Democratic candidate for Riverhead Town Board Laura Jens-Smith of Laurel is calling for a building moratorium on new dwelling units on Main Street.
Jens-Smith made the pitch for a moratorium at Thursday’s planning board meeting, after the board discussed the proposal by a Rochester developer to build a 48-unit apartment building on the West Main Street site that currently houses the Long Island Science Center.
Jens-Smith cited recommendations made to the town board in June by Nelson, Pope and Voorhis, a consulting firm retained by the town to conduct a “brownfields” corridor study funded by a $567,000 state grant. The consultants told the board present zoning downtown permits “an impractical level of development” and suggested scaling back density to limit the number of new apartments to about 325. Current zoning imposes a cap of 500.
As the town builds out under the current code, there will be a need for 1,200 more parking spaces, according to the Nelson, Pope and Voohris study, she told the board. “Without new parking, these dwelling units will take vital parking needed for businesses,” Jens-Smith said.
“You are really putting a very high burden on taxpayers as opposed to these people looking to build,” she said.
The consultants recommended a number of alternatives to the construction of a costly multi-story parking garage, which they said would cost about $30,000 per parking stall to construct. Among the alternatives was requiring developers of new residential units to provide on-site parking for those units, even within the parking district.
Chick Voorhis of Nelson, Pope and Voorhis told the town board at its June 11 work session that parking capacity downtown is actually not currently a problem.
There are 2,710 parking spaces in the DC-1 district, Voorhis said. At weekday peak times, an average of 48 percent of them (1,290) are filled. At weekend peak times, that number drops to 19 percent, Voorhis said.
At the June 11 town board meeting, Councilman John Dunleavy disputed Voorhis’ conclusion. “Those numbers are very deceiving,” he said. “There definitely is a problem where the stores are. People don’t want to walk.”
Jens-Smith said the planning board should ask the town board to impose a construction moratorium on new apartment buildings, so that the town can amend its downtown zoning code to conform to the consultants’ recommendations.
“To ignore the study and ignore the findings is not in the best interests of the town,” the council candidate said.
Democratic supervisor candidate Anthony Coates said he agreed with Jens-Smith.
“The ink isn’t even dry” on the Nelson, Pope report, Coates said, “and we’re already flying in the face of it. We commission these studies and then ignore their conclusions.”
‘Developers: Go Away’
But Larry Oxman, a real estate broker and Long Island Science Center board member said he “couldn’t disagree more” with the idea of a moratorium.
The town worked on the master plan for years. Though it was codified in 2004, “there’s been one building built,” he said, referring to the 52-unit Summerwind Square on Peconic Avenue.
In addition to Summerwind’s 52 apartments, there were new five apartments built at 1 East Main Street above Dark Horse Restaurant and 19 new apartments in the Woolworth building, above Maximus Fitness. Georgia Malone, who bought and renovated the 30 West Main office building, is buying 20 West Main and has said she is exploring retail development for its upper stories. Conifer Realty is in contract to buy the Long Island Science Center site, where it plans to build a 48-unit apartment building. The day after the planning board meeting, the town announced another land transaction on Main Street that, if approved, will bring an additional 160 dwelling units downtown. Georgica Green Ventures is buying four properties on East Main Street, including the former Sears, Roebuck store, where it plans to build a five-story building, with 160 apartments over ground-floor retail uses and below-ground parking for 100 vehicles.
“It’s just starting to take root,” Oxman told the planning board. “I do beleve there are issues with parking, but to suggest a moratorium you might as well put a sign downtown that says to developers, ‘Go Away.’ It’s just not the right message.”
Ups and downs of apartments on Main Street
Town officials in recent years have been pushing for residential development in the downtown district as a means of bringing the area back to life, but that wasn’t always the town’s policy. Decades ago, the town banned new residential uses on Main Street as a way to combat perceived concentrations of what was then called “welfare dumping” in downtown Riverhead.
In 1997, the town adopted a downtown “arts district” that allowed new upper-story residential uses by artists in “live-work” spaces.
Riverhead changed the downtown zoning completely in 2004, after finishing its comprehensive land use plan update in 2003, to allow new residential uses on Main Street and to allow high-density, multi-story development. The 2004 zoning code changes allow for multi-family apartment buildings up to five stories tall, with retail uses on the ground floor. The code puts a cap of 500 new dwelling units in the Downtown Center-1 zoning use district.
The DC-1 district is within the Riverhead Parking District. Developers of properties within the parking district are not required to provide off-street parking for their projects. Instead, properties within the district pay a special tax intended to fund parking facilities.