Friday, June 19, 2009

So, This Is Suburbia

A Special Comment From the Folks At Let There Be Light(house)

Yes, a guest blogpost. One that brings it all together. Community. Quality of life. Suburbia. Progress.

Moving Long Island from the sleepy, bedroom community of the 1950s, where too much of America's first suburb has remained mired, into the new suburbia of the 21st century, takes vision, leadership, passion, and, indeed, quite a bit of moxie.

The Lighthouse project has its many supporters, Islanders fans among them, and, to be sure, its detractors, those who view any steps to grow and revitalize Long Island as a strike at the very heart of suburban life.

Perhaps, just perhaps, if the naysayers could see beyond the blight, the crumbling infrastructure, the brownfields and strip malls that threaten to consume whatever green space is left us, the dilapidated downtowns and abandoned "Main Streets," and the asphalt wasteland that is now Nassau's hub, they would see that the Lighthouse project, for all of its impact upon Long Island (and, admittedly, it is not all positive), presents a beacon of hope for a sustainable suburbia.

In fact, viewing the plans and projections for the Lighthouse, this initiative actually adds green space, and much needed usable open space, to Nassau County, enhancing our suburban image, rather than detracting from it.

If those who say "no" could only understand that this is not the dreaded destruction of suburban life, but its very re-creation.

Suburbia, as with urbanity, evolves, the life cycles ebbing, flowing, expanding and contracting. As with all such forms of life and lifestyles, change, both evolutionary, and, sometimes, revolutionary, is not only inevitable, but necessary and desirable. Survival, and more than this, the very nourishment of the suburban soul, so necessitate.

In Nassau, let there be light(house)!
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"This is Suburbia"

Lighthouse opponents are taking more subversive tactics when decrying the project. According to this new paradigm, we must not build a high-density, walkable community with mass transit access and tall buildings because "this is suburbia." It is a rallying cry that calls people to defend the community from supposed infringement.

"Suburbia" was once an ideal, an idyllic community allowing returning GI's and other city dwellers to move in search of a more expansive life, a single-family home, and a new slice of the American Dream. Entire communities, Levittown chief among them, were built to serve an inanimate object: the automobile.

As communities grew, strip malls and supermarkets began going up to support the automotive lifestyle. Mass transit was short-changed, with LIRR lines closing, bus lines being done in a half-hearted way, and any expansions falling by the wayside as people took to their cars. The suburban concept was born, and Long Island had an identity.

Suburbia as a Crutch

In recent decades, "This is suburbia" ceased to become an identity and was relegated to little more than a brand name. Now, Long Island seeks to define itself as much by what it is not as what it is. "This is suburbia" mostly means "this is not the city," as people who left the city to move to Long Island are deathly afraid of the city following them out here."This is suburbia" became a rallying cry for the small thinkers and anti-visionaries who are responsible for some of the most grievous compromises we have seen on Long Island:

The Long Island Expressway, which was too short, too narrow, and only adequate when it was completed decades ago. It is now a traffic choke-point.

The lack of freight rail on Long Island - incidentally this is the main reason there are so many trucks choking traffic on the LIE.

Nassau Coliseum itself - as I wrote in the very beginning of this blog, it was scaled down from original plans that called for a 20,000 seat arena with an underground Long Island Rail Road station in the spot currently occupied by the Expo Hall.

The undersupply of apartments - single-family homes were great when younger people attended high school and got married almost immediately after. Now, younger people are looking for other options, and they are going to communities that offer those options, in many cases never to return. Those who stay are often relegated to illegal apartments carved out of single-family homes, a problem far more prevalent than anybody in power wishes to acknowledge.

Great communities must stand for something, not simply against something.

What is "Suburban," Anyway?

It amazes me that people seek to defend "suburbia" since the idea is, in and of itself, an artificial concept. It goes against many natural human impulses, such as the need to congregate and share ideas. Never before in human history have people lived so far away from their places of business as they do in modern suburban and exurban America, and that causes its own sets of issues.

The Lighthouse pushes itself as a "New Suburban" concept, but the dirty secret is that the concept is not new. A decade before Levittown was built, the United States Government built three "green" towns to serve as public co-ops for government workers. One of these towns was Greenbelt, Maryland, a town that includes apartments, single-family homes, and a walkable, mixed-use downtown. The Town of Brookline, Massachusetts (of which I am a former resident), population 52,000, has apartments, walkable districts, and mass transit access, but many of its side streets are lined with single-family homes and indistinguishable from a street in an older part of Long Island. Arlington, Virginia has single-family options in addition to walkable, mixed-use districts like the Ballston complex, near mass transit.

Are we the arbiters of suburbia? Do we have a right to tell any of these communities that they do not fit into the suburban concept? Or, is the definition more malleable than that?

I'll tell you exactly what the "Old Suburban" concept has come to. Five years ago, my friend and I were hosting friends who play in a band (they've gotten pretty popular now - check them out). The lead singer/songwriter, who hails from Kentucky, had never been to Long Island before. My friend and I drove him around the Island, showing him the different villages, and he finally exclaimed "How can you tell the difference? It all looks exactly the same!"

Related to the Lighthouse

Many Lighthouse opponents are presenting a false choice - build the Lighthouse or keep the essence of Long Island. Some have even gone as far as calling the planned towers a "blight on our landscape" and "terrorism targets," proving the fear card is alive and well. In my view, this belief is patent nonsense. We are not deciding whether to be urban or suburban; we are deciding how (and if) different ideas fit into Long Island's suburban concept.

Tom Suozzi has been very clear on this, and I stand with him. The County Executive believes that 90% of Long Island, with its residential streets and waterfront, should remain exactly the way it is, and the other 10% should be re-developed in a smart way that addresses the very real problems this community faces.

So, I pose a question - why can't we have both? Why can't we allow for different ways to realize a suburban dream? Why shouldn't we allow developments like the Lighthouse to build rental units and walkable downtown areas? Never forget that today's renter is tomorrow's homeowner if the resident feels wanted by the community. If policies force out residents in their 20's and 30's, those people will not own homes on Long Island in their 40's and 50's.

Closing Thoughts

In these turbulent times, Long Island finds itself at a crossroads. A community must be defined by what it is, not just what it is not. Many of the current figures of what Long Island is are bleak - educating children who move to other communities, the diaspora of people who grew up here, the lack of corporate support, and a stagnating population. The issue now is: How can we move forward with an eye to the past and the original intent of the community?

To move forward, Long Island must become more inclusive. Rigid definitions of "suburbia" force any resident that does not fit the criteria to leave in search of their chosen way of life. That results in both a lower tax base and an echo chamber among the community. If we continue forcing out those who do not fit a narrowing definition of suburbia, there will come a day when nobody is left.

The Lighthouse is not a cure-all, and I hope nobody believes it is, but it can be a catalyst toward a new way of thinking for the first true suburb in America. It could lead to more options for higher-density living while not infringing upon the current model of single-family homes. We should debate the Lighthouse on its merits, rather than enslaving ourselves to an artificial and malleable concept like "suburbia."

This will always be suburbia. It is up to us to decide how Long Island will be suburbia, and approving the Lighthouse would be a great place to start.
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1 comment:

  1. The problem with the project is that it is a land grab. The entire 100 acres will be given away for a mere $1.5 million in rent -- probably no property tax on it either so it is a net loss for the County in terms of added services and expenses just to allow the construction, not to mention the extra burden on the local schools, sanitation, town, etc.

    If this project is not feasible without a huge government handout of millions of dollars worth of land and tax reductions, then it shouldn't exist; it is much too marginal, and investment dollars are wasted because they have not gone to profitable projects.

    Just projects that reallocate from ordinary to ultra-rich developers.