Demolition of the building at 117 E. Main St., one of two buildings Riverhead bought to tear down for a town square, could prevent the town from accessing federal and state grant money because of the building's historic status. Photo: Peter Blasl

(Updated: July 12 11 a.m.) Riverhead’s plan to demolish a derelict building on Main Street to make way for the planned town square has hit a snag.

The building at 117 East Main Street was a “contributing resource” in the listing of the Main Street Historic District on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

The town purchased the building in May for $1.25 million and an adjoining building for $950,000, with the intention of demolishing both buildings to create a public green space envisioned as a lynchpin for downtown revitalization.

The building’s status as a contributing resource in the historic district does not prevent its demolition, but if Riverhead demolishes the building, the site could then be ineligible for state and federal grant funding. And the town is counting on that grant funding to make its vision for a town square become a reality.

The Main Street Historic District was listed in the National Register in 2012. The building at 117 E. Main — once occupied by Swezey’s Department Stores — was a contributing resource because of its facade and front windows, according to Riverhead Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairman Richard Wines.

“When the district was set up, the building still had the original facade on it and the windows are typical of 1950s architecture,” Wines said in an interview last week. “The facade has since fallen off and was replaced,” he said. “The rest of it is in pretty bad shape.” Wines said he is in full support of the removal of this building for the town square.

The rear of the long-vacant building at 117 E. Main St. Photo: Peter Blasl

Wines said he has spoken with officials in the State Historic Preservation Office. “They didn’t want to remove it even without the facade,” he said.

The town needs to make the case that the building is no longer contributing because it’s in such bad shape that it can’t be preserved, Wines said. It has to demonstrate that the benefits of removing it outweigh the detriments, he said.

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio is “taking full charge of this” and is working with the state historic preservation office. The issue is “a hurdle that we have to get through,” Aguiar said. “I think that we’ll be able to work this through. The building is unrentable — it’s blighted,” she said.

Giglio said she has set up a site visit with representatives of the State Historic Preservation Office, who will be coming to Riverhead to look at the building on July 21. Giglio and Riverhead Town officials will meet them on site to inspect the building.

“I think if they see its condition in person, they will see removing it as a contributing resource is the right thing to do. It’s no longer contributing to anything but blight, “ Giglio said today.

A similar situation arose with respect to the Sears building on East Main Street. The building, also owned by Riverhead Enterprises, was likewise a contributing resource in the Main Street Historic District. The State Historic Preservation Office wanted to see its facade preserved, but the owner had the building razed. That eliminated the possibility of a developer tapping into affordable housing tax credits and other state and federal funding opportunities.

The State Historic Preservation Office could not immediately be reached for comment.

Riverhead Community Development administrator Dawn Thomas said the town understood from the beginning that it would need to ask the State Historic Preservation Office to remove the building as a contributing resource in the Main Street Historic District.

“It’s a process,” Thomas said. “It was anticipated. We spoke to them about it last year,” she said, adding every building in the Main Street Historic District has to go through the same process, whether it’s a contributing asset or not, Thomas said.

The town has put together the petition required required by SHPO, Thomas said, with supporting affidavits from Wines about the historical significance of the building in its present state, from real estate agent Ike Israel about his efforts to find a tenant for the building, an affidavit from Barry Long of Urban Design Associates about the town square and how it will benefit the Main Street historic district and downtown revitalization, her own affidavit and a engineer’s cost-benefit analysis.

“We’ve put together about a thousand pages of materials to submit,” Thomas said. “But I felt that it was really important for them to come here and see it with their own eyes, to understand this situation clearly,” she said.

“I’m confident we will have this done before we’re ready to demo,” Thomas said.

Town square concept plan.

Town officials are anxious to move forward with the town square, which they believe will have a “transformative” impact on downtown, connecting Main Street to the Peconic Riverfront.

Preliminary concept plans for the town square call for development of small shops along the two Main Street buildings on either side of the square, located opposite the Suffolk Theater.

“The town square needs to be lined with active uses, not blank walls,” according to Barry Long of Urban Design Associates, the firm the town hired to develop concepts for the town square with input from stakeholders and residents. The town square is envisioned to be a flexible space designed to accommodate a variety of seating arrangements and event spaces. It will lead to a green space “terrace” on the riverfront currently improved with an asphalt parking lot. The vision for that space focuses on flexible and versatile event spaces, accommodating an amphitheater and a playground.

The building to the west of the town square, 111 E. Main St., was purchased by the Long Island Science Center, which plans to redevelop the site as an education center with exhibits and a rooftop planetarium. The building to the east of the proposed square, 127 E. Main St., was also purchased by the Town of Riverhead. Preliminary plans call for the renovation and expansion of that building, by a private developer. The town also plans to enter into an agreement with a private developer to create the town square.

Riverhead has hired an engineering firm to design demolition plans and oversee the demolition project. It has also hired an economic development consulting firm to provide technical assistance with three municipal projects, including the town square.

Riverhead Town bought the three buildings — 117, 121 and 127 E. Main St. — from Riverhead Enterprises for $4.85 million. Only 127 E. Main was occupied by tenants when the town took title.

In August 2020, the town board authorized bonding of $5.5 million to cover the purchase price of the three buildings, site work and demolition costs. The town has not yet issued the bonds.

Editor’s note: This article has been amended post-publication to add the comments of Community Development administrator Dawn Thomas regarding the application to the State Historic Preservation Office during an interview Monday, July 12, as well as a clarification concerning Landmarks Preservation Commission chairperson Richard Wines’ regarding the demolition.

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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.