Workers erect protective barriers on East Main Street where building demolition was begun on Oct. 18. Photo: Denise Civiletti

If you have an emotional attachment to the big, decrepit, vacant buildings on Main Street, you may not want to read on. You’re not going to like what I have to say.

Spare me the teary-eyed emojis. The buildings that the town began demolishing yesterday — and a few more — should have been bulldozed a long time ago. Turf grass and wildflowers would have been better for our community.

Yeah, I miss Swezey’s too. But keeping those decrepit buildings in place isn’t going to bring Swezey’s back. Main Street department stores started their slow, agonizing demise with the rise of shopping centers, malls and discount national retail chains, circa 1970s. If we all loved Swezey’s so much, we should have shopped there more. Maybe they’d still be around. But we flocked to Billy Blake and Grant’s, Caldor and Target.

There’s an old saying in business — which news publishers, in particular, know all too well. Adapt or die. Either you embrace change, or you become extinct. Because change happens, with or without your consent.

Businesses that won’t — or can’t — adapt to change, die.

I think the same can be said of communities. And I think that’s what we’ve been living with in Downtown Riverhead for decades — a slow agonizing death resulting in blight upon blight. Despite what’s been as plain as the nose on your face — or the crumbling facades of dilapidated, vacant old buildings, we’ve held on to a nostalgia-fueled memories of the Main Street of yore. It’s a place that hasn’t really existed in the 35 years I’ve lived in Riverhead. It’s just a “misty, water-colored memory of the way we were.”

So, get over it already.

We in Riverhead have been talking about “reinventing” downtown forever. And as soon as it begins to happen, everyone freaks out. Stop. Riverhead has long been known as a place that can’t get out of its own way. Let’s put an end to that, right here and now.

Tearing down those buildings is an important first step. Doing what needs to be done takes vision and it takes courage. Kudos to the town board for having vision and being willing to take the risk.

The many decrepit carcasses lining Main Street, like the pair the town is now demolishing, are all “tear-downs” in real estate parlance. They were basically left to rot by out-of-town commercial slumlords. No developer is going to come in and buy them — at prices topping $1 million in many cases — just to clean them up and rent them out. The cost of rehabbing them is prohibitive in many cases. And any investment would be putting lipstick on a pig. You can bet the buyers will want to tear them down and build anew. And you can bet they will want to build multi-story buildings, too. Don’t freak out about that either. We need people living downtown, just as we need shops and restaurants there. The two go hand in hand.

The good thing about tear-downs is that Riverhead will have a blank slate to work with. So let’s get it right. This is where the rubber meets the road. The town board needs to act — and act now — to improve the zoning code to ensure that downtown development is both sustainable and attractive.

The code needs to be changed to end 100% lot coverage. Buildings must be set back from the front property line and stepped back on upper floors, as advocated — for years now — by Landmarks Committee Chairman Richard Wines, and as incorporated into the pattern book.

Speaking of the pattern book: What are we waiting for? Why hasn’t it been written into the town code? There is huge private investment happening in downtown right now. Let the developers who are buying up these properties know, with certainty, in black and white, what the rules are, up front. Because the next thing you know, the supervisor will again be asserting — incorrectly — that once a developer has filed an application, their rights to develop under the current code are vested. Not according to well-settled New York State law, they’re not.

The point is, we’re — finally — on the verge of a downtown renaissance. Let’s make sure we get it right. And that starts with the town board, with community input, writing the rules — not developers. Be fair to developers so that they will come here and invest. Be clear in what the rules are. But, for crying out loud, implement the new rules that anyone who’s been paying attention knows we need.

Speaking of new rules: What happened to amendments to the parking district code? Apartments on upper floors should not be part of the exemption from off-street parking providing by the parking district code. That’s not working, but lacking robust ground-floor uses on Main Street, we haven’t felt the full impact of the crunch yet. Add another few hundred apartments downtown and parking pain will be real. So why exactly are we sitting on this? What are we waiting for? Developers should either have to provide off-street parking or pay a reasonable sum per residential unit into the parking district’s coffers, so that it will have some cash to invest in new parking lots or structures.

The answer is not “wait for the comp plan update.” That wasn’t the intention when the town did the planning that resulted in the pattern book and the various and sundry parking plans and studies. The comp plan was supposed to have been done by now, but is just getting underway. That’s another story. But saying we should wait now is either just kicking the can down the road — a favorite pastime in Riverhead — or giving a wink and a nod to some developer whose plans and drawings have not yet seen the light of day — but maybe have been circulating behind closed doors — another favorite pastime in Riverhead. That, too, is another story.

Meanwhile, hats off to Dawn Thomas and the community development staff for not kicking the can down the road, but kicking it through the uprights and into the end zone. I know, mixed metaphor. But you get the idea. I read through the Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant application they drew up and it is truly impressive. We have a good shot at that $20 million grant.

And yes, kudos to this town board for making that happen, for pulling the trigger on buying those decrepit buildings and tearing them down. And kudos too to the prior town board, which authorized the application for the $800,000 grant that helped make the demolition possible and for starting the pattern book planning process. These investments will pay dividends in more investment by the county and state and maybe even the feds — and certainly by private developers who’ve been given plenty of tax incentives to come to the Riverhead opportunity zone and urban renewal area and invest in our community.

These are all good things.

Change can be scary, but change is part of life. It’s unavoidable. Adapt to it, or die. The choice is ours. I think the choice is clear.

Adapt, Riverhead. Be smart about it, but adapt.

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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.