Wang's proposal brings some high anxiety on LI
A proposed 60-story Nassau skyscraper may alter how Long Island is
viewed, in more ways than one
By Katie Thomas
October 4, 2004
Long Island shows its best face, Geri Solomon thinks, when it's
framed by an oval airplane window.
On the ground, cars clog parkways and strip malls line the turnpikes.
But from the air, she said, you notice how many trees there are, and
how the buildings are held to a humble height.
"There's not this feeling that something juts up more than something
else," said Solomon, who is assistant dean of Hofstra University's
special collections department, which includes the Long Island
Studies Institute. "There's a homey feel to it."
So when news broke last week that Computer Associates founder and New
York Islanders' owner Charles Wang would like to erect a 60-story
skyscraper in the heart of Nassau County, Solomon wasn't impressed.
Long Island, she said, is shaped like a long, flat fish, with the
North and South Forks forming its tail. "If you orient a 60-story
building in the middle," she said, "it's almost like a stake through
the fish's heart."
The tower, to be called The Great Lighthouse, would be only one
component of a multibillion-dollar project that aims to redevelop the
Nassau Coliseum and rejuvenate the Nassau Hub -- that stretch of
Hempstead dominated by office parks and shopping centers that is
considered the commercial heart of the county.
If Wang's project, which would have a 500-room luxury hotel and high-
end condos, comes to pass, the county would get a tower that is
nearly as tall as the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, and twice
as high as the 299-foot Nassau University Medical Center in East
Meadow, currently the county's tallest building.
A chain reaction
If built -- and others were to follow -- the Lighthouse could force
some Long Islanders to rethink what it means to live in the suburbs,
and to come to terms with the fact that the Island has changed
significantly since William Levitt sold his first Cape Cods to urban
refugees in search of a bucolic paradise.
"This is not about another office building. This is not about another
shopping mall," said Gary Lewi, a public relations executive who has
been involved for decades in Long Island land-use issues. "It is a
seminal proposal whose ramifications are as significant as Levittown
was in 1947."
Back then, in the years following World War II, thousands of city
dwellers fled the cramped neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens for
the open spaces of Long Island, making it one of the nation's first
suburbs. And even though many modern-day residents are one or two
generations removed from their pioneering forebears, a mistrust of
the symbols of city life remains.
"It's at odds with what people thought originally of the suburbs,"
said Rosalyn Baxandall, a professor of American Studies at SUNY Old
Westbury, and co-writer of the book "Picture Windows: How the Suburbs
Some, like Jane Marinace, still describe the suburbs in utopian
terms. Marinace, 79, grew up in Massapequa and raised her four
children there. Now grown, three of them have stayed on Long Island
to raise their own families. "It's nicer, to me, than living in the
city," she said. "It's more peaceful."
Perhaps that's why Marinace shudders when she thinks of skyscrapers
like the one Wang has proposed rising on Long Island. "In my
neighborhood, we don't even want two-family homes," she said. "So why
would we want a building like that?"
Not a new threat
In the 1970s, the threat of skyscrapers was a looming presence in
local elections -- an accusation levied in the heat of the campaign,
Lewi recalled. Back then, the suburbs "had finally matured to the
point where people were taking enormous pride in seeing tract homes
become real neighborhoods," he said. "So the idea of the skyscraper,
or the high-rise, would be considered an anathema."
In many older suburbs -- such as those outside of Chicago --
residents have begun to accept greater densities, said Chris Jones,
vice president for research at the Regional Plan Association, a
Manhattan-based nonprofit. "There is more openness," he said, "as
long as it's done in a way where you really work through the issues
of traffic and neighborhood character."
A similar phenomenon is playing out in Royal Oak, Mich., a suburb
about 10 miles north of Detroit that, like Nassau County, developed
soon after World War II and no longer has much buildable land. Last
week, a developer broke ground on an 18-story building that Mayor Jim
Ellison acknowledges has been hard for some locals to swallow. But
the truth, Ellison said, is "it's a very land-locked community with
not a lot of available space ... if we're going to build housing,
we've got to go up."
Several planners said the construction of suburban skyscrapers will
only be successful if the builders are able to persuade residents
that the projects won't overload the Island's already strained
One of the keys, said Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the Taubman College
of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan in
Ann Arbor, is that the people who live in the skyscraper have
somewhere to go when they descend the elevator and walk outside.
"High-rise residential development makes most sense when it's
embedded in an urban fabric with a mixture of land uses, so that the
people living in the tower can walk to other destinations," Kelbaugh
Long Islanders themselves have changed a lot over the years, Jones
said. As a result, it might be hard to predict how they will
react. "It's already a very diverse place," Jones said. "It's an area
with a wide range of incomes and greater racial diversity than it had
If traffic and other details are resolved, few residents outside of
the immediate area may care about new high-rises, as long as they
don't impact their quality of life. "If people see this as something
akin to Long Island's downtown, which is not going to affect the
density or community character of their neighborhood, it's something
that people could come to accept," Jones said. The tower could even
redefine the way that Long Islanders identify themselves. And, if it
stands alone, Wang's tower could become an affectionate landmark.
"Long Island needs an iconographic landmark, a structure that is
universally recognized and admired," Chris Botta, a spokesman for the
Wang project, said in a statement. "The overwhelming response from
the public and architectural leaders was for a lighthouse to be the
centerpiece of the project."
Even in small towns, lighthouses and church steeples have helped
define the skyline, said Carol Willis, founder and director of The
Skyscraper Museum in Manhattan. "It's oftentimes a thing which gives
a place a real sense of identity," she said.
Just as Long Islanders have adapted to other encroachments of city
life -- such as traffic and crime -- Baxandall said they will
probably get used to skyscrapers. "It's an affront to a Long Island
that isn't anymore," she said. "Suburban folk will have to put up
with it." Many may even welcome them. Paola Molina, 23, moved to
Wyandanch from Houston a year and a half ago, and misses the city's
tall buildings. If more skyscrapers poke through the trees, "maybe
Long Island won't look so old and ... ," Molina paused, searching for
the word. "Boring."