Photo: Denise Civiletii

This was no ordinary groundbreaking ceremony.

Sure there were the usual suspects — elected officials taking turns at the podium, making speeches extolling the importance of the project and how hard everybody worked to “make it happen.”

There were the hard hats and gold-colored shovels for the dignitaries to use for the faux breaking of ground — spooning some dirt from a fresh pile as they smile for the cameras.

But this one was different.

This one was the result of a grass-roots effort to make something great happen in the beleaguered hamlet of Riverside. Sure, the elected officials in town, county and state government were important in many different ways. Town officials adopted the Riverside Revitalization Action Plan and the zoning to implement it. County and state officials worked to allocate funding for the work now underway on the Riverside traffic circle. There were the grant applications to write, the plans to be drawn, the lobbying to be done. Everyone had a hand in it.

But without the community — a community that stood together, people of all races and ethnicities, arm in arm — demanding, at long last, action to effect positive change…Would this groundbreaking have happened today, officials asked.

Photo: Denise Civiletti

One by one, the assembled elected officials — representing both Southampton and Riverhead towns, Suffolk County and the State of New York — stood up to give props to the community residents seated in the hot sun today on the property where a new mixed-use building will soon rise.

“Nothing would be happening here if it wasn’t for the community,” Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. “When a community speaks with one voice, so much can happen.”

Riverside, Flanders and Northampton collectively decided it would not settle for being a regional afterthought. Located in the southwest corner of the Town of Southampton, the area has long existed in a kind of no-man’s-land. Its postal addresses said “Riverhead.” Its kids went to Riverhead schools. But it had no voice in Riverhead Town government and Southampton Town government historically seemed uninterested in the fates of the three depressed hamlets — until residents came together and demanded change. Loudly.

Sean McLean of Renaissance Downtowns, master developer for the Riverside Revitalization Action Plan, lives in Flanders. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Fortuitously, an executive with a development company specializing in revitalization of depressed areas made his home in Flanders. And a partnership was forged between Renaissance Downtowns and the Flanders, Northampton and Riverside Community Association.

“This is the spark that kicks off the bonfire that sweeps through the whole region,” Sean McLean of Renaissance Downtowns said.

“This is a real partnership,” he said. “Even when people aren’t financially linked, when their values are linked together, great things can happen.”

Also fortuitously, the community association president was elected to the Southampton Town Board. These factors came together to make a real revitalization plan for Riverside something concrete.

Riverside Rediscovered, a project of town-appointed master developer Renaissance Downtowns, has played a vital role, along with the membership of FRNCA.

All together, the individuals and organizations involved coalesced to form what they believe to be “the little community that could.”

N.Y. State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, a Sag Harbor resident, said the project is a great example of what can be accomplished when the community, government and the private sector work together.

“We try to help in government, but sometimes we need to just get out of the way,” Thiele said.

The assemblyman reminisced about visiting downtown Riverhead as a small child on shopping expeditions with his parents. It was like the big city, he recalled.

“And on every shopping trip to Riverhead, we’d always end up here for ice cream,” he said, referring to the site’s original occupant, a Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. HoJo’s was later replaced by the Riverboat Diner. The diner closed down about 15 years ago, and the building sat vacant ever since — an eyesore in a very prominent, heavily trafficked location.

“This is going to be the first of many projects — so thank you, FRNCA for all the work you’ve done.”

FRNCA vice president Sarah Huneault said she isn’t old enough to remember the Riverboat Diner being open for business.

“I never got the opportunity to enjoy a meal at the diner that was here,” she said. “As long as I can remember, it’s been a vacant, run-down building.”

Architect’s rendering of the mixed use building to be constructed by Mattituck builder Paul Pawlowski

Mattituck builder Paul Pawlowski bought the long-abandoned diner site on the Riverside circle and obtained approvals for the office/workforce housing rental building so quickly, he said he is still astonished.

The Town of Southampton laid the groundwork with the revitalization action plan, the necessary zoning and a completed environmental impact statement, Pawlowski said today. That made approvals for his proposed project quick and easy.

“It’s amazing how quickly this went through,” Pawlowski said.

Pawlowski has already demolished and removed the old diner and today, heavy equipment was on site working in the background as elected officials made their remarks at a podium set up under canopies to shield them from the hot August sun.

Meanwhile, work on the roundabout continues.

Much of the Riverside Revitalization Action Plan depends on the availability of hookup to a sewage treatment facility. Southampton Town is hoping to build a new facility to serve the new development, but those plans are dependent on state funding — the fate of which remains uncertain.

The plan calls for high-density, mixed-use development in the area of the traffic circle, with decreasing development density in the areas surrounding the circle.

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