Artist's rendering of riverfront 'town square'. Image courtesy of Town of Riverhead

During the past few decades (yes, decades) there have been many committees and concerned citizens who have convened to develop ideas and recommendations in hope to revitalize our downtown. Many of the ideas sparked were incorporated components in the last update of the master plan. Tangible results were included, for example: the inclusion of residential apartments as an essential part of revitalization.

Prior downtown allowed buildings up to 50 feet in height, which could accommodate five stories, a height consistent with some of the most noted and historically significant downtown buildings including the original bank building. Consequently, the original zoning did not include the residential component. However, after the adoption of five-story DC Code 1, investors began to show interest in our community.

At the present time, there appears to be considerable success and developers are showing interest in our designated opportunity zone adopted to foster tangible development. Fast forward, a resolution has been adopted to spend $175,000. The goal was to hire a design and planning firm from another part of our country to develop a “pattern book.”

While many local community members and committees have in the past recommended the town board fast track a re-look at our downtown, no substantive results have occurred. Many recommendations have been made, including recommendations to fix the zone and avoid stepping on the brakes by undertaking yet another study. Been there, done that!

We are at a critical time when good business decisions are needed, and they should prevail. Unfortunately, this opportunity is not being explored. Instead, another study estimated to take six months is being requested. Thereafter, evaluate and commence updating the master plan which can take five years and over $600,000 to complete. This approach is lacking decision-making, causing delays, higher costs are involved and does not address the immediate problems we are facing downtown. I ask, is the intent to slow down progress in hope of recapturing a “mom and pop” town? The answer is, bad business decision; they are long gone. As a businessperson, this current direction simply makes no sense to me.

Since the contract has been awarded, and the firm selected has extensive experience in planning development for downtown areas, I have a proposal in the form of a plan to redirect the “pattern book” approach. Instead use this expenditure to fast-track a tweaking of the Downtown Center (DC) zones, along with the surrounding areas as follows:

  1. Schedule a forum including all of the committees (downtown redevelopment, parking, business advisory, architectural review, historic commission and business improvement district), all of which have extensive knowledge of our downtown and the problems we face. This plan would jump start the process by providing the consultants with a wealth of information.
  2. Assess the Railroad Avenue area and extend increased development in conjunction with the opportunity zone descriptors using transportation-oriented development models.
  3. Assess residential townhouse higher-density development in other areas from north of Main Street to Northville Turnpike.
  4. Take a hard look at specific zoning matters which may include:

• Form-based floor area ratios to be used in conjunction with building height creating flexible setbacks of upper floors instead of fixed dimensional setbacks.

• Set requirements for parking on site with a payment in lieu of parking option for future residential projects. These two approaches have been utilized in other Suffolk communities with much success.

• Omit the residential cap. Let the market determine the cap based on zoning, including added restrictions of setbacks and parking.

5. Condemn and demolish the Swezey’s and West Marine buildings and finally create a town square opened to the riverfront.

6. Most importantly, FIX IT NOW. Instead of a half-step “pattern book” study followed by an extensive master plan update which can take over five years to complete, we need to approach the problems in our downtown by making smart business decisions. We as a town can accomplish these goals in six months as a specific well thought-out amendment to the zoning code.

This plan would in turn be mutually beneficial to both the property owners, who would then know what they can do, and the town, which would benefit from future responsible development, based on the zoning revisions adopted holistically based on input from our community and our advisors.

Realistically, not everyone will agree with revisions to the zoning in terms of density, height, etc. If everyone is happy, the revisions will likely be ineffective. In citing General Patton “if everyone is thinking alike, then someone is not thinking.” Making tough, good business decisions is the responsibility of a good leader, while getting the job done. This approach is a much more sustainable business decision than taking yet another half-step forward and a full-step back!

Yvette Aguiar is the Republican candidate for Riverhead Town Supervisor

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