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Apartment buildings and the changing face of downtown Riverhead

Architect's rendering of The Metro Group's proposed five-story apartment building adjacent to the East End Arts complex on East Main Street. Adjoining it on the east would be another five-story apartment building by Georgica Green Ventures.

The look and feel of Riverhead’s Main Street will soon undergo dramatic change, if a pair of proposed apartment buildings is developed as planned in the months ahead.

Officials on the town’s Architectural Review Board and Landmarks Preservation Commission, tasked with making the new, relatively large structures compatible with older existing buildings, are grappling with design details and negotiating with architects and developers as they shape the future look of downtown Riverhead.

Their charge is particularly challenging when new five-story buildings will inhabit a space adjacent to historic buildings and public green spaces along the riverfront. That’s exactly the challenge for the 170-unit apartment building proposed for the former Sears site next to the East End Arts complex, a park-like space occupied by several designated landmarks dating back to the early 19th century.

The goal is to enhance the downtown historic district — not mimic historic architecture, according to Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman Richard Wines.

“We were surprised when you asked for a modern style,” said Randolph Gerner, architect for The Metro Group, the developer proposing to build the five-story building where Sears and three smaller storefronts once stood. Gerner and Metro Group principal Robert Muchnick presented renderings and plans to members of the ARB and Landmarks Preservation Commission yesterday afternoon. It was their second appearance before the ARB and their design concepts had been revised to reflect the town officials’ comments during their initial sit-down in December.

The apartment building is divided into four “wings” build around three interior courtyards that open up onto the East End Arts site.

“We feel one of the most interesting aspects of the site is the relationship to the East End Arts, which is a beautiful park,” Gerner said. “Our goal is a nice communication with that park, to bring the park into our site and create the perception that one site flows into the next to form a cohesive whole.”

The four wings also reduce what otherwise might be a massive edifice. The building will stand 57 feet, 10 inches tall. The architect has incorporated other design features to reduce its scale, like sloped roofs and variations in its facades.

The building itself will be either white or gray, to complement nearby structures, including the Methodist Church directly across the street.

Current plans call for 53 two-bedroom, 85 one-bedroom and 32 studio apartments, Muchnick said. They range in size from 416-square-foot studios to 926-square-foot two-bedroom units and will be a mix of affordable and market-rate dwellings. There will be 118 parking spaces beneath the building at ground level. The site is within the Riverhead Parking District and by town code the developer is not required to provide any off-street parking. The ground-floor space fronting Main Street will be divided into several retail shops.

“I’m very impressed with the whole presentation,” ARB chairman Roy Sokoloski told Gerner and Muchnick.

Landmarks Preservation Commission member Peter Lucas expressed reservations about a cylindrical “tower” on the northwest corner of the building.

“I’m not sure the tower is necessary and think it demands too much attention,” Lucas said.

Gerner said his aim with that feature was to create a soft corner. “I wanted to integrate the promenade into the sidewalk,” he explained.

An additional challenge for the building design is the five-story structure proposed for the adjoining site on the east, where Georgica Green Ventures would like to build 118 apartments as well as ground-floor retail shops and restaurants. The ARB has worked with Georgica Green’s architect to accommodate the Metro Group building. That’s been somewhat tricky because Georgica Green’s plans have been in review since last year. Georgica Green’s architect, Stephen Jacobs has incorporated suggestions from the ARB to create a courtyard on the west side of its site, adjoining what the ARB hoped would be a courtyard on the east side of the Metro Group property.

Georgica Green’s plans will be finalized within about a week, Sokoloski said.

Another five-story apartment building broke ground last month. Peconic Crossing, under development by Conifer Realty, will provide 45 workforce housing rentals just west of Peconic Avenue. 

Riverhead allowed up to 500 apartments and five-story buildings with new zoning code provisions adopted by the town board in 2009, implementing the recommendations of the 2003 master plan. Summerwind Square  has so far been the only apartment building constructed under the new code.  A smattering of new apartments have been constructed in existing buildings, such as the old Woolworth Building and One East Main Street.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter and the current town board have embraced the notion of downtown revitalization through development of residential uses. Pointing to the Village of Patchogue’s success, Walter believes bringing residents downtown will support businesses downtown. 

Critics argue that available parking downtown can’t support housing on the scale contemplated by the town code. Walter and the current board have come under fire for not planning to construct new parking to accommodate the new residences. Political rivals in the 2015 campaign called for a moratorium on new housing. Democratic supervisor candidate Laura Jens-Smith, a candidate for town board in 2015, has stopped short of renewing the call for a moratorium so far this year, but remains critical of the current administration’s approach, which, she says, did not provide for parking or an adequate mix of housing stock.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.