbs, the model of so many copycat suburbs around the country. In fact, one of The Lighthouse’s promotional videos reminds viewers that despite all the tall buildings and mixed-use zoning, it will still be as "green as any manicured suburb."

It should be no surprise that locals were uninterested in seeing public pay for something incompatible with the values of Nassau County as seen through what it has always built. Various promotional videos for The Lighthouse include user comments like "Just what we need more freggin houses not" and "All long island does is build. This place sucks."

Few things symbolize a municipality’s economic clout like the presence of pro-sports franchises. The Lighthouse’s rejection signifies Nassau County’s lack of interest in the kind of economic development needed to support modern-day stadia.

It’s the kind of built environment that will now be enjoyed by Islanders fans on the other side of the island, inside Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center, a borough and arena that can now call two previously suburban-based teams their own.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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