It was intended to be a session devoted to public comment on a recently released study concerning the future development of the Nassau County Hub and methods to be employed to mitigate traffic in the area.
That report, erroneously and repeatedly described by Newsday as a "very preliminary draft study" despite the fact that it has been reviewed and unanimously adopted by the Long Island Regional Planning Board, has much to say about the future of central Nassau, touching on everything ¬ whether obliquely or directly ¬ from the future development of the Nassau Coliseum site to the installation of more mass transit in the area and perhaps even a people-mover system.
Some of the findings in that report, as one might well expect, has greatly upset area residents. A number of people residing in the Carle Place area, for instance, were stunned to find that the overall plan calls for the construction of a new Long Island Rail Road station in their community.
In western Nassau, many merchants were surprised to learn that a monorail system could someday run parallel to Hempstead Turnpike.
As a result of those concerns, as well as concerns of his own, Richard Nicolello, chairman of the county legislature's Committee on Planning, Development and the Environment, called a hearing to air the details and allow for public comment on what, until now, has been a plan developed without such input.
"By and large, I believe that [past] studies [focusing on the area], or what they intended to do, in respect to transportation and the effect on our downtown businesses, failed," Nicolello said as he opened the session.
To underscore his point, he cited passages from the report itself, which said, "the development in the Hub area has been haphazard and bears no basis to any sort of rational planning."
Though the meeting lasted for several hours, the net result was that all concerned appear to have hardened their positions, or at the very least left with all of their misgivings still unresolved.
"It was a pretty interesting hearing," Nicolello said several days later.
Referring to Paul Ponessa, of the Nassau County Planning Commission, Dr. Lee Koppelman, director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board, and others who were called on to explain and amplify specific portions of the study, the legislator said, "I don't think they anticipated the fact that I and a number of local residents had actually read the report thoroughly and would have some pointed questions for them."
In the end, many came away with the impression that the session had resulted in hard feelings among the participants. Newsday, which benefits greatly from advertising from businesses located within the Hub and has therefore been vigorously championing the Hub report, even went so far as to blast Nicolello and his fellow legislators for holding the hearing at all.
"We were there solely to offer a professional presentation of the Hub study," Dr. Koppelman said this week. "What animosity there was was raised by the legislators."
"The problem they had was that they put something down in writing that people could pin them down on," Nicolello said. "What was most interesting is that as the questions continued, they began to fudge the lines a little bit and actually said things that were at odds with what was contained in the report."
Because Nicolello had been at the Long Island Regional Planning Board meeting at which the study was adopted and, as Dr. Koppelman recalled, "candidly indicated his concerns," the participants in the hearing knew that the evening could be something of a bumpy ride.
"I have trouble with the entire concept," Nicolello admitted. "Not that I don't believe we need to do something about the traffic situation in the area, we do. I just think that what's being discussed can be a fine amenity to businesses in the Hub, but won't do much of anything to alleviate the traffic."
In fact, Nicolello continued, "it appears from the study that the development that we're talking about won't result in less traffic, but more, and while there is a rationale for mass transit, from what I've read it will likely cost more and take longer for people to get where they want to go.
"At this point, there are still a lot of questions that have to be answered in regard to the Nassau County Hub. I think we have to refine out of the study what's good and doable and what is not."
"I wasn't surprised by the misgivings expressed by people at the hearing," Dr. Koppelman said. "I knew in advance that people in Carle Place weren't ecstatic about it. Legislator Nicolello had already indicated his concerns.
"I should point out that he had no quarrel with the recommendations for the Hub itself, or the connection to a transit facility in Hempstead. It was only the Carle Place situation [note: the proposed building of a new LIRR station to connect to a people mover serving the Hub] that troubled him.
"I have no quarrel with residents of Carle Place," Dr. Koppelman added. "But it's a very developed area and we need to find some way of mitigating the traffic impact on people's lives in the area."
According to Dr. Koppelman, when the Long Island Regional Planning Board undertakes a study such as the one recently completed on the Hub, it is done on a "strictly professional, non-partisan" basis.
"It is a purely technical study on which we were very careful not to put any value judgments," he said.
"Our approach is always, 'Here's the history.' 'Here's the problem.' 'Here are some possible solutions.' These options are never set in stone. There have been a number of studies done over the years and obviously, nothing has happened as a result of those past studies.
"The problem now is, with all the growth that has taken place, traffic has become a major problem affecting the entire area. Just in terms of what has already been committed to in terms of Museum Row, the Roosevelt Raceway development, Roosevelt Field, what Alan Fortunoff has done with The Source, it is quickly becoming an impossible situation.
"Bear in mind that we, the Long Island Regional Planning Board, are not campaigning for anything. If the decision makers don't want to do anything, that's their political choice," Dr. Koppelman continued.
"I will point out, however, that as a result of the development that's already occurred in the Hub, you are already seeing through-traffic using residential streets. The question now then is, do you want more cars and trucks in your neighborhood, or do you want to shunt them somewhere else?"
What's not in dispute is that the recommendations contained in the Hub study, if implemented, would likely cost close to a quarter billion dollars.
According to Dr. Koppelman, the federal government could pick up anywhere from between 50 to 80 percent of that cost "if they have a mind to," while the remainder would have to be picked up by other means, including the charge at the fare box (the current proposal is $1 fee per ride on the people-mover), county subsidies or the formation of a Business Improvement District in the Hub through which land owners in the area would tax themselves to cover the costs associated with a people-mover system.
"We're still a long way from knowing the specifics," Dr. Koppelman said. "First we have to pick a system to be employed in the area, then we have to engineer it, find out the actual costs, and from there determine what Uncle Sam will pick up."
Dr. Koppelman said that a key determinant to whether and how the Hub study will actually be implemented is the future development of a new Nassau Coliseum and the surrounding area, which the Nassau Coliseum Privatization Committee has dubbed "Nassau Central."
"I think part of the impetus behind doing this study was the fact that discussions were ongoing regarding the future of the coliseum, and the future of the Islanders," he explained.
"One of the big questions now is, does Nassau County government want to tie up 70 acres of expensive real estate, the real estate that surrounds the coliseum.
"If they decide to build that land, over and above what is already committed, then we will have to come up with some kind of new mass transit, otherwise the entire concept of the Hub will collapse. The traffic will just kill it."
Nicolello contended at the hearing, and continues to contend now, that while mass transit is important, it will also be a hard sell to most local residents used to the "suburban mentality" of private automobile use.
For his part, Dr. Koppelman agreed. "There's no question that you can't get people on the Island to give up their cars," he said. "What we're talking about in the study is not a panacea, it's an attempt to remedy an already existing situation.
"We're not offering a cure-all. It's like when someone has a physical malady. Given the absence of a permanent, 100 percent cure, the doctor might say, 'Use a cane, take aspirin regularly and learn to live with it.' That's kind of the direction the Hub study is moving in.
"We are not saying the solutions discussed in the Hub study are going to transform the area into a traveler's paradise. No way," Dr. Koppelman continued. "We only want to mitigate the problem and, as further development occurs, keep down future traffic problems.
"If you have a convenient, safe, mass transit system, sooner or later, people will use it to avoid gridlock."
County Legislator Dennis Dunne, who also sits on the Committee on Planning, Development and the Environment, said that as far as implementing all or part of the recommendations contained in the Hub study is concerned, "the jury is still out."
"At this point we are securing information from anywhere and everywhere we can in regard to the future of the Nassau Hub. One of the options, of course, is to do nothing.
"Right now, we're listening to the public as well as the professionals. In the long run we'll do what's best for Nassau."
But what's "best" for Nassau isn't yet something the legislature ¬ or almost anyone else for that matter ¬ can readily get a handle on. The reason, most of the hard core discussions on the matter are going on behind closed doors.
"The next step, clearly, is in Mort Certilman's hands," Dr. Koppelman said, referring to the Chairman of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum Privatization Committee and member of the Long Island Regional Planning Board.
"The key is his ongoing negotiation with Howard Milstein and Steve Gluckstern pertaining to the construction of a new coliseum and so forth. The next step will really be up to them. Then the privatization committee will make a recommendation to County Executive Gulotta.
"Another next step is a full blown environmental impact study, something for which Senator Alphonse D'Amato has been able to secure federal funds," Dr. Koppelman said.
Asked how the planners will ultimately make local residents feel more comfortable with the situation, the Long Island Regional Planning Board director said that particular goal may prove impossible to achieve.
"There's no way you can make people feel better about this," he admitted. "You know, homeowners have a vision of what they want when they come into an area. For long-time homeowners in the area around what is now called the Hub, the framework around which they conceive that vision has changed.
"I mean, someone who moved to Westbury 40 years ago, for instance, moved into a place that was 'out in the country,' so to speak. Over the past several decades, it has become increasingly suburbanized.
"What we're seeing now is just another example of the old story ¬ I'm here, now burn all the bridges. But life doesn't work that way.
"I understand how they feel, but that doesn't change the reality of the Hub as it exists," Dr. Koppelman said.