Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Renewal Plan For Downtown Hempstead

Ambitious Revitalization Plan Takes Shape, But Is it "Smart Growth?"

Are plans to remake Main Street in the incorporated Village of Hempstead in tune with creating a sustainable community, or is the Mayor's proposal simply "pie-in-the-skyscraper" without long-term vision?

Newsday reports that Hempstead Village is poised to redevelop it's downtown area -- including Village Hall, the old bus depot, and various locations along a stretch of Main Street -- with a mix of condominiums, office space, and commercial and retail businesses. [Click HERE to read New Look For Hempstead.]

While a search of the village's Community Development Agency's website failed to yield formal revitalization plans (the link to "Urban Renewal Plan" brings up a site that is "under construction"), and calls to the office of CDA Commissioner Claude Gooding have not, to date, been returned, the February edition of Hempstead Visions, the village's monthly newsletter, does reference -- in terms as broad as they are vague -- the "near completion" of Hempstead's 12-year old Master Plan. [We did find an old draft of a Hempstead Village Master Plan, from back in the days when Glen Spiritis was Commissioner of Hempstead's CDA. It didn't give us much to bite on!]

As it appears the mountain must go to Mohammed to view actual plans, this blogger plans a field trip to Hempstead Village Hall later this week to take a gander at exactly what Mayor Wayne Hall and his colleagues have in mind for New York's most populous village.

Certainly, a comprehensive downtown revitalization plan -- one that would give impetus to a return of downtown Hempstead to something akin to it's heyday as the economic and social hub of Long Island -- would be most welcome. Simply throwing $180 million dollars at a project that would, concededly, rebuild the infrastructure, without due consideration of the impact on the surrounding environs (and in particular, existing residences and small businesses), could, conceivably, do more harm than good. For that matter, to do little more than to give a tip of the hat to principles of sustainability and sense of place would be throwing good money after bad.

It takes more -- much more -- than building a skyscraper smack-dab in the middle of town to re-energize and revitalize a community. Calling for the creation of a "cultural center" for Nassau County, without further forethought, does not a sustainable community make. In fact, what should be a centerpiece of the rebirth of a community too long in decline may well have all the earmarks of suburban nightmare in the making. To paraphrase those nice folks at Smart Growth America, we can almost hear that "giant sucking sound" vacuuming up Main Street, while much of the rest of downtown, and the residential and retail community around it, is left to gather dust.

In Jamaica, Queens, an attempt was made, nearly a generation ago, to bring life back to a community decades in decline by constructing office towers and impressive facades. The project, which continues, even today, did little to encourage the rebirth of the community beyond the area of redevelopment. In fact, insofar as creating a sustainable community, the Jamaica redevelopment project, despite marginal gains and best efforts to paint a rosy picture of a still bleak and downcast downtown, was, by any real measure of livability, a dismal failure.

There is a difference between "thinking big" (as in grand visions), and "bigger is better." Hempstead's planners -- and the residents they serve, who must themselves be intimately involved in both the planning and implementation of this bold renewal project -- should revisit the drawing board (what's another year tacked on to an already more than decade old Master Plan?) before expending significant monies and reaching toward the sky.

If it doesn't "look like suburbia," maybe it doesn't belong in suburbia! "Build it -- whatever 'it' may be -- and they will come," is not only myopic in vision, it is, in terms of establishing the very model of the sustainable suburban village, a plan fraught with danger.
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There once existed a Joint Center For Sustainable Communities, an extension of The United States Conference of Mayors. [Wasn't James Garner, the former Mayor of the Village of Hempstead, once the President of this illustrious group?] As it's website tells us, "The Joint Center for Sustainable Communities is no longer in existence." What, then, does this portend for those of us who remain committed to creating sustainable communities?

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