File photo: Peter Blasl

Downtown Riverhead has a parking problem that demands attention.

That was the message Riverhead merchants want to convey to the town board, who they feel is not taking the issue as seriously as it should. Downtown business owners spoke out at a joint meeting of the Riverhead BID Management Association and the Riverhead parking district advisory committee Thursday evening at Town Hall.

The merchants are especially concerned about the potential construction of hundreds more rental apartments on Main Street without adequate provision for off-street parking. Parking is already tight, they say. For every new apartment there will likely be one or more additional tenants’ cars taking up parking spaces owned by the downtown parking district, the merchants say.

“Businesses can’t survive if they don’t have parking,” Tweeds Restaurant owner Ed Tuccio said. “You’re going to put people out of business by allowing all these residential units to be built without providing additional parking to meet the needs of their tenants,” he said. The owner of Uncle Joe’s Pizzeria on West Main Street cited lack of parking as a reason for closing his doors in September.

“The parking district was created to benefit the downtown businesses,” Tuccio said. “It belongs to the merchants. They bought and paid for it.”

The district was established in 1967. The town at the time hired Riverhead attorney Charles Raffe as special counsel to do the legal work needed to set up the new district.

“The parking district was created for two purposes,” Raffe said in an interview last week. “One was to acquire parking in the downtown area to make it more convenient for the retail businesses that were there. The other was to renovate and upgrade the existing parking lot,” he said, referring to the town-owned lot on the south side of the East Main Street block between Peconic Avenue and the roadway adjacent to the Riverhead Grill. The new parking district issued bonds to finance the purchase of and improvement of properties to create new parking lots and to upgrade the existing lot.

“I have no recollection of any intention to increase the residential occupancy of the area,” Raffe said.

The town zoning had prohibited new residential uses on Main Street until an arts district established in 1997 allowed for artist live-work spaces above storefronts. That was a little-used code provision, with only a handful of new units built.

But after the adoption of the 2003 master plan, the town board amended the zoning code to allow up to 500 dwelling units and five-story buildings in the Main Street corridor. Planners said developing new residential uses on Main Street would spur downtown revitalization.

In the interim, the L.I. Aquarium — formerly Atlantis Marine World — was built and opened for business. It has expanded and a hotel, conference center and catering hall were built alongside it.

Summerwind Square, with 52 apartments above a ground-floor restaurant and a bank office, opened on Peconic Avenue in 2013. Tenants moved into the nineteen apartments of the Woolworth Revitalization in 2015.

The 45-unit Peconic Crossing apartment building has been approved by town and will be built next year on West Main Street just off Peconic Avenue. Another 118 dwelling units, shops and two restaurants are planned by Georgica Green Ventures for a new building on East Main Street and McDermott Avenue. A Westhampton developer is negotiating to buy the former Sears site for another mixed-use apartment building. The Woolworth Revitalization developer is purchasing the former West Marine site with the intention of building apartments over first-floor retail and restaurant uses. Plans are also in the works for a boutique hotel and restaurant on East Main and Ostrander.

Nearly all of these properties are within the physical boundaries of the parking district. The zoning code, as currently written, allows them to be developed without providing any parking on site.

And that’s the problem, merchants say. With parking already at a premium, they say they can’t imagine what the parking situation will be with hundreds more residents parking their cars in the neighborhood.

Some have called for a moratorium on new residential development and zoning code changes to reduce the number of apartments that could be built on Main Street and/or to change the parking district code as it pertains to residential uses. Others ask for new restrictions on how long people can park in certain areas and enforcement of time limits, with penalties for violations.

Plans for relatively small changes to curbing and striping that could increase existing parking capacity by more than 50 spaces were proposed by the BID Management Association board a few years ago, but never implemented due to budgetary constraints.

“Something’s got to be done,” Nancy Kouris, co-owner of Blue Duck Bakery said at Thursday’s meeting. She asked for the spots near her shop — east of McDermott Avenue — to be time-restricted, suggesting a 15-minute limit.

Councilmen John Dunleavy and Tim Hubbard attended the meeting as town board liaisons to the parking district advisory committee and BID Management Association, respectively.

The group agreed to pursue hiring either one full-time parking enforcement officer or two part-timers, with the cost being split evenly between the BID and the town, Dunleavy said in an interview after the meeting. The BID and the town would also split the revenue from the fines, he said. He said he will propose this to the full town board.

Dunleavy also said he’ll propose instituting a per-apartment impact fee on new residential development in the parking district.

“The way the code is written, the parking district tax is calculated only based on the square footage, so that’s not fair,” Dunleavy said.

The impact fees would go to the parking district, he said, and could be used to acquire property for new parking spaces. Dunleavy said he would ask the town attorney if a requirement for an impact fee could be assessed on developments that already have site plan applications filed.

Hubbard said the town needs “to do something different. Obviously a parking garage would be a long-term plan.” A multi-level garage is an expensive proposition, however, with costs estimated at more than $30,000 per parking space provided.

Hubbard said he has been approached by a private developer who is interested in building a parking garage in the municipal lot north of East Main Street. The developer would buy or lease the land from the parking district, he said.

The Riverhead Town Board sits as the governing body of both the business improvement district and the parking district, two special taxing districts in downtown Riverhead. Properties in the parking district pay a parking district property tax intended to fund new parking and maintain existing parking areas.

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