Riverhead began demolition of a former Swezey's Department Store building on East Main Street Oct. 18 to make way for a town square. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A crowd turned out to the riverfront parking lot this morning to witness history being made, as demolition got underway on two blighted Main Street buildings in the heart of downtown Riverhead.  

The demolition opens up Main Street to the Peconic River and will allow the town to develop the site with a town square officials hope will become a catalyst for downtown revitalization and development. 

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar climbed aboard an excavator at the back of the two-story brick building formerly occupied by Swezey’s Department Stores and used the machine’s long arm to rip off the metal canopy over the building’s loading dock, eliciting cheers from the crowd.

“We are beyond excited,” Aguiar said during a press conference surrounded by politicians and town employees. “Today, history will be made in Riverhead and Petrocelli Contracting will begin the demolition necessary to make room for a new town square.”

Aguiar said the two buildings have “impaired economic development on Main Street for so many years.” The town purchased the two vacant buildings from Riverhead Enterprises in May for $4.85 million, along with a neighboring building at 127 E. Main Street — which the town intends to renovate and possibly expand in partnership with a private developer to be selected through a competitive process.

“I want to thank each of my colleagues for working as a team, holding together — particularly on unknown obstacles we stared down during the global pandemic in 2020,” Aguiar said. “It is evident that not even a pandemic can stop Riverhead.” 

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar speaks at a ceremony before demolition commenced Oct. 18. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Town board members were joined by town, county and state officials,  Rep. Lee Zeldin, local business owners and residents who assembled to watch the demolition — including children from Peconic Community School on a field trip to watch the event.

“The revitalization of downtown Riverhead is filled with so much promise,” Zeldin said. “Where people who aren’t proud Riverhead residents will be coming from locations far away, to be visiting this area to be spending their money here to be helping small businesses grow, for local restaurants to have customers, and the economic impacts and the job creation that it can provide.”

“I think that the thing that makes it the most exciting is that there is so much of the public that’s behind the project,” Riverhead Community Development Administrator Dawn Thomas said. “And every level of government has been involved in an aspect of this project… and has an actual role in making this happen, because they saw a good idea. And we turned what we thought was just a good idea into reality here.”

Councilwoman Catherine Kent thanked the town’s downtown revitalization committee during remarks at today’s ceremony and reminisced about shopping at the store when Swezey operated it. 

“As we move forward, it’s key to listen to the voices of the residents as to what they want to see in our downtown,” Kent said. “We know it’s a balancing of progress without losing our historical heritage and community character of Riverhead.”

“It’s really good to see the whole town pitch in on it,” said James Farley, co-chair of the Downtown Revitalization Committee. “I think virtually every one speaking in every agency represented is as one, if you will, in terms of the idea of redeveloping downtown Riverhead, and I think the idea of a town square is a really great idea.”

“To be a part of this today, to finally see Main Street reach the Peconic River, and to utilize the asset, this is just such a great day,” Councilman Ken Rothwell said. “I commend the supervisor for all your work. They have been relentless throughout the entire pandemic.”

Councilman Tim Hubbard said in an interview he is “excited as hell” about the demolition getting underway. He gave credit to the community development department staff for the hard work they put into the project, from obtaining an $800,000 state economic development grant two years ago, to working with Urban Design Associates to develop the plans for the town square, finalizing the purchase of the buildings, working with the State Office of Historic Preservation, writing an impressive application for a $20 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant and making today’s demolition happen.

“They worked their butts off,” Hubbard said. 

“We’ve always said Riverhead turned its back on the river. This now opens it up and what better view can you have from the river to look up and see the facade of the Suffolk Theater?” People going to and exiting the theater will be able to loo across Main Street and see the riverfront, the councilman said.

Photo: Denise Civiletti

“I can’t tell you how happy I am not to have to look at those buildings from the front of my theater,” said Suffolk Theater owner Bob Castaldi. “It makes a huge difference.” Castaldi is currently planning to embark upon a multimillion dollar expansion project at the theater that will transform the renovated movie palace into a true performing arts center, with a full stage, wings, backstage space and dressing rooms, he said. His plan  also includes a five-story mixed-use addition with apartments and retail space on the property he owns behind the theater. 

Hubbard acknowledged that the town board has had pushback from some members of the community about five-story buildings and change happening downtown, but “change is inevitable,” he said. “Riverhead has already changed a lot from when I was a kid growing up here and you’d go into Woolworth’s and sit at the counter for a burger and a milkshake,” he said. “It does change the look of the town,” he said, “Looking at the big picture, when it’s completed, I doubt there’s going to be many naysayers,” Hubbard said. “Everyone is going to be, like, wow, I’m sorry we didn’t do this sooner.”

Riverhead Planning Board member Ed Densieski proposed creating a green space on the riverfront when he was a town council member in the mid-2000s. 

“I’m enthused that Riverhead is trying to go in the right direction,” Densieski said in an interview.  “I wish it would have happened when I was on the board. I would have liked to have been part of it. It will definitely have a positive impact on downtown. I applaud it.”

Bryan DeLuca, executive director of Atlantis Holdings, the company that owns the aquarium, marina, Hyatt Place East End and the Preston House on East Main Street, said the demolition was “all about downtown revitalization really taking off.” He said the physical change with the buildings coming down signals “a fantastic opportunity for everyone to look at Riverhead and say, ‘This is a place we should be.’ Businesses, residences and we’ll get a thriving town again,” DeLuca said. “It’s fantastic to see it’s finally coming to fruition and getting the right momentum. And when you start that momentum, I think it’s going to change things dramatically.”

Representatives of the Long Island Science Center, which bought the vacant building immediately west of the demolition site, were on hand for the ceremony and the beginning of the demolition. The Science Center plans an extensive renovation of the building, a larger building also once occupied by Swezey’s. It will form the western boundary of the new town square.   

“This is amazing that this is actually moving forward,” L.I. Science Center Executive Director Cailin Kaller said. “We purchased that building not really knowing what was going to happen next to us. And I don’t think we ever would have imagined this bold and visionary plan being next to us.”

Kaller said the time frame for the building’s renovations are based on the town’s schedule for the town square. Until the space at the science center is done they are going to operate at a pop-up space in Tanger Outlets. The first floor of the Science Center, which will open up to the town square, will be worked on first and include an office space and classrooms. 

Natalie Wright, the Suffolk County Commissioner of Economic Development and Planning, said the riverfront in Riverhead is a “one of a kind experience” and that the county is committed to economic development in the town.

“While I know residents have probably had experiences shopping on Main Street or shopping in the furniture store in the past, right now we’re looking forward to new experiences here, whether it’s families or couples, or just residents coming to enjoy what will be a new open space with two beautiful vistas, direct access to Main Street, and that development doesn’t always have to be building something up,” Wright said. “We’re actually taking something away, but what we’re putting in its place is much greater for the future.”

Steve Shauger, the president of the Business Improvement District Management Association, said changes to the vacant buildings have been a long time coming. “It’s going to give the town as well as the BID so many more opportunities to activate downtown and it’s going to be really a nice tool to use for continuing the revitalization of downtown.”

Joe Petrocelli, whose company won the bid to do the demolition, said he expects the project to take several weeks to complete. 

Thomas said the next step after the buildings are removed and the site is graded will be to plant grass on the site. “We want it to be open to the public, we want people to be able to appreciate and use it until we have a developer that we’re working with, and that’s going to take a little while to finalize those plans and select somebody,” she said.

Riverhead currently has two major grant applications pending that will aid the completion of the town square and downtown revitalization projects, including the transit-oriented development district near the courts and the railroad station. In addition to the application for a $20 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant from the Empire State Development, Riverhead is also seeking a $25 million RAISE (Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. If approved, that funding would be used to support the creation of transit-oriented development near the railroad station, the town square, and further help revitalize Main Street with lighting and bike paths. The town will hear the results of the RAISE grant on Nov. 22. It should learn the results of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant competition by the end of the year.

“Onward and upward,” Councilman Frank Beyrodt said. “This is a great day for Riverhead.”

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti and Alek Lewis

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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.