A newly released Belmont Park redevelopment study seems to breathe new life into the famous New York racetrack, which celebrated its first opening day back in May 1905.
Sites A and B, the two parcels designated for development, are located within the southernmost portion of Belmont Park's boundaries. Site A totals approximately eight acres while Site B, the larger of the two, totals approximately 28 acres. Courtesy of http://www.empire.state.ny.us/Belmont/default.asp
Officials made more than $1 million in improvements to the racetrack last year. New flat screen TVs, a new Hospitality Center in the clubhouse lobby, improved landscaping flanking the park's entrances, newly painted exterior fencing, new and restored clubhouse planters and doors, a freshly painted press box, complete with new carpets, chairs and flat screen TVs, renovated bathrooms and, as part of the renovated Paddock Bar, a restored and relit 120-foot long PEB mural of New York racing history were among the enhancements racegoers saw firsthand when Belmont opened for the 2008 racing season.
The facelift was considered the first phase in a series of annual capital improvements. If redevelopment options cited in the study are approved, racing fans will enjoy more enhancements in the future.
The redevelopment study, commissioned by Governor David Paterson, charged Empire State Development (ESD) President and CEO Marisa Lago and New York State Racing and Wagering Board (RWB) Chairman John Sabini to work closely with local leaders in creating potential land-use options for two empty parking lots at Belmont.
"Belmont Park is an enormous asset for economic development in New York. I commend all of the participants for their thoughtful analysis and commitment to the Belmont Park redevelopment study recommendations," Governor Paterson said. "In these times of fiscal crisis, it's important that we move forward with projects like Belmont."
Specifically, the report outlines development options for 36 acres of land. Working with stakeholders to define "a range of possible options for the two parcels," the study ensures the creation of new jobs and additional tax revenue and economic development in Elmont, Bellerose, Floral Park, Queens Village and other nearby communities.
"By listening intently to a wide range of stakeholders in the vicinity of Belmont Park, we have fashioned redevelopment options that will produce sorely needed jobs, enhance the quality of life in the surrounding communities and add vitality to the local economy," Lago said.
With FXFOWLE Architects and Planners consulting, the ESD and RWB analyzed both sites, interviewed stakeholders to define redevelopment opportunities, evaluated stakeholder options and solicited input from developers involved with similar projects on Long Island and Queens.
Site A is an approximate 8-acre parcel bordered by Hempstead Turnpike to the south and the Cross Island Parkway to the west. The site is adjacent to the racetrack's Grandstand. The options, five total, all include a hotel and racino, a facility in which Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) are located, with the exception of Option 1, which does not call for a hotel.
Specifically, Option 1 includes a 240,000 square foot stand-alone racino; Option 2.1 includes a 130,000 square foot stand-alone small hotel with VLTs in the Grandstand; Option 2.2 includes a 300,000 square foot stand-alone large hotel with VLTs in the Grandstand; Option 3.1 includes a 370,000 square foot small hotel with racino while Option 3.2 includes a 540,000 square foot large hotel with racino.
The report states that both the hotel and racino uses in all Site A options would create jobs, reinforce the interests of a majority of the stakeholders and enable a sustainable, pedestrian-friendly environment. The preferred options for Site A, however, include a stand-alone racino, a stand-alone large hotel or a large hotel with a racino because they provide economic benefits and destination opportunities and complement the racetrack.
Site B, the larger of both parcels, is approximately 28 acres and is bordered by Hempstead Turnpike to the north, the Cross Island Parkway to its west and by single-family residential neighborhoods to the east, particularly Elmont. The options, three total, include retail uses, a small hotel, senior housing as well as recreational opportunities.
Specifically, Option 1 includes 355,500 square feet of lifestyle retail and a small hotel, Option 2 includes 280,000 square feet of big box retail with a sports facility option while Option 3 calls for 463,500 square feet of mixed-use retail with senior housing.
The report states all Site B options maximize economic benefits, address community interests and create a lively urban center. The preferred options for Site B are a lifestyle retail center, and senior housing with a retail center because these too provide economic benefits, enable walkable environments and create destination centers for the surrounding neighborhoods.
A proposed 176,500 square feet of retail would sit at the north end of Site B while 287,000 square feet of senior housing units would exist at the south end. A mix of 333 townhouses and apartments, grouped into three clusters and built around a common green space and parking area, could create a village-like setting. A clubhouse for social gatherings would anchor the southern tip. The idea stemmed from an existing senior housing development, The Paddock Apartments, in Lexington, KY, built in close proximity to Kentucky Horse Park.
If the preferred options for both sites were implemented, they would work in unison to revitalize the racetrack. "Opening its gates to the surrounding community, the park would no longer be isolated from its neighbors, but rather integrated into the contextual urban fabric as a modern landmark for the area. Offering places to shop, dine, live and work, Belmont Park would reach its potential as a major local and regional attraction and economic driver for Nassau County," the report stated.
John Lee, director of communications and media relations for the New York Racing Association, told Anton Newspapers the report put together an appealing array of options in a short amount of time.
"Within those plans are the kinds of development options which can make the area an attractive gateway to Long Island and bring new vitality to the communities surrounding Belmont Park," Lee said.
NYRA was "encouraged," Lee said, to see that the state's plans call for year-round Long Island Rail Road service to Belmont Park, as such service will dramatically increase the appeal of Belmont Park as a multifaceted destination. "Right now NYRA's focus is on getting the 'shovel ready,' already-approved VLT 'racino' project up and running at Aqueduct Racetrack," Lee said. "The funds generated at Aqueduct are going to help NYRA dramatically improve the appeal of the racing portion of the Belmont Park real estate. If the state also decides to create a 'racino' at Belmont Park, we stand ready to help facilitate that project as well."
Floral Park Mayor Phil Guarnieri believes the 54-page report is a good first step in a lengthy process. "While my views on the inadvisability of government promoting gambling remain unchanged, and although I am bemused that at a time when households need to build up savings and banks are starving for deposits, that we would encourage a habit of personal profligacy over husbandry, I am nonetheless gratified by some real positives regarding this development," he said.
He praised the report's primary focus: the revitalization of Elmont, the gateway to Nassau. Floral Park is committed to lending any support that would enrich and enhance the quality of life for its neighbors.
"We are also pleased that our elected officials have recognized the need to have dialogue with the neighboring communities and have been attentive to the safety and security issues that were outlined in the Floral Park Statement of Principles," Mayor Guarnieri added.
Looking toward the future, Floral Park officials will continue to advocate for direct representation for its own village as well as its neighbors on a Community Advisory Board and, Mayor Guarnieri said, as a practical matter, be a beneficiary of any and all revenue streams that are created by this redevelopment.
Assemblyman Tom Alfano echoed the mayor's remarks, calling the proposal a turning point for Elmont and Floral Park that will mean "jobs, jobs, jobs" and a "sure fire way" to cut property taxes for homeowners.
"This proposal does what we've been hoping for. In each site option is a hotel, retail shopping, a spa, restaurants and quality economic development. The next step is looking at what the right combination is," Alfano said.
The assemblyman said he does not support the senior housing component included in Option 3 for Site B. "We have enough senior housing in the area. What I want to focus all of our efforts on is creating jobs and lowering taxes on homeowners," he said.
Each plan could utilize a section of the Empire Zone that Assemblyman Alfano and Senator Dean Skelos won for Elmont during then-Governor George Pataki's tenure. The Empire Zone offers tax incentives for creating jobs and bringing in business to the Hempstead Turnpike area. Site B is in the zone and is therefore eligible for benefits.
"What we need to do is use all of the assets we have in the zone and bring together the best and brightest minds in the construction and retail industries to forge a plan that will be first class all the way. The Empire Zone is an added benefit that only helps us in this plan. What we have to do now is encourage the governor to move this process along," Assemblyman Alfano said.
Challenges to the Development Proposals
As with all development projects come challenges. Substandard conditions surround the area, including racetrack housing. Heavy traffic on Hempstead Turnpike puts pedestrian safety at risk. Flooding and drainage issues plague portions of Floral Park, to which many West End residents can attest. The project's close proximity to residential housing, on the eastern edge of Site B in particular, along with security, especially for those children who attend Floral Park-Bellerose School, and the need for open space and family-oriented retail in the area, are more issues to take into consideration.
The closest commercial core to Sites A and B is located at the southwest corner of Hempstead Turnpike and Elmont Road, where there are plans to develop the former Argo Theater site into a large grocery center, the report points out. The Town of Hempstead has secured a $2.5 million Restore New York grant to successfully complete the revitalization project.
In June 2008, the Elmont Community Vision Plan set forth a series of goals and objectives for its community: create a mixed-use development, including hotel/convention center, retail space and recreation; redevelop the parking area south of Hempstead Turnpike; create a gateway to Elmont; improve the streetscape along Hempstead Turnpike; and encourage Belmont-oriented businesses, activities and uses.
Belmont Park is currently zoned for residential use. The Elmont Community Vision Plan, however, proposes a new zoning district, the Belmont Special Use District, which could allow mixed uses beyond residential.
Both sites are well served by mass transit, with three Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) stops within one mile of both parcels, Belmont Park, Queens Village and Bellerose.
However, the study points out that the closest station, Belmont Park, is actually a spur of the LIRR's Hempstead branch, providing only limited service during racing season.
And to make matters worse, in its attempts to close a staggering $1.2 billion budget gap, the MTA/LIRR has actually proposed eliminating all service to Belmont, with the exception of Belmont Stakes Day, a move many criticize as counterproductive in trying to make the location a world-class destination. On the upside, Site A opportunities could, however, provide a transit and pedestrian connection to the site and offer 365-day transit services as infrastructure is already in place.
Senator Craig Johnson, who equates the redevelopment study to the "first leg of a new race for Belmont," said the redevelopment options are a "good first step" in an effort to transform Belmont into an economic engine for its neighbors.
He applauded all those involved for reaching out to the Belmont host communities and enabling information collected to guide the report's formation. "This type of bottom-up consensus building is frankly a refreshing change from the way past administrations and other government agencies have conducted themselves," Senator Johnson said.
The senator also appreciates the executive branch's continued commitment to bringing VLTs to Belmont, something Johnson believes is vital to the project's success.
He remains cautious, however. "Let's be clear: This is only a first step toward making Belmont the first-class destination that it could be. This process should move as quickly as possible, but it has to be done correctly - and the affected communities need to be involved every step of the way," Senator Johnson added.
Ensuring community input is heard before, during and after "this particular chapter is written," Senator Johnson reintroduced (S.766), legislation that would create a Belmont Community Advisory Board to provide full host community representation in all discussions relating to the Park. Similar boards exist at both the Saratoga and Aqueduct racetracks.
Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, who is working with Senator Johnson to maximize the project's economic benefits through the creation of a local community advisory board, added, "As we rebuild our state's economy, it is great news that a redevelopment project for Belmont Park is under way because the immediate result is the creation of new jobs and the stabilizing of our tax base. However, the long-term benefits are the best news, as this development attracts thousands of new visitors every year who contribute to the state and local economy."
The Next Steps
Several analyses must be undertaken to determine economic viability and feasibility. A gaming analysis should also be completed. How many VLTs should be installed and what, if any, supporting amenities are needed?
More importantly, the New York State Franchise Oversight Board (FOB), which was established in 2008 when NYRA was awarded a 25-year franchise to conduct thoroughbred racing at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga Racetracks, must unanimously approve the redevelopment of both Sites A and B.
If given the green light, information from both aforementioned analyses should be used to prepare a Request for Proposals. A public environmental review process must be conducted based on a given developer's proposal. In particular, an Environmental Impact Statement needs to be prepared to determine potential impacts of the preferred developments.
The report went on to say that site zoning must be determined, along with any plans for additional site upgrades to the racetrack's supporting structures, namely the backstretch and stables.
Senator Dean Skelos, a vocal proponent of VLTs at Belmont, said time is of the essence. "We have to move now on these proposals and we can't allow this process to get bogged down like Aqueduct. Time is of the essence. Let's get to work."
Home of the third jewel in racing's Triple Crown, Belmont Park has been a successful horseracing venue for more than a century. "But, its full development potential has never been realized," New York State Racing and Wagering Board (RWB) Chairman John Sabini said. "With this study of development options, we are reawakening this sleeping giant of a state, and community, asset.
The entire Belmont Park Redevelopment Study can be found at http://www.empire.state.ny.us/Belmont/default.asp.