A block of vacant commercial buildings on East Main Street this morning. Photo: Peter Blasl

A forum on Main Street zoning might not sound like something that would draw a crowd on a bitter cold winter night. But it did.

The forum filled the meeting room at Riverhead Town Hall last night, where the Riverhead Town Board and the town’s principal planner explained why officials are considering revising the town code that governs development in DC-1 zoning district — along Main Street in the heart of downtown.

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith outlined the “revitalization challenges” the town confronts along Main Street: large retail spaces that may no longer be practical for redevelopment due to their age and condition; “over-inflated property values” resulting from current zoning, which allows five-story buildings, 100-percent lot coverage and high-density development; and the lack of any code requiring developers to provide off-street parking for their projects.

Town Board members and the public listen to a presentation by Riverhead building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree at the downtown zoning forum last night. Photo: Emil Breitenbach Jr.

Riverhead building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree outlined concerns about the potential of a “canyon effect of 60-foot-tall buildings” on both sides of the street and the “prevalence of modern architecture” in new development proposals.

Murphree said the town is looking to replace its “conventional” zoning code with a “form-based code” that’s based on “design standards, not just numbers” and sets forth “what the community wants rather than what it dislikes.”

Context is important, Murphree said. “How does it fit? Is it compatible with existing buildings?”

Murphree described techniques that could be used to reduce building “mass,” including what he called “more building articulation” with “step-backs,” lower maximum heights, and reducing the maximum floor-area ratio — which is the ratio of a building’s total floor area to the size of the plot of land on which it’s built.

He also spoke about the concept he calls “POP” — privately owned public space — which if incorporated into the designs of new development would help reduce building mass and make Main Street more welcoming, he said.

Most of the evening was devoted to public comment and a good deal of the public comment had little to do with the technical concepts described by the planning official. People who approached the podium were, for the most part, divided into two camps: those who dislike almost everything about new development on Main Street and those who believe downtown Riverhead is just beginning to turn around and any major zoning changes at this point will derail progress.

“I don’t think there should be anything higher than two stories in downtown,” Riverhead resident Susan Frohnhoefer declared. “Putting in apartments don’t make it downtown, it makes it New York City.” Frohnhoefer said the new residents will only add to downtown’s problems rather than spark revitalization. “You can’t be that naive to think the people who live in these apartments won’t have cars,” she said.

“I don’t understand why parking is not the focus of this entire conversation,” said Chrissy Curtis of Riverhead.

Noreen LeCann of Riverhead voiced opposition to five-story buildings, saying other East End towns thrive without them.

“The villages of Southampton and Southold — I don’t see any five-story apartment buildings there,” LeCann said.

More than 900 applicants sought one of the 45 units at Peconic Crossing. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Former town supervisor Sean Walter, who during his tenure embraced the idea of residential development on Main Street as a means of revitalization and pursued prospective developers, defended the direction downtown has taken.

The 2003 master plan and the zoning adopted to implement it recognized that residential uses downtown are crucial to revitalization. But when he took office in 2010, he said, “no one wanted to come to Riverhead.” He described what he did to attract them, from holding a “downtown summit” in the early days of his first term to soliciting developers from across Long Island.

“You have a downtown that is beginning to become exciting,” Walter said.

“You look at Patchogue. We’re not Southampton or East Hampton or Port Jefferson,” he said, drawing jeers from some in the audience. “We’re not similar to them. We’re similar to Patchogue,” he continued. “Patchogue and Riverhead grew up together.”

Patchogue’s success has been “tremendous” because of foot traffic, the former supervisor said. The village has 770 apartments, he said.

“People shop and hang out there. They’re looking for the city vibe. What you need to do to put the icing on the cake in downtown Riverhead is extend a form of DC zoning on Second and Third streets so people can start buying up those small houses that are dilapidated and start building townhouses. Patchogue is your model. There’s no other model.”

“Riverhead is our model,” Jens-Smith shot back. “We should be charting our own course.”

“Laura, I’m not running against you,” Walter interjected. “I wish you the best of luck,” he said, walking away from the microphone.

Martin Sendlewski, a partner in Summerwind Square and a downtown-based architect who represents some property owners downtown, spoke in opposition to reducing maximum building height. He said adjustments to maximum floor-area ratios could reduce scale enough to achieve the town’s objectives without hampering redevelopment.

If the town board makes zoning changes, “you’re going to have to figure out how you’re going to deal with pending projects,” Sendlewski said. People have spent a lot of money on plans and applications and “it would be truly unfair to make them go back to square one and start over.”

A portion of the parking lot on the south side of E. Main Street across from the Woolworth building this morning. Photo: Peter Blasl

Responding to people like Frohnhoefer, who complained she has difficulty finding a parking space in the north lot behind the Woolworth building when she goes to the gym there and John Cullen of Northville, who said he no longer goes downtown for dinner because he can’t find parking there, Sendlewski said, “One of the things of a walkable downtown is you walk a little bit.” He pointed out that studies and analyses commissioned by the town show that “downtown Riverhead at its peak, every day, is using less than 60 percent of its available parking.”

Rob Muchnik, a developer who has proposed building 170 apartment units on the now-vacant former Sears site, was the only developer with a pending application in the DC-1 zoning district who addressed the board.

He said he put in his application 23 months ago and, with new partners now, he’s ready to build market-rate rental apartments there. They are ready to invest $20 million in the development. Market-rate units provide 50 percent more economic impact than workforce units, he said.

“If you work with the architecture, you can soften up the building,” Muchnik said. “We need a certain number of units. We can set it back 25 fee and we can step back the fifth floor but I don’t see how we’re going to do this without a significant part of a fifth floor. We need our density,” he said.

“We’ve redesigned our building five times already and I’ll do a sixth,” Muchnik said. “We really want to give you a beautiful project that you will be proud of — that’s our goal,” he said.

Section of Riverview Lofts rendering by architect Stephen Jacobs.

Connie Lassandro of Baiting Hollow, a consultant to developer Georgica Green, urged the town to take a deep breath.

Riverview Lofts, a 116-unit mixed-use building now under construction on the corner of East Main Street and McDermott Avenue, is “the first really big building being constructed in downtown,” Lassandro said. She urged the town to assess how it looks and what its impacts are before making any major code changes. “I think everyone is going to be pleasantly surprised.”

Jens-Smith said the 52-unit Summerwind Square and the 45-unit Peconic Crossing are also big buildings.

The town is not looking to stop development downtown, Jens-Smith replied to Lassandro.

“We want people to come here,” Jens-Smith said. “We want people to develop here.” She said the town board is trying to strike a balance downtown.

Blue Duck Bakery partner Nancy Kouris said she and her husband “have been here seven years waiting for the boom to happen.”

“It’s challenging downtown,” she said. “Please support us. Please don’t give up on us. We’re your downtown now. If you don’t support us 100 percent we won’t be there when these apartments are done. Who’s going to rent an apartment if there are no stores?”

East Main Street this morning. Photo: Peter Blasl

Former deputy supervisor Jill Lewis of Wading River said she didn’t understand the town board’s objectives.

“Are we looking to reduce density, are we looking to fix the aesthetics of buildings, are we trying to fix parking? We’re all gathered in the room trying to figure a solution but we don’t understand the goals of the town board.”

“All of those issues need to be addressed,” Jens-Smith answered. “This evening we’re trying to just get a feeling whether people are looking to reduce the height of buildings,” she said. “Right now we have five stories. We want to see if there’s a will to want to reduce them to four stories. That’s really the objective of this evening.”

Lewis said that since the number of apartment units approved or pending approval has already reached the 500-unit cap in the town code, there is no reason to worry about a lot more five-story buildings being built downtown.

Without upper-story apartments, “you’re not going to see five-story office buildings in downtown Riverhead,” Lewis said.

Jens-Smith said the 500-unit cap “is an arbitrary number” that “has the potential to go away at some point and you could end up with more five-story buildings.”

Lewis cautioned that there are “people who have made investments or are looking to make investments and uncertainty is the one thing that does not help anybody.”

The supervisor said she has “always been very clear I would like to see four-story buildings.”

Councilwoman Catherine Kent said the town is “looking to spread it out, too — We don’t want it all in DC-1.”

Kent said the town board is “on a listening tour” that’s included speaking to the town landmarks commission, architectural review board and the volunteers on the downtown revitalization committee.

“Tonight’s an opportunity for the public to speak,” Kent said.

Photo: Emil Breitenbach Jr.

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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.