View of the Peconic Crossing building from Grangebel Park. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Town has long been concerned about its downtown Main Street. The arduous journey continues for this special place to become the prosperous and attractive neighborhood we all envision. Hope springs eternal for the “revitalization” enjoyed for some time now by Main Streets that have climbed out of the doldrums in such places as Greenport, Patchogue and Farmingdale.

To that end, often with grants, variances and IDA tax breaks, private investors have brought some vacant storefronts back to life in Riverhead’s downtown. The real explosion, however, in just the past few years, has been astonishing – and not all for the good — in the form of multi-story apartment buildings.

Now the town seeks public comment to change the zoning on Main Street’s south side so that unattractive, five-story mega apartments, built virtually to the edge of our sidewalks, are no longer allowed.

Actually, the five-story horse is out of the barn, with Peconic Crossing on West Main Street and the Riverview Lofts project under construction on the corner of East Main Street and McDermott Avenue. Courtesy of the former supervisor, the latter project was unnecessarily “fast-tracked.” Who really benefited from that? One result of that fast-tracking was continuing to hold a public hearing, scheduled for 2 p.m., even though the developer made critical information available only that very morning.

All this was justified because it was yet another affordable housing project. Doesn’t Riverhead host many more units of affordable housing already? Before we process another application for the construction of more affordable housing rentals, does it occur to anyone to take an inventory of all that we already have that includes the enormous number of mobile homes? Most mobile homes, concentrated in greater number in Riverhead than any community on Long Island, are a form of affordable housing.

As Riverhead mulls over this question of a Main Street with massive apartment buildings, consider the common sense of a moratorium that would suspend downtown development of apartment houses, if only for six months. And it would give precious time for a rational process for this zone change and all its implications, a process that would be far more inclusive of the people.

Imagine if all the developers, property owners, landlords, corporate officials and their lawyers had to share their privileged access to town hall with the townspeople! Imagine if the privileges of open doors and special meetings – the entire realm where the special interests dwell – were enjoyed by the people as well. Then imagine if the people had a real say about this never-ending, affordable housing crusade, with all its “fast track” privileges that some developers enjoy.

Most importantly, a moratorium would allow us to put together a fresh, well-defined perspective for Riverhead’s downtown. With adequate time, we can decide as a community that either enough is enough for huge apartment buildings, or if there are other places besides Main Street to site them. We could more carefully examine what we mean by a vibrant and revitalized downtown Riverhead, planned along a beautiful river.

Residential development is indeed a key to this, as all the planners insist. But we have just about reached the cap of 500 additional residential units, a cap set by the town itself. This underlies how the cultural centers found in the East End Arts center, Vail-Levittown Music Hall and the Suffolk Theater, as well as the small businesses such as shops and restaurants, will thrive in a designated historic district. And time is needed to develop some real solutions to the complex issue of parking, already remarkably scarce throughout downtown.

Let’s also take the time to assess what seems an absurd notion: that Main Street’s revitalization will abruptly halt with anything less than five-story, full-buildout apartment houses. This is the kind of fear-mongering the alarmist big shots will persistently shower on our town officials, who fall for it all the time. With a moratorium, the officials on our various town boards could take full measure of different and broader and usually overlooked criteria for downtown’s revitalization. Insistent developers ought to give us a breather as the community weighs in on making downtown an inviting commercial/cultural/residential center that jealously holds onto its historic, old neighborhood charm and unique riverfront that remains accessible to all of us.

The Village of Farmingdale readies for a moratorium after several years of its own explosive growth of apartment houses downtown. In the words of its mayor, “The people are sick and tired of building.” So in the offing is a six-month moratorium on site plan approval and permits in their downtown that require waivers on height, density, parking and other zoning regs. Of particular concern in Farmingdale, as here, is the pace of apartment house construction. Kudos to the mayor as he articulates the people’s discomfort with this.

Our supervisor here in Riverhead, when running for town board in 2015, embraced the idea of a building moratorium for downtown. She has mentioned nothing of a moratorium since that campaign. For the sake of a sensible revitalization, it’s time for the supervisor to revitalize her previous campaign platform.

Finally, a moratorium will allow time for the community to examine a serious ethical question, where one town board member partners in her private business with the head of the newly formed coalition of Main Street property-owners, who actively lobby the town about this zone change. A full recusal is the ethical path to take with this, yet she participates fully in all board discussions, work sessions and deliberations in connection with the zone change. Simply abstaining from an actual vote is as inadequate as it is inappropriate and it intensifies the Riverhead community’s deepening loss of confidence in government and all its processes.

To regard this crucial step that our town is about to take as a zone-change really understates the far-reaching decision at hand. We are in fact updating the town’s comprehensive plan, the guiding document that embodies our community’s vision. It is a fluid document, and as such, should be reviewed as a community adjusts to ever-changing goals and circumstances. To revisit this plan takes time and effort. The money people may be in their usual state of zeal, but our elected representatives must not join in their haste. Slow down, Riverhead, think broadly and in the long term, and concentrate on the smart and sustainable future our town deserves.

This story is free to read thanks in part to the generous support of readers like you. Keep local news free. Become a member today.

Greg Blass
Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg