Residents in small groups work on lists of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats at the Nov. 14 forum. Photo: Denise Civiletti

What are the best things about downtown Riverhead? Its riverfront, cultural amenities, restaurants, breweries and hotels, events like Alive on 25, Arts in the Park and the Community Mosaic street-painting festival, the community garden, and its historic architecture.

Downtown Riverhead’s weaknesses? A negative reputation, perception of high crime rates/drug and gang activity, inadequate lighting, derelict housing, absentee landlords/slumlords, large, vacant buildings, no supermarket, not enough shopping opportunities, not enough open space and large-mass five-story buildings.

These features topped the lists of residents who gathered for a community forum on the future of downtown Riverhead last night at the town’s senior/human resource center in Aquebogue.

More than 80 people turned out for the event, which provided residents with an opportunity, working in small groups, to compile lists of downtown’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and “threats.”

The “opportunities” lists included: improved local public transportation, a parking garage, making Riverhead a destination, creating a town square/green space, the federal “opportunity zone” designation, more police, more water-related activities.

Flooding was at the top of every group’s list of perceived threats to downtown revitalization. Other threats included: bureaucracy that gets in the way of “getting it done,” crime, overcrowded housing north of Main Street and Route 58.

Rising tide floods the riverfront Jan. 20, 2019. File photo: Peter Blasl

The forum was facilitated by Barry Long of Urban Design Associates, the Pittsburgh-based planning firm hired by Riverhead Town to develop a pattern book intended to guide future growth and development downtown.

“A pattern book will guide the development of future community character,” Long explained at the outset of the forum. It is the visualization of a form-based, three-dimensional code that “sits on top of the zoning code,” Long said. “It is community driven, locally controlled and based on resident involvement.”

The vast majority of those who attended last night’s forum did not live in the downtown area — by a show of hands, only five people in the crowded room said they lived downtown. But many downtown business owners and property owners attended.

Barry Long of Urban Design Associates discusses the planning process and the role of a pattern book. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Long said his planning firm has been conducting a series of “stakeholder” meetings with property owners, business owners and various organizations.

The pattern book was recommended by the Downtown Revitalization Committee, a committee formed by the town board in 2018 to address downtown issues. Then-newly elected Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith and Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who were critical of the five-story apartment buildings allowed under current zoning, suggested establishing the committee to help guide the town board as it works to revitalize downtown going forward. Kent was named the town board’s liaison to the committee.

“I couldn’t be more pleased. I’m really very proud of Riverhead that we had such a turnout — people coming out on a weeknight for something like this,” Kent said after the forum ended last night.

The Riverview Lofts mixed-use building under construction on East Main Street and McDermott Avenue will offer 117 apartments and ground-floor restaurants. Photo: Denise Civiletti

“We got a lot of great feedback,” she said. The feedback last night was consistent with what the committee has been discussing and consistent with what people in the stakeholders groups have discussed, Kent said.

“Some business owners said they don’t want someone dictating what they can do with their property,” Kent said. Otherwise the feedback was pretty similar across the board, she said.

“It’s interesting to me that the flooding and the river tend to be the first thing that’s discussed,” Kent observed.

Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, Community Development Agency director Dawn Thomas, planning and building administrator Jefferson Murphree, Riverhead Industrial Development Agency executive director Tracy Stark-James, IDA board members Tom Cruso and Lori Ann Pipczynski, and Riverhead Board of Education president Greg Meyer also attended the forum.

There will be a second community forum in late January or early February, Long told the group.

Urban Design Associates will also conduct two online community surveys through the town’s website, so that people who cannot attend the forums in person will also have an opportunity to weigh in.

Long said the target date for project completion is the end of March.

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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.