Representatives of the company that owns the shopping plaza vacated by Walmart in January 2014. File photo: Denise Civiletti

The Riverhead Industrial Development Agency’s newest member has proposed forming a task force with Riverhead Town officials to concentrate on redevelopment of vacant buildings in the town.

Larry Simms, who before his appointment to the IDA in ___ was an outspoken critic of the projects the agency supported with financial inducements including tax exemptions and abatements, made the pitch at yesterday’s board meeting.

Simms noted that the IDA, under its uniform tax abatement policy, can offer enhanced tax benefits to encourage reuse and upgrading existing vacant buildings.

With the viability of big box retailers increasingly threatened by online commerce, resulting in bankruptcies and store closings nationwide, the future of Riverhead’s commercial corridor is in question, town officials have noted. Much of Route 58 was zoned by the town, pursuant to its 2003 master plan, specifically to attract big box retailers. The rise of Internet retailers like Amazon changed the landscape. Impacts have already been felt locally, with national retail stores such as Sports Authority, Radio Shack and Toys R Us closing after bankruptcies.

“But it’s not just big box stores, even though they are the most visible,” Simms said.

“This is not a problem the IDA alone can solve, but we can play a role,” Simms said. “We can target vacant properties, contact developers and let them know that significant assistance is available for us if they purchase a vacant building and use it for something other than retail,” he said.

“Coordination with the town board and planning board is essential,” Simms said.

Simms suggested forming a committee on “adaptive reuse” and volunteered to be a member of it.

IDA Chairman Thomas Cruso said the first step is to figure out who’s doing what already and “where can we fit in?” He noted that the town board recently appointed a downtown revitalization committee. “Where are they and what are they doing? We should find out.” He also asked what the Riverhead Community Development Agency is doing in this regard.

“I work with the CDA on vacant properties,” IDA executive director Tracy Stark said. “It’s one of my faves.”

Residents often complain about new developments being built on vacant land instead of filling existing vacant buildings, but town government’s tools for influencing what can be built where are actually rather limited. The town has the power to zone property for certain types of uses — but “spot zoning” to grant or remove uses for a particular site is illegal. And of course, private property owners have the right to develop land pursuant to its existing zoning.

The town can incentivize redevelopment of vacant buildings, Simms pointed out. Though he didn’t say so at yesterday’s meeting, in the past Simms has criticized the IDA for incentivizing new construction on vacant land.

The agency has provided benefits for the kind of adaptive reuse projects Simms advocates. Most, though not all, have been downtown: a mental health office on Second Street, the former firehouse on Second Street, the 20 W. Main and 30 W. Main office buildings, the former Woolworth building, the Suffolk Theater and the renovation of the storefronts where the Blue Duck Bakery Cafe, the Farmer’s Kitchen and Ralph’s Italian Ices are located.

It has also provided benefits for the redevelopment of the vacant former PC Richard building on Route 58 as a radiation/oncology office as well as for the redevelopment of a former auto dealership with a bowling alley and restaurant on Main Road. The owner of the former Walmart site has put in a preliminary application to the IDA to assist its plans to build a movie theater there, according to a company representative.

Cruso and IDA board member Robert Kern both said they thought Simms’ idea was a good one. The board didn’t take any immediate action.

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