By T. D. Thornton
Citing a flawed bidding process and a “secret master plan” that was allegedly floated by the New York Racing Association (NYRA) and discussed among state officials nine months before the state issued an official request for proposal (RFP) to build a hockey arena at Belmont Park, the Village of Floral Park, where Belmont is located, has filed a lawsuit to block the $1.3 billion project.
Newsday first broke the story late Tuesday afternoon. The Empire State Urban Development Corporation (ESD), the New York State Franchise Oversight Board (FOB), and New York Arena Partners, LLC (NYAP), are listed as the defendants in the Sept. 9 filing in the Supreme Court of New York State (County of Nassau).
NYRA itself is not listed as a defendant, although the suit says that “even more shockingly” than the existence of an allegedly secret master plan, “the plan contained multiple NYRA-related improvements in addition to all of the elements of the NYAP proposal [later] submitted in response to the RFP.”
“The discovery of this secret plan is consequential because it was identical to NYAP’s project in all material respects,” the suit states, adding that Floral Park officials only discovered the plan’s existence via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
“The implications of the secret Master Plan are grave, as it appears there may have been a coordinated effort among State officials at the highest level to clear the path for the NYAP proposal,” the suit contends.
Floral Park’s FOIA request turned up a Nov. 14, 2016, document on which every page was marked “CONFIDENTIAL DRAFT—NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION.”
Three days later, an email that referenced that document and discussed development details at Belmont was allegedly sent out to a number of state officials by then-NYRA president Christopher Kay.
Beyond the hockey arena, the allegedly secret master plan also detailed the inclusion of a “synthetic track for winter racing” at Belmont and “light stations for nighttime racing in warm weather months.” A large sports bar, restaurants, luxury suites, and terraces overlooking the paddock were also proposed.
“It appears that State officials were impressed, as NYRA’s transmittal to the State of the secret Master Plan update came less than one month before ESD abruptly cancelled an ongoing RFP process, begun in 2012, aimed at redeveloping Belmont Park,” the suit contends.
According to the suit, the FOB then released a new RFP for the racetrack/arena development on July 28, 2017—more than nine months after the allegedly secret Belmont master plan first was circulated.
“The public was never intended to see this Master Plan, even though it involved the development of State-owned land,” the court documents allege.
Patrick McKenna, NYRA’s communications director, told TDN via email that NYRA will decline comment on the litigation.
“However,” McKenna added. “NYRA’s position on the redevelopment of Belmont Park is clear–this is a transformative project that will create jobs and economic opportunity for Nassau County and the entire region for decades to come and will compliment and contribute to the future of Thoroughbred racing at Belmont Park.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit disagree.
“This lawsuit concerns a project proposed to be developed for private use on a portion of Belmont Park that is, by any objective standard, completely at odds–in terms of purpose, proportionality and compatibility–with the suburban communities that surround it,” the lawsuit states. “If the project is allowed to proceed, the consequences will be irreversible.”
“Belmont Park is State-owned land held in trust on behalf of the public–not the whims and desires of public developers,” the suit continues.
The ceremonial groundbreaking for the $1.3-billion development project for the future hockey home of the New York Islanders is expected for later this month, according to Newsday. NYRA officials have already announced extensive scheduling changes to accommodate it, such as adjusting Belmont post times and moving a portion of the Belmont fall meet to Aqueduct Racetrack. The earlier July 11 start to the Saratoga Race Course this summer was also a result of NYRA’s pre-emptive concerns over construction conflicts with live racing.
Belmont and its neighbors, the suit states, have co-existed “in relative harmony for over 100 years. For the residents of Floral Park, Belmont Park is not just a neighbor; it has long represented a bulwark against the encroachment of New York City’s development to the west.”