Monday, October 05, 2009

A Cool Reception For "Cool Downtowns"?

90/10 Solution Evinces Mixed Reviews

They came. They listened. They pondered the future of Nassau County. And they wondered, amidst the lofty proposals and the enduring rhetoric, when will America's first suburb truly witness a rebirth?

Seems to us that this vision of New Suburbia, this ideal of Cool Downtowns, is caught up somplace between "make it happen" and "let it happen".

And then there's "don't let it happen", as in Hempstead Town -- where the answer to "When?" is "Never." Where planning is anathema, and zoning is by exception, rather than rule. Where "smart growth" and the revitalization of "Main Street" (other than by Victorian-style street lamp), are the new drugs, and the Town Supervisor's credo is, "Just say no."

Rarely, if ever, in places like Hempstead Town, does it "happen," even when residents go to great lengths to make it happen. [Do the Argo in Elmont, the Courtesy in West Hempstead, and the Lighthouse Project in Uniondale ring any bells?]

Franky, Nassau County residents can no longer afford to say "no," to stand pat, or to simply "let it happen."

We, as a community, as a determined citizenry, and yes, as taxpayers, dearly in need of a revitalized Nassau as cornerstone of property tax relief, must say "yes," embracing not only the re-imagining and re-engineering of that 10% of our county's landscape -- the blighted, the abandoned, the declining, and the decayed -- but also re-thinking, in a bold, new way, how we live our lives in that other 90%.

Nassau County has a new Master Plan, unlike any such plan that has come before it.

We need to not only scope it out, discuss its merits (and its shortcomings), and debate the pros and cons. That's a given.

We need to embrace the very essence of what this plan entails. A life-giving breath to a suburban community too long on life support, being sustained not by innovative design and thoughful implementation of quintessential ideas, but by our hard-earned tax dollars (as in, good money thrown after bad).

And we need to give a hard, swift kick to the shin -- or higher -- of those powers-that-be (namely, the Zoning Board of the Town of Hempstead and the Town Supervisor, whose "yea" or "nay" (mostly, "nay") is the difference between that new suburbia, and a vast suburban wasteland, over whose plains roll not the progress of a vibrant and enticing new century, but tumbleweeds, over the brownfields, into oblivion.

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From The New York Times:

In the Region Long Island
Retrofitting for a ‘New Suburbia’

NINETY percent of Nassau County “needs to remain untouched,” Thomas R. Suozzi, the county executive, kept reiterating as he espoused his vision for a “new suburbia.” He extolled the virtues of single-family homes, the North Shore waterfront and the South Shore ocean beaches, the parks and the open spaces — seeing them all as elements that need not change.

But then he got to the topic of the county’s other 10 percent — and it, he asserted, “needs to be completely reimagined, completely re-envisioned.”

To that end, at back-to-back conferences late in September, Mr. Suozzi unveiled a master plan, the “90/10 solution,” cajoling community leaders, developers, environmentalists and change-phobic residents to join a coalition to fix things that need fixing — while retaining the backyards and ball fields that made one of the nation’s first suburbs a desirable place to call home.

The forums took place on consecutive days — the first in Jericho on “Cutting Through the Red Tape: Building on Long Island Today,” the second at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, site of the Lighthouse, one of four major projects that Mr. Suozzi is promoting in his retrofitting agenda.

“The public is afraid of anything new, because they are afraid that next development is going to be the last vestige of suburbia that they love,” he declared, even as he detailed a vision of a more enticing — and urban — suburbia, in the form of 18 “cool” new downtowns in places like Island Park and Port Washington. There would be multistory housing near commuter rail stations, he said; there would be restaurants, shops and entertainment.

The goals achieved through these changes, according to Mr. Suozzi, are an expanded county tax base; a halt to the exodus of young people; a cap on crippling traffic congestion; and help for poorer areas.

He also urged his listeners to forge ahead on several projects now being weighed by various communities. Chief among them is the $3.74 billion Lighthouse suburban town center, which is under the scrutiny of Hempstead’s zoning board. (On Thursday, Mr. Suozzi announced a ground lease that would keep the Islanders hockey team at the coliseum through July 2030, subject to county and town approval.)

Others involve the redevelopment of Belmont Park and adjacent parts of Elmont; the transformation of the Glen Cove waterfront with housing, shops and a hotel; and reuse of 105 acres on the Grumman Aerospace plot in Bethpage as a high-tech business incubator.

Among the big concerns he cited was the flight of younger residents. “They want to be where it is fun, where it is exciting, where they can meet other young people,” Mr. Suozzi said. With couples marrying later, and relatively few starting families in their 20s, the suburbs have begun to seem both expensive and dull.

Affordability is also an issue, and the dearth of rentals on Long Island is a factor in that. “It’s not affordable in Brooklyn or Manhattan either,” he said; but, helped along by those areas’ vigorous rental markets, “kids are moving to Manhattan and Brooklyn all the time.”

In Nassau and Suffolk, rentals make up 17 percent of available housing; by contrast, in Westchester County they represent 37 percent.

Throughout the two days, Mr. Suozzi’s message remained consistent — even as the reactions it got were decidedly mixed.

Officials like John Cameron, the chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, lent him their support. Declaring that the Island was “at a crossroads,” Mr. Cameron asserted, “either we will deal with our issues and challenges or it’s game over,” adding, the “no-action alternative will prove that we are not sustainable.”

Residents and other individual participants, however, had concerns. One was voiced by Emarinsie Funderbird, a Roosevelt business owner, who said Mr. Suozzi’s plans would bypass destitute communities like hers, even though they are beset with “all the ills they need to change,” like an abundance of foreclosures, and single-family homes occupied by five to six families. “All efforts will be on the 10 percent” represented by the new projects that the county executive is promoting, she predicted.

James Ruzicka, the mayor of Island Park, who also attended, received applause for asking the county to add his village to the potential downtown list, and made the point that “we could be cooler” right now. Specifically, he was hoping for help in beefing up a two-block area near the train station. “We could use a fix-up and get more business into town,” he said.

Mark Lesko, the Brookhaven town supervisor, said that on the issue of “smart downtowns,” Nassau and Suffolk Counties were in sync. Feeling the lack of town centers, he cited the daunting aspects of creating those “nodes” in places like Ronkonkoma, Port Jefferson and Bellport.

Muzzio Tallini, a developer who had sought to build a 20,000-square-foot mixed-use project with 10 duplexes above retail shops in Elmont, but had his proposal rejected by Hempstead, bemoaned official resistance to change. “Getting anything done on Long Island is very difficult,” he said. “How can we get anything started if this government says no to us all the time?”

For his part Eric Alexander, the executive director of Vision Long Island, a “smart growth” group, took a practical, distanced stance to the entire issue. “Downtowns would regenerate themselves” and “the island will transform over the next 10 years whether we have big mega-projects or not,” he insisted. “The demographics will drive it.”

With residents struggling to maintain costly oversized homes and feeling isolated on cul-de-sacs, demand is already pushing developers to create smaller housing units near train stations, Mr. Alexander said. “That’s clear from applications we see from developers.”


  1. Those who are fixated on trying to maintain the charming, surburban way of life that was prevalent on Long Island forty or fifty years ago miss the point. Without judging whether this is good or bad, the fact is that Long Island in 2009 bears little resemblance to Long Island in 1959. The inevitable consequence of population growth, demographic changes, long-term economic trends and other forces have already rendered significant changes and will continue to do so. We can no more prevent this from happening than we could go back in time. Instead, we have a choice: we can either plan for and manage those changes, implementing land use and economic policies that will ensure that Long Island becomes a place where our children can both get a good job and maintain a satisfying life-style; or we can continue to muddle along with very little in the way of a sensible planning process, ensuring that all the problems we now confront - from strained infrastructure, to traffic congestion, weak economic development, blighted neighborhoods and burdensome taxes - only get worse. People like Kate Murray and her ilk don't seem to get this and so projects like Lighthouse end up being a lightening rod for the frustration people feel about Long Island and the way it is now. The frustration is understandable but the target of that frustration is misguided. It is exactly the kind of nimbyism and narrow-minded political leadership now undermining the chances that the Lighthouse project will ever happen, which has us in the mess we're in now.

  2. The Town of Hempstead needs to get with the program. Regretably, it's only a few isolated villages willing to make meaningful change in their approach to development. We need forward thinking people representing us at the Town of Hempstead, and Kate's not one of them. Unfortunately, the people keep sending her back election after election, and the blight is only getting worse!

    Where's Kristen McElroy?

  3. Even when it will be business-as-usual in town halls across Nassau and Suffolk, there's hope that the re-development of Glen Cove's waterfront will not only accomplish its goals, but go on to serve as an example of how local government, businesses, and advocacy groups can cooperate to the betterment of all.

    KUDOS: League of Conservation Voters Honors Glen Cove Re-Development Partnership -