Mayor Paul Pontieri’s pride in the bustling Village of Patchogue is evident as he strolls along Main Street, stopping to pick up a stray plastic bag littering the sidewalk, point out the newest restaurant that’s just opened, or chat with the constituents who stop him to say hello.
It was noontime on Presidents Day and shoppers walked along the street, the restaurants were full and Pontieri was clearly delighted.
“I love it,” Pontieri said. “You walk downtown now, there’s a nice vibe, a lot of energy.”
A village official since 1986, Pontieri served first as a trustee and was elected mayor in April 2004, nearly 13 years ago. He’s seen the village undergo a complete transformation, one that Riverhead Town officials have been longing to see in their downtown district.
“Patchogue has always been Riverhead’s sister town,” Supervisor Sean Walter said.
“Riverhead is very much like Patchogue,” the mayor agreed.
Riverhead Town officials are looking to the village as an example of downtown revitalization that they’d like to replicate.
‘Affordable housing is a home run’
Known as a summer resort community in the 19th century, Patchogue became a regional commercial and retail center in the 20th century. Like Riverhead, Patchogue’s anchor retailer was Swezey’s Department Store. The two business districts had many of the same shops line their streets. Both business districts began to decline as shopping centers took root on nearby highways in the 1970s and 1980s — Sunrise Highway in Patchogue and Route 58 in Riverhead.
When Pontieri, a lifelong resident, became a trustee, the Village of Patchogue’s glory days were behind it. The 1920s-era movie palace closed its doors. Vacancies multiplied. By the time the family-owned Swezey’s gave up its fight to compete with national discount chains, closing its doors in 2003, Patchogue’s Main Street was but a shadow of its former self.
Pontieri said he believed early on that bringing new residents to the village would spur its revitalization. Shortly after taking office as mayor he set his sights on redeveloping an area on South Ocean Avenue, a couple blocks south of Main Street, that had a lot of old, two-family homes, some declining commercial uses and quite a bit of vacant land. Pontieri requested funding from Suffolk County to help bear the cost of connecting a new housing development to public sewers and water.
“You can say whatever you want about Steve Levy,” Pontieri said of the former county executive, “but he really believed in this and really stepped up.”
Copper Beech, an 80-unit townhouse development with 40 units of workforce housing, was built with $3.75 million dollars from Suffolk County and over $15 million dollars in private investment. It was developed by Pulte Homes with the assistance of the Long Island Housing Partnership.
Pontieri is an advocate of mixed-use commercial/residential development as a means of revitalization. And it’s important to build a mixture of rentals and owner-occupied developments, he says — and to mix up the targeted income levels.
“Some people are afraid when you talk about affordable housing, but affordable housing is a home run, especially if you do it right and you use an organization like the Long Island Housing Partnership,” he said.
People who meet the income guidelines set by the federal government to qualify for affordable housing are truly the local workforce, the mayor said. The guidelines are set in relation to the area median income.
Other developments following Copper Beech in Patchogue were ArtSpace, with 45 workforce housing units, River Walk, a 163-unit market-rate townhouse development within walking distance of Main Street and the LIRR, River View, with 36 market rate condos and New Village, a 291-unit mixed-use rental apartment development — 30 percent affordable, the rest market rate — on the former site of Swezey’s Department Store. New Village also has 20,000-square-feet of ground-floor commercial space.
“We have 700 units, so that’s, say, 1,000 or 1,200 people. They bring an energy,” Pontieri said. “They walk. They go down for breakfast. They go out to dinner. They go to the theater. It’s now their home. They’re not transients — they live here.
The mayor said the village, which has a population of about 12,500, is “much younger” as a result of the new housing — but it’s also provided living space for older people — empty nesters — who want to move into smaller quarters and simplify their lives.
Karen Zorzenon, 60, has a one-bedroom apartment in New Village with a view of the bay in the distance. She was enjoying a day off from work Monday having lunch and shopping with a friend. They had just emerged from one of the newer restaurants in Patchogue — there are 25 to 30 restaurants along Main Street, Pontieri said — when they ran into the mayor and his deputy, Trustee Jack Krieger.
“There was a one-hour wait for a table,” Zorzenon said, but it was worth it.”
The 746-square-foot apartment she’s called home for 2 1/2 years is perfect for her, Zorzenon says. A lifelong village resident, she wanted to sell her home of 35 years and downsize — but she wasn’t interested in a seniors-only gated community.
“It wasn’t for me. I like a variety of people,” she said. “There’s a lot of young doctors and scientists who work at Stony Brook, a real mix of people, including some empty-nesters like me.”
Zorzenon liked the amenities when she first looked at the development. New Village has a pool, community rooms on every floor, community terraces with barbecues and a fitness center,” Zorzenon said. “And I wanted something where I could walk everywhere.”
Patchogue Village has undergone an “amazing transformation” over the past two decades, Zorzenon said.
The new housing brought new businesses which in turn brought new investment in the village, in both commercial properties and older homes.
Penny Lustig, another lifelong Patchogue resident was out for a walk with her husband Jason. They too stopped the mayor to say hello. (The affable Pontieri is a local celebrity in Patchogue who can’t walk more than a few yards without being stopped by residents to chat.) The Lustigs, a couple in their 50s, bought a house in the village six years ago.
“We’ve seen it come through some low times,” Penny Lustig said. She said at first she wasn’t sure how she felt about all the new apartments, but has seen the positive impact they’ve had on the village. Today, her 28-year-old daughter, who’s a guidance counselor at BOCES and her boyfriend, a musician, live in an apartment in ArtSpace.
“The housing has made it feasible for her to stay locally,” Penny Lustig said.
Will affordable apartments be downtown Riverhead’s ‘home run’?
The Riverhead supervisor, since taking office in 2010, has looked to new housing developments downtown as the ticket to revitalization. In fact he has made it a centerpiece of his approach.
High-density residential development was provided for in the zoning adopted under the 2003 master plan, but didn’t begin to get built downtown until nearly a decade later.
The first development to go up was Summerwind Square, a mixed-use building on Peconic Avenue featuring 48 workforce housing rental units over ground floor commercial uses that opened in 2013.
Another 19 workforce rentals were built on the upper floor of the former Woolworth building on East Main Street, above first-floor commercial uses, including a large fitness club.
Two more mixed-use developments are in the pipeline: Peconic Crossing is about to break ground on West Main Street, just off Peconic Avenue, where Conifer Realty, in partnership with the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, will build 45 low-income, artist-preference rentals. Georgica Green, which has not yet received site plan approval, has proposed 117 rental units in a mixed-use development at the corner of McDermott Avenue and East Main Street. Its ground flood will be occupied by restaurant and retail uses.
A third, similar plan for the adjacent former Sears site has not yet been formally proposed.
Concerns about the new development changing the character of downtown and the lack of available parking in the downtown center have led some, including Walter’s political adversaries, to call for a moratorium on the new construction.
But the road to Patchogue’s renaissance was not without its bumps and potholes.
Next: Common obstacles, different strategies