Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Twenty Miles Of Ugly, Revisited

Hempstead Turnpike: At The Crossroads; In The Cross Hairs

Back in 2006, The Community Alliance first broached the subject, on this very blog, of a "fix" for the decline of Hempstead Town's most infamous thoroughfare, Hempstead Turnpike -- Long Island's "Twenty Miles of Ugly."

Well, here we are, four years down the road, literally, and but for minor stretches of designated "streetscaping" -- where often ill-placed benches, planters, and Victorian-style streetlamps pass for improvements to otherwise neglected business districts -- there hasn't been much enhancement of this commercial boulevard, so vital to Long Island's economy, and so intrusive upon Long Islander's quality of life.

Granted, no one -- not in his right mind, anyway -- would confuse Hempstead Turnpike -- which runs, ruin by ruin, from Elmont to Farmingdale -- with the Champs-Élysées in Paris, a tree-line boulevard, home to sidewalk cafes, luxury shops, and stately buildings.

And yet, the Turnpike could be compared -- with historical notes taken -- to other major commercial roadways in the United States, as in Austin, Texas or Livermore, California, where transformation from blight to delight not only enhanced Main Street, but gave new life to the surrounding community.

True, the Turnpike passes through more than a single community -- Elmont, Franklin Square, West Hempstead, Hempstead, Uniondale, East Meadow, Levittown, Farmingdale -- with all but one being unincorporated areas under the auspices of America's largest, and most blighted, township.

It is a Main Street extraordinaire. A colossus. An absolute disaster, in part, reminiscent of Berlin after the blitz.

Ride the Turnpike, and actually peer out the rolled up windows, and see the hodgepodge, the eyesores, the decline of once vibrant business districts into a crumbling mass of decaying relics.

Yes, decades of haphazard planning (or no planning at all), and errant zoning (again, mostly no zoning at all), courtesy of the Town of Hempstead Zoning Board of Appeal (sitting as both planning board and zoning board, rarely accomplishing either), have resulted, in great measure, in the blighting of this Main Street, and in the decline of our suburban quality of life that emanates off the Turnpike, much like the broken spokes of an old, tired wheel.

But that was yesterday, folks. To dwell on how we got to this sorry point hardly gets us out of this mess.

So, where do we go from here in terms of bringing Hempstead Turnpike -- the epitome of blight -- back to life?

First, recognize that there is a problem.

Recently, Town of Hempstead Supervisor Kate Murray, during a discussion at a community forum, was asked what could be done to improve the Turnpike, both in terms of re-energizing the business districts that once thrived there, and, equally as important, aesthetics -- turning that twenty miles of ugly, if not into a Miracle Mile (or twenty), then certainly, something more pleasing to the eye, accommodating to the pedestrian, and profitable to both merchant and taxpayer.

There followed an awkward moment of silence from the Supervisor, after which the local county legislator chimed in, "That's a State road."

Indeed, the roadbed itself falls under the province of the New York State Department of Transportation, for design, repair, maintenance (and it could use a good cleaning, if anyone from DOT is reading this), lighting, and landscaping (such as it is).

Planning, zoning, implementation, and, yes, enforcement (remember that?), however, are all the responsibility of the Town of Hempstead.

Permitting -- with or without Permit -- anything to be built, in any way, without regard to design, structure, signage, or conformance with its surroundings, a "build what you will, and we'll carve out an exception to the code" mentality, gave us the infrastructure fated for catastrophic failure.

Add in a total lack of code enforcement -- walk the Turnpike today, and you can, without much effort, point out thousands of dollars in code violations, ranging from broken or trash strewn sidewalks, to illegal signs, to nonconforming use.

Layer this upon economic decline over the years, occasioned by the departure of the Mom and Pop stores in favor of the mega big boxes, among other factors, and you have a recipe for disaster -- or, as we call it, twenty miles of ugly.

"That's a State road," not only begs the question. It passes the buck.

It also belies a "see no evil" mindset that has besieged the Town of Hempstead, a "we can do no wrong" mentality that stems, most likely, from the myopia of a 1950s vision of suburbia, coupled with the occupants of Town Hall being so long in power that they can no longer see the forest for the trees -- or, more aptly, the decay from the decline.

This said, we must look to the future. Hempstead, we've got a problem.

The uglification of the Turnpike isn't going away. In fact, day by day, its getting worse.

Accept it. Recognize it. Own it. Do something about it.

But, what to do?

Well, its always best to start at the beginning.

The Main Street National Trust for Historic Preservation cites Eight Principles for the redevelopment and revitalization of thoroughfares such as Hempstead Turnpike.

They are:

Comprehensive: No single focus — lavish public improvements, name-brand business recruitment, or endless promotional events — can revitalize Main Street. For successful, sustainable, long-term revitalization, a comprehensive approach, including activity in each of Main Street's Four Points, is essential.

Incremental: Baby steps come before walking. Successful revitalization programs begin with basic, simple activities that demonstrate that "new things are happening " in the commercial district. As public confidence in the Main Street district grows and participants' understanding of the revitalization process becomes more sophisticated, Main Street is able to tackle increasingly complex problems and more ambitious projects. This incremental change leads to much longer-lasting and dramatic positive change in the Main Street area.
Self-help: No one else will save your Main Street. Local leaders must have the will and desire to mobilize local resources and talent. That means convincing residents and business owners of the rewards they'll reap by investing time and money in Main Street — the heart of their community. Only local leadership can produce long-term success by fostering and demonstrating community involvement and commitment to the revitalization effort.

Partnerships: Both the public and private sectors have a vital interest in the district and must work together to achieve common goals of Main Street's revitalization. Each sector has a role to play and each must understand the other's strengths and limitations in order to forge an effective partnership.

Identifying and capitalizing on existing assets: Business districts must capitalize on the assets that make them unique. Every district has unique qualities like distinctive buildings and human scale that give people a sense of belonging. These local assets must serve as the foundation for all aspects of the revitalization program.

Quality: Emphasize quality in every aspect of the revitalization program. This applies to all elements of the process — from storefront designs to promotional campaigns to educational programs. Shoestring budgets and "cut and paste" efforts reinforce a negative image of the commercial district. Instead, concentrate on quality projects over quantity.

Change: Skeptics turn into believers and attitudes on Main Street will turn around. At first, almost no one believes Main Street can really turn around. Changes in attitude and practice are slow but definite — public support for change will build as the Main Street program grows and consistently meets its goals. Change also means engaging in better business practices, altering ways of thinking, and improving the physical appearance of the commercial district. A carefully planned Main Street program will help shift public perceptions and practices to support and sustain the revitalization process.

Implementation: To succeed, Main Street must show visible results that can only come from completing projects. Frequent, visible changes are a reminder that the revitalization effort is under way and succeeding. Small projects at the beginning of the program pave the way for larger ones as the revitalization effort matures, and that constant revitalization activity creates confidence in the Main Street program and ever-greater levels of participation.

Okay. We have to face the fact that, up to now, the forces that move -- or stagnate -- America's largest Township haven't exactly been up to the task of reshaping the Town's Main Streets.

Even those baby steps, such as improvements to Baldwin's business district or redevelopment of Elmont's Argo have proved most painful.

Indeed, change, when it comes at all in Hempstead Town, cannot be so much as characterized as evolutionary, the entire species dying out -- or moving out -- before the matter of redevelopment ever gets to Town Board or Zoning Board.

Still, we have to be optimistic. There must be hope -- and the will of the populace to go with it, raising the bar on expectations, and striving for more than mere mediocrity -- that the folks at Town Hall (in this administration or, perhaps, the next, should fortunes dictate a departure from the monolith of autocratic one-party rule) will pick up the ball and put it in play.

And not just in words, mind you, but in deeds.

A great place to start that ball rolling -- and, not coincidentally, it happens to be along a goodly stretch of Hempstead Turnpike, in Uniondale -- is with the approval of the Lighthouse project, a revitalization plan that offers a renaissance for Nassau's long-neglected "hub."

Then, too, must Nassau County's Master Plan (the latest in a series) include a workable framework for the rebirth of Hempstead Turnpike -- a plan that fulfills the vision of a suburban, tree-scaped, walkable boulevard, where business mixes with pleasure, housing interacts with work, and, if one cannot exactly be found to be watching the whole world go by, sipping an espresso while sitting at a cafe at the corner of the Turnpike and Elmont Road, one could at least walk the Turnpike, shop the Turnpike, breathe the air along the Turnpike, and even go for a leisurely stroll, with family in tow, along the Turnpike, with eyes wide open to a new, improved suburbia.

With providence, and a decent push forward from you -- homeowners, taxpayers, sojourners along the Turnpike all -- we won't have to revisit that "twenty miles of ugly" another four years down the road!

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