Islanders owners discussing new arena in Queens or LI, all hell about to break loose

So when new New York Islanders owner Jon Ledecky answered questions last week about the team’s future — previously planned to include staying in Brooklyn but playing six games a year in a renovated Nassau Coliseum — by saying “Barclays Center is our home,” I called it “noncommittal,” on the grounds that 1) Ledecky was still pretty gripey about the flaws of the Brooklyn arena and 2) “Barclays Center is our home” could mean either “we would never leave a place with so many important memories made over the last nine months” or “it’s where we live, we have to deal with it until we figure out something better. It sounded like typical owner weasel words, a way to keep your options open without actually saying you wanted to keep your options open.

But even I didn’t expect this, just a week later:

The New York Islanders are in talks with the owners of baseball’s New York Mets about building a hockey arena adjacent to Citi Field in Queens, people with knowledge of the discussions said.

Willets Point is emerging as a persuasive alternative to the team’s current home at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center if the Islanders’s owners and arena officials can’t agree on a series of hockey-specific improvements, said the people, who asked for anonymity because the negotiations are private.

That was from Bloomberg News, but the anonymous sources were soon talking as well to Newsday (which cited “two people familiar with the situation”) and the New York Post (just “sources” — the Post doesn’t get too hung up on attribution). The Post’s article also included this tidbit:

But if that doesn’t work out, Islanders owners Jonathan Ledecky and Scott Malkin could move the team to Elmont, LI, sources said…

A state source confirmed the Islanders have made preliminary inquiries about moving the club to vacant state-owned land near Belmont Park. That is near another parcel being eyed by the Cosmos for a soccer stadium.

With all this, a clearer picture is starting to come into focus. When Ledecky and partner Scott Malkin bought the team from Charles Wang earlier this year, they inherited Wang’s lease on the Barclays Center, which he had agreed to despite the building’s problems for hockey — it was deliberately “value engineered” to be too small for the sport, in order to save on construction costs — because he was sick and tired of fighting with Nassau County officials over a new arena there. They also, however, inherited the opt-out clause that Wang had negotiated to allow the Islanders to break their lease in 2019 — and that’s the kind of leverage that you’d have to be crazy as an owner not to try to use.

So is an arena next to the Mets stadium feasible, and what would it take to build one? The parking lot to the west of Citi Field is already designated for the giant “Willets West” mall, but that’s currently held up in court because the lots are technically still city parkland. Could the Mets try to build an arena instead if the mall is nixed? Would the courts allow that more readily? Who knows?

Then there’s Willets Point proper, to the east of the Mets stadium, a melange of auto repair businesses that the city has been working to seize and evict for years to make way for a mixed housing and commercial development. Could the city agree to incorporate an arena as well? And on either site, would it provide the land for free, and leave it exempt from property taxes, which might be enough to entice the Mets and Isles owners to actually build this thing? And if they did, could it possibly be successful in a metropolitan area already glutted with arenas (Madison Square Garden, Barclays Center, the New Jersey Devils‘ Prudential Center in Newark, plus soon the redone Nassau Coliseum) and only so many concerts to go around?

Of course, Ledecky and Malkin may never have to determine if a Queens (or Elmont) arena project is feasible, if they can use the mere possibility as a hammer to get Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov to redo Barclays for hockey. The Isles owners haven’t come out and said what “improvements” they want, but to make a genuinely NHL-scaled space you’d need to knock down the entire west end of the structure and build it out another 50 feet or so, which wouldn’t be cheap, and would also entail shutting the arena for an offseason or two and losing out on revenue from those dates. So to get it done would require quite a formidable threat, and “we’re going to take our puck and go to Queens” might be the kind of thing that gets the attention of their current landlords.

Either way, though, it looks like we have a war on, one that’s likely to drag out for months or years as the various combatants (Ledecky and Malkin, Prokhorov, the Wilpons, the city, maybe Elmont) jockey for position and remake alliances. That should at least help tide everyone over until the final season of Game of Thrones.


25 comments on “Islanders owners discussing new arena in Queens or LI, all hell about to break loose

  1. Gee this is the same problem that NYCFC had. Nothing gets done in that area of city without the baseball mets getting a piece of the action or giving their blessings. Looks like the owners of the hockey team might have to get into bed with snakes to stay in NYC.

    • Well, if it’s on the Willets West property (the former site of Shea Stadium), the Mets still control it, even though it’s public parkland. If it’s on Willets Point proper, then yeah, that would imply that somebody in Queens is telling people, “You wanna do anything here, you gotta go through the Wilpons.”

      • How much of this the lack of other places to build a large stadium in NYC. Those large of parcels must be at premium to non-existent as you get closer to Manhattan.

  2. No surprise here.

    If the arena is built in the Citi Field Parking Lot (which is the easiest course to take-no legal hurdles, etc.) the Mets would have to agree to share revenues with the Islanders for the parking-which is now lucrative as the Mets charge between $21-23 per car per game on a individual game basis-unlike the Yankees who make no money on the parking lots surrounding Yankee Stadium and do not care.

    In addition, the Mets would lose as least 25% of the available parking on the site for the new arena.

    An alternative would be to construct a multi-story garage on part of the existing parking lot to make up for the lost parking spaces-similar to the Meadowlands-that would also be expensive and would make ingress and egress from the site after events very difficult.

    The Islanders would then need PILOTS from NYC in order to finance the arena-which will cost at least $500-700 million dollars to construct.

    In the alternative, will Prokhorov agree to the renovations needed in Brooklyn-and renegotiate the existing lease so the Islanders will receive both advertising and suite revenue-for the Islanders to stay?

    Stay tuned.

    • The PILOT tax dodge isn’t nearly as lucrative as it was when the Nets did it, thanks to IRS law changes. Though not paying property tax is, of course, insanely lucrative.

      As for Prokhorov, it depends on how badly he really wants to Islanders to be there, right? I know some people pooh-pooh the revenue available from concerts, but there’s obviously a price point where it’s better to hold Disney on Ice or whatever rather than spend a ton of money to make the Islanders happy, whether through renovation or an increased cut of revenues. To be honest, the scarier part for Prokhorov might not be losing the Islanders, but rather the specter of another arena competing with him for events.

  3. There isn’t enough room at Atlantic Yards to demolish one end of Barclay’s and make it accomodating for hockey. Plus, it would be super expensive. We aren’t talking your run of the mill interior renovation, which by the way costed $1 billion at MSG, but rather demolishing 1/4th of the arena and then rebuilding it. Not gonna happen.

    I used to think that all you had to do was center the ice and in order to do that, you would just have to renovate one end of the lower but Neil has said on a couple occasions that you would then have blocked views of the goal from BOTH ends of the upper bowl so that’s a no go as well.

    If Queens doesn’t happen then I wouldn’t be surprised if a 2nd renovation in Uniondale happens.

    • I think you could maybe do it — there’s a lot of available room under the “oculus” if it came to that. As for hideously expensive, though, yes, it would be.

      Thinking out loud here, but I wonder if one possible remedy would be to both center and *raise* the ice, so that both goals would be within viewing range of the fans in the end sections. This would require losing a ton of high-priced lower-deck seats, obviously, so it’s way, way less than ideal, but I wonder if anyone has ever considered it as an option, assuming the geometry works.

      • Raising ice surfaces (as part of a plan to increase the standard width of an NHL arena ice surface) has been discussed in other locations before.

        Certainly raising it several feet would cost you seats and net revenue. However, I don’t know that a modest increase (saying removing one row, which I admit would not work at Atlantic Yards) would cost you the “expensive” seats, given that the price charged is not linked to the elevation of the seat, but it’s proximity to the playing surface.

        Put another way, if you eliminate the first row of the lower seating bowl at any NHL arena, you not only don’t lose the “expensive” seats, you create more of them… an extra 8-12′ of width means at least an extra 4-6 seats in what is now the “first” row.

        Price tiers being what they are, what you would effectively lose is a greater number of seats in the “last” row of the building. Since those tend to be cheapest and hardest to sell, I would argue you may not lose any money in taking out the existing “row 1”. In fact, you might gain revenue as the seats you lose are low priced and hard to sell, and you are trading them for an extra 4-6 seats “on the glass”.

        None of this will matter to Prokhorov, I suspect, as he is unlikely to be willing to spend any significant money to make the building more viable for hockey (but perhaps less so for the team he owns). As was noted at the time Mr. Wang made his greatest error (yes, including diPietro’s contract and making his backup goalie his GM), he had an opportunity to get into an arena built for hockey in Brooklyn for a relatively small amount of money.

        He eschewed that in favour of the proverbial two birds in tree… and the new owners will pay for that decision one way or another going forward.

        • I think it’s fairest to say that you’d be making the lower deck one row smaller. Even the back of the lower deck is pretty high-priced seats, which is why I’ve never sat there.

          I still like it as an idea, though. Best would be an arena floor on hydraulic lifts, so you could move it up and down to fit the building’s current needs. (Oh crap, I just gave every NBA and NHL team owner a reason to complain that their current arena is obsolete, didn’t I…)

          • I’m surprised NBA teams who play in “hockey first” arenas of the 90s haven’t already started complaining that they need a “basketball focused” arena like ATT Center or FedExForum in order to enhance the “fan experience”.

      • I’ll have to play around with the geometry when I get home, but I see two problems:

        1. By raising the floor to make up for the space to expand a 94-foot basketball floor into a 200-foot hockey rink (yeah, it’s probably more like a 110-120 foot basketball floor since the front row is not flush up against the end line, but whatever), you’re going to get too much space on the sides, where you only need to convert 50 feet (really 60-65) into 85. So you’d have to rebuild the lower deck on the sides and put in retractable rows so that at least part of the lower deck for hockey has a shallower rake. Seats that start at floor level but are not flush up against the glass become obstructed because the puck is almost always on the ice and you wouldn’t be able to see the ice over the opaque boards, so you’d be robbing Peter to pay Paul if you fixed one set of obstructed seats by sticking that obstruction somewhere else.

        2. You’d still have problems from the upper deck end seats, because they are designed to cut your view off at the end of the basketball floor. Raising the floor would fix the problem from the lower end seats, but the upper end seats would still be raked too shallowly to see all the extra space. I’ll have to get more specific once I work that out on a graphing program.

        • I had to estimate everything since I’ve never been to Barclays, let alone measured the rows.

          Using rows with 12-inch increases in gain and a 12.5 foot boost between the top row of the lower deck and first row of the upper, you have an upper deck that rises 18.3 inches per row. It looks like the distance from the front row for hockey on the east (unobstructed) end and what would be the first row on the other side if the seats went all the way to the ice is around 155 feet, which includes the room for the three rows, small gap, and one row that is added for basketball games. So you’d need to add 45 feet to get the rink in without removing any other seats.

          To make the end seats in the lower and club decks unobstructed (I’m assuming the 100-level is a club level), you’d need to raise the floor eight rows (eight feet). This solves the problems in the lower and club decks, but cuts off about eleven feet of the ice from the upper deck, which is just enough to not see the goal line. Still a non-starter for any serious fan (and this now affects both ends, not just the one). To fix the upper deck, you’d need to raise it a total of 14 feet, and then make the lower/club deck shallower to make up for the extra space. On the ends, you’d wind up with 21 rows in the lower/club deck with a rise of 15 feet, reducing the rake by about 30%, which is bad for sight lines. On the sides, you’d wind up with 29 rows with the same rise of 15 feet, reducing the rake by almost half. You’d wind up causing more problems than you’d be solving (I guess the players in their skates would have to walk down stairs to the locker rooms, a la old Chicago Stadium).

          • Fair enough, but this still cannot be done in any way that doesn’t very badly affect the basketball experience. Since the arena is owned/operated by the NBA owner, not the NHL owners, it seems unlikely that it would be green-lit even if the NHL team was willing to pay the exorbitant cost.

            So far, they are demanding it be done and aren’t willing to pay anything (so far as we know).

            Which is a bit like taking your 1998 Mazda to the dealer to trade in on a new Cadillac and expecting the dealer to kick in a few thousand in cash on top of the swap.

            Assuming this (or the “demolish one end” talk… which is a lot harder to do in practice than people might think) is a legitimate request and not just idle musing (so far), why would Prokhorov even answer such a ridiculous ask?

          • He’d do it if he was desperate to keep the Islanders’ revenue (probably not) or if he’s terrified of havig another arena in town to compete with his (still probably not, but more possible).

          • But at some point, Neil, wouldn’t he just be better off to build them another arena (that he also controls) rather than degrade/derate the one he has for the tenant he owns?

            I get the competition for concerts and the like angle, but surely those would be relatively modest revenues compared to the NBA team income?

            I know it’s a different market, but I keep remembering Doug MacLean talking about the hoops they had to jump through to get a major act into the arena in Columbus, only to find that by the time a 3 night sold out run from the Stones or whomever netted the promoter about $100k (the rest, obviously, going to the act and associated parasites).

          • Yes, and if the Stones can say, “Give us what we want or we’ll play at the Queens arena instead,” those negotiations become all the worse.

            If the Mets owners went ahead with a Queens arena, it would only make sense as a price war to the death situation. Like I said, I don’t see the Wilpons necessarily going for it, but Prokhorov might not want to take the risk.

    • Remember, Prokhorov (actually, his company) is doing the renovations at the Coliseum.

      Isles get paid a flat fee for playing in Brooklyn; Nets get all the income and handle a lot of the back-office stuff. They made a lot more $$ in 2015-16 than they did at the Coliseum, but would they make more somewhere else (and get better dates).

      Also remember: The value of the Isles’ franchise skyrocketed after the move to Brooklyn. I would imagine that Queens would be OK, but the Belmont Park site is back in Nassau County (barely); would that result in a lowering of the franchise’s value.

  4. Some of the seats behind one of the goals have obstructed views, right? Can’t see the goal. Reminds me of the Coyotes when they first moved to Phoenix.

    Where could they possibly go? Saskatoon?

    • Mike I’d say Kansas City but apparently Sprint Center’s a non-starter because Phil Anschutz. Same gent whose apparently unreasonable rent demands effectively killed the unlamented Farmer’s Field in LA. Guess the NHL moguls don’t feel like doing him any favors.
      Quebec’s still a good possibility at least the new arena there was made for hockey (and the realignment thing would not be an issue) but the complaints about Canada’s economy yadda yadda.
      And we all know Seattle’s arena situation.

      • I agree divisional/geographic alignment is a red herring, Marty.

        I highly doubt that the new owners paid what they paid for the Islanders to abandon the NY market, however. They could have bought another team and moved it to Quebec/KC for less that $250m (including relocation fee). It seems unlikely to me that they would overpay by more than $100m (forbes figures) for a NY team just to abandon the market they paid for.

        Mistakes happen, even for the extraordinarily wealthy. But they aren’t usually keen to double them.

        The Islanders may move again. However, it is difficult to see them leaving the NY area.

        Like Neil says, this seems to be all about generating chatter about where a new arena should go and who (other than the owners) should pay for it.

        • I think the Islanders playing anywhere, in any building, with or without ice, in the New York area, will be worth more than the Kansas City Islanders. For comparison, the Islanders are currently estimated at $325 million, while the St. Louis Blues, playing in a similar city in Missouri, are worth $270 million.

  5. Thanks for that link about the Barclays Center being engineered to not handle hockey, goes back a couple weeks to when I asked why it needed upgrades, very interesting.

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