While growing up just north of Railroad Avenue and spending much time at my grandparent’s house on East Avenue, I spent most of my youth in downtown Riverhead. I remember many times having a burger and coke at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s while my mom shopped. We would regularly shop as a family at local stores downtown (Sweezy’s, Carl & Bobs, Acard, Lentins, Etc.). When I was a bit older, around 10, I would walk down to Kid Stuff and to many Saturday and Sunday matinees at the Suffolk Theater. My first after-school job, starting in junior high through high school, was at an auto parts store which is now the carpet store next to Grangebel Park. Fond memories, but that was then, not now.
My cousin lived just south of Route 58 on the east side of Ostrander Avenue. I remember being there one Saturday and hearing heavy equipment out back. It was a huge D8 bulldozer clearing the woods behind their house. That’s when Grants department store and Hills supermarket were built as the first major shopping center in Riverhead. There was already the smaller shopping center where Dunkin Donuts is now located, but that paled in comparison to the new big shopping center which was followed around the same time by Billy Blakes department store, where Lowes now is.
After that I had my burger and coke at the diner located in Grants while my mom shopped, and I enjoyed a much larger toy selection in the toy department. We didn’t go back to Woolworth and Kid Stuff as often after that. That’s when downtown Riverhead and many other downtowns started their eventual decline, resulting in empty storefronts as Route 58 and many other centers in towns westward took hold.
Since then, there have been many attempts to “revitalize” our downtown, starting with the establishment of the Business Improvement District (BID) which continues today. When first formed, the BID prepared its own master plan for downtown revitalization. It was a very dynamic plan that included aligning Court Street with the eastern block of Railroad Avenue and extending it along side of the tracks to East Main Street opposite Riverside Drive. It had an open and airy elevated parking garage that extended over all the parking lots north of Main Street and created a pedestrian friendly environment extending down to newly created greenspace along the river and a regional aquarium. It was indeed “dynamic” but there was one problem. With the exception of the aquarium, which we are all fortunate was built and remains as a cornerstone of our downtown development, none of that plan was realistic and would therefor never happen.
However, some things did happen. The town completed and implemented a new master plan that included upper level apartments in taller buildings in the newly created DC-1 zone downtown to encourage its revitalization. Also, after many false starts trying to restore the Suffolk Theater, which included a needless lawsuit which was eventually settled by the Walter administration, Bob Castaldi was able to bring it back to its former glory.
And then things really got started. Grangebel Park was restored through community development efforts and private investment started including Summerwind Square on Peconic Avenue and the Hyatt at the aquarium, both of which were a result of the new zoning, which includes a height allowance of 60 feet and a floor area ratio, which is the percentage of floor area relative to lot size, of 4.0 (400 percent or four times the lot size). They have been followed by the renovated Woolworth building, the newly completed Preston House and Peconic Crossing, which the supervisor acclaimed at is grand opening by stating that “this building highlights everything we want to be and where were looking to go” in downtown Riverhead. There are also other projects currently under construction and in the planning stages pipeline as our revitalization progresses.
The reality here is that the DC-1 zoning, as currently written, has worked and downtown Riverhead is seeing real revitalization and private investment. However, it is understandable that as with any change, there are challenges that need to be reconsidered. In the case of our downtown, the concern of some has been the massing and scale of the buildings and the changing character of our once quaint downtown, the “then” which is long since gone, compared to the “now,” which is our downtown’s current revitalization and changing landscape.
As a result, the town is now considering substantial revisions to the DC-1 zone in an attempt to scale down future development, hoping to maintain more of the character of what Riverhead once was. It is a well-intentioned task that is worth taking a hard look at. However, the first draft of the DC-1 zone revisions, regardless of how well-intentioned they are, have missed the target completely when it comes to balancing those concerns with future development, by instead proposing changes that will stop the revitalization of downtown as sure as it has started.
For example, the proposal includes a requirement to purchase farmland development rights to develop downtown properties using farmland preservation transfer of development rights in an apparent attempt to throttle down and lower the height of future development. To property owners and developers, who understand the cost and realities of development, just the thought of imposing this requirement is incomprehensible and would be a huge mistake. It is not “a” coffin nail, it is “all” of the coffin nails that would be necessary to bury the future development of our downtown. Other considerations, like trying to figure out new yard setback requirements and requiring upper levels to be arbitrarily set back 15 feet do not work. You cannot legislate good design by dictating more layers of regulations and setbacks.
Some projects, such as the much-anticipated artists gallery and cultural center being planned adjacent to Barth’s drug store and much-needed market-rate apartments and mixed use buildings currently on the boards would not happen if the zoning being considered is adopted.
If the concerns are really about our town’s character being adversely affected by the bulk, massing and scale of new development, there may me more development-friendly ways to achieve those goals including but not limited to the following design and planning principals:
• Utilize form-based zoning principals instead of setting fixed setback and yard requirements. This is more beneficial in a high-density zone such as DC-1. It allows yards and setbacks to be applied where they are best suited based on the location of each site as it relates to its surroundings.
• Keep floor area ratio (FAR) at 4.0 (4 times the area of the site). It has prompted private investment and development resulting in our current downtown revitalization.
• Leave the height at 60 feet with the understanding that requiring variety of bulk and massing will improve design quality and scale regardless of height.
• Facades at both sides of main street and public ways create a “fabric” that should have a variety of vertical planes including recessed and protruded elements. To reduce the bulk and scale of future development as it relates to smaller existing buildings, consider changing the first floor FAR from 80% to 75% and reduce upper level FAR from 80 percent to 65 percent. This results in more open space at street level and results in upper level wall planes being setback creating the desired less bulky and softer scaled street front fabric. This works better than a set dimensional yard requirement and arbitrary 15 foot upper level setbacks, by not limiting design flexibility and creativity.
Hopefully these and other ideas that may be presented at the upcoming public forum on the future of downtown will result in revisions that will be implemented that will continue to promote the same substantial development that the current DC-1 zoning allows while implementing reasonable requirements to control building scale and massing, which I understand is the primary goal of the current effort.
It is clear and unquestionable that this type of development has been critical to the success and revitalization of downtowns while providing much needed affordable and market rate housing. After the success that Riverhead has finally experienced in its revitalization efforts and given its new opportunity zone designation and the need for transportation oriented development that could extend up to the depressed Railroad Avenue area, there are many more good things that can happen here. Changing the zoning substantially now in the DC-1 zone including lowing the height of buildings will send out the worst possible message at worst possible time to the investors and developers that are needed to make any revitalization a reality.
There’s little doubt that if any of us could turn back the clock and go back to the time when Riverhead was a quaint small town we would, but we can’t. Riverhead is no longer like Mayberry or the downtown in the movie Pleasantville. That was downtown Riverhead then, not now.
Martin Sendlewski is a native downtown resident, architect and part owner of Summerwind Square.
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