Riverhead Town is moving ahead with the creation of a pattern book to guide future redevelopment of its downtown business district.
The town board in a split vote last night hired Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based planning firm Urban Design Associates to complete the project at a proposed cost of $174,530.
Urban Design Associates was one of two firms to submit proposals in response to a request for proposals issued by the town board on July 9. The other, Historic Concepts of Peachtree, Georgia, which was hired by the Town of Southampton to create a pattern book for downtown Hampton Bays, made a presentation to the board in June. Historic Concepts’ proposal set forth a total cost of $235,000.
Members of the Downtown Revitalization Committee, which first pitched the idea of a pattern book to guide downtown redevelopment, spoke in favor of the measure last night before the vote.
Committee co-chairperson Janice Sherer of Baiting Hollow, who is the assistant planning director in the Town of Southampton, said a pattern book is “probably the biggest thing” Riverhead can do for downtown revitalization. Developing new zoning with the use of a pattern book “to visualize it…will engage the community and allow people to understand what the zoning action will lead to,” she said.
Committee member Patricia Snyder, former longtime director of East End Arts on Main Street and currently a Democratic candidate for town council, said people in the community she’s been speaking to are generally unhappy with five-story buildings and have a different vision for what downtown Riverhead should look like.
“I have yet to have anyone come to me and say ‘I am so excited about that big building going in.’ I’m hearing opposition. People would like to maintain the character of downtown,” Snyder said.
The developer of one of the new five-story buildings on Main Street, David Gallo of Georgica Green Ventures, which is presently constructing a 118-unit apartment building on the corner of East Main Street and Maple Avenue, submitted a letter in support of creating a pattern book. Georgica Green’s building is often cited by residents and officials alike as an example of the kind of development — height, scale and mass — that should be avoided downtown. But its configuration fully complies with existing zoning.
That’s the problem, according to Landmarks Preservation Commission chairman Richard Wines. Wines told the board last night he as “no problems with a pattern book,” which he said will be useful for both the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Architectural Review Board.
“We’re a little frustrated,” Wines said. “We know the current zoning code allows things that should be happening downtown — five-story, lot-line to lot-line development,” he said.
“The things that can be built as-of-right are inappropriate and make the job of the landmarks commission very hard,” Wines said.
See prior story: “Apartment buildings and the changing face of Downtown Riverhead,” (April 20, 2017.)
Wines and the landmarks commission have been advocating zoning code amendments to scale back the mass of buildings allowed under the DC-1 zoning code that dictates development on Main Street. They recommended specific changes to the board, but no action was taken.
The landmarks commission even presented a book of patterns to the town board, Wines noted.
“We’re concerned that with the commissioning of a pattern book we’re just putting this off,” he said. Wines asked the board to “expedite it and move forward” because “time is running out for our downtown,” he said. “We need to get the changes done expeditiously.”
Wines, who also chairs a task force on the town’s transfer of development rights program, expressed frustration that the task force made recommendations intended to revitalize the town’s moribund TDR program. That program is intended to preserve farmland by allowing owners of agricultural land in the town’s farm belt to sell and transfer the land’s development rights, preserving the farmland for continued agricultural operations.
The task force in 2017 urged the town to make certain code changes to increase designated “receiving areas” for development rights, but the the town board said the town didn’t have the money needed to undertake the required review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
“We needed $30,000 to do the SEQRA,” an exasperated Wines said last night. “We’re trying to preserve our farmland — that’s the character of our whole town. We couldn’t get 30000 to preserve our farmland — and all of a sudden we have $175,000 for a pattern book?”
Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the previous town board in 2017 said the TDR revision should be done as part of a comprehensive plan update.
“We’ve taken that to heart,” Jens-Smith said. “We’re moving forward with a comprehensive plan update. It’s not on the back burner,” she said.
The town board in June issued a request for proposals for the comprehensive plan update. The bidding period closed July 25; the town received two proposals, Jens-Smith said after the meeting. The proposals are being reviewed by a committee consisting of Deputy Supervisor Catherine Kent, Councilman James Wooten, a member of the supervisor’s staff and building and planning administrator Jefferson Murphree, Jens-Smith said.
The same review committee scrutinized the pattern book proposals and made a recommendation to the town board.
Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilman Tim Hubbard voted against the pattern book resolution last night, questioning the need for a pattern book and the expense of creating it.
“I’m a penny pincher,” Hubbard said. He said the town has “very qualified” people on the Architectural Review Board and Landmarks Preservation Commission to guide redevelopment downtown.
“For me to spend $174,000 when we have people right in our town with a lot of expertise and local knowledge and to turn to a company from Atlanta, Georgia,” he said as he cast his “no” vote, apparently referring to the headquarters of the firm that was not selected, Historic Concepts. He said he was voting no “because I want to save the taxpayers $174,000.”
Giglio said spending $174,000 on a pattern book when we’re getting ready to do a master plan isn’t logical and it’s not really needed, she said. Downtown zoning limits the number of apartments on upper floors to 500 in the whole DC-1 zoning use district.
“We’re almost at that point,” Giglio said. “No one is coming in to build a five-story office building.”
Giglio advocated spending the money on doing the SEQRA review for the TDR changes recommended by the TDR task force and incorporating downtown into the master plan update.
She also questioned use of funding for the project, which she said came out of a $1.05 million payment made by solar company sPower under a community benefit agreement signed with the town. But financial administrator William Rothaar said those funds are not being expended for the pattern book contract. Instead, the $450,000 paid by the company for an easement across a town road is the source of funds earmarked for the pattern book contract.
Giglio also advocated using the community benefit funds for buying “the Swezey’s building…for a town square,” which she said is preferable to spending it “in bits and pieces.”
The community benefit agreement approved by the town board on May 22 earmarks the $1.05 million for four specific purposes: $300,000 for the protection of agriculture and open space; $300,000 for environmental protection; $300,000 for community health and welfare; and $150,000 for education and employment. Giglio did not say how acquisition of a building on Main Street for the creation of a town square would comply with the agreement. Giglio was absent for the May 22 vote but voted yes on a memorandum of understanding on the deal in January. The memorandum of understanding called for a $1.05 million payment but did not spell out how the town could spend the money.
Wooten, who sat on the review committee that recommended the Urban Design Professionals proposal, cast what would be the third and deciding vote on the bid award — Jens-Smith had already publicly advocated for a pattern book.
Noting changes on Main Street over the past few decades, as small shops closed their doors in the face of competition from national retailers, Wooten said “housing brings people downtown” and makes the downtown sustainable.
“I have no problem with the five-story building that’s going up,” Wooten said.
“I don’t find the pattern book to be a bad thing,” Wooten said. “The town spending $175,000 is not the end of the world,” he said. Having a “focus group” to meet with all the different stakeholder groups will be valuable, according too Wooten. “That book will be the basis of form-based zoning. I don’t find it to be a bad thing and I don’t think it’s that expensive,” he said.
Jens-Smith said the town has “studied and studied and studied.” And now needs to implement planning recommendations.
“I think the pattern book will get us closer,” she said.
Republican supervisor candidate Yvette Aguiar in an interview after the meeting called the pattern book “another delay tactic for not addressing the urgent issues that we have to revitalize downtown.”
She said Riverhead has “great architects who know every nook and cranny in our town and architects and designers serving on the ARB and other committees” and she does not agree with spending $175,000 for “pretty pictures.”
Jens-Smith said after the meeting that the development of the pattern book will result in a plan for new zoning downtown. She said the town already has developers coming in who are interested in buying multiple properties, demolishing existing buildings, consolidating the sites and constructing five-story buildings along Main Street. A pattern book will also provide guidance for developers on building style, design and mass.
The planning consultant estimates the process will take about six months, the supervisor said last night.
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