Architect's rendering of the proposed Landmark at Riverhead development on East Main Street.

Downtown development was on the town board’s work session agenda today.

The board reviewed plans for two multi-story mixed-use buildings: one to be built as an expansion to the Suffolk Theater and another that is planned for the long-vacant former West Marine building, located on the corner of East Main Street and the entrance to the Peconic River parking lot, opposite the former Riverhead Grill.

The Planning Department recommended that the town board assume lead agency status and issue a negative declaration on the Suffolk Theater expansion, which the board in October classified as a Type I action under the State Environmental Quality Review Act. A negative declaration comes if the lead agency determines a proposed action will not have significant adverse environmental impacts.

The theater owner proposes to build a five-story addition to the rear of the theater which would provide the theater with an expanded backstage area, including a “green room,” dressing rooms, restrooms, kitchenette, laundry room, showers, and mechanical rooms. The addition also consists of adding approximately 2,970 square feet of first-floor retail space and 28 rental apartments on the second through fifth floors — 20 studio and 8 one-bedroom apartments.

The addition would be 59 1/2 feet tall. The New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, an involved agency under SEQRA, submitted comments on the application that raised concerns about the height of the addition, planner Greg Bergman noted.

According to Bergman’s staff report, the historic preservation office in a Dec. 22 letter wrote:

“Suffolk Theater is a contributing building within the National Register-listed Riverhead Main Street Historic District.

“It appears that the new construction will be highly visible from the street in front of the theater. We recommend that the height be brought down considerably so it is barely visible from the street.”

Renderings prepared by the applicant in 2019 “identify that the addition will not have a significant visual impact from East Main Street” both because of the height of the theater facade and because it is set far enough back from the street.

“It’s not that it will be completely invisible, but it’s not going to have a significant impact,” Bergman said. “There may be some impact as you get further down by the river,” he said. But only a portion of the addition will be visible above the top of the existing theater facade.

Bergman said that “unless the applicant seeks additional state or federal funding or certain permits” from the state historic preservation office, the office is “really an advisory board.”

In his written report, Bergman said “if the (town) board desires, the applicant’s design professional can prepare sight line demonstrations to show the angle of visibility from a person on Main Street, in relation to the height of the front of the Suffolk Theater, to clearly identify how much of the building would be visible from the street.” This was not discussed during the meeting.

Though Bergman recommended a negative declaration for the project, which effectively terminates further environmental review, he said the apartments in the theater addition, together with the apartments and other uses at the proposed Landmark at Riverhead, which the board was about to review, will create “additional stresses” on parking downtown.

The board “should consider the timing of approvals for the project as it relates to construction of any kind of structured parking within the downtown area,” Bergman said.

Developer Wayne Steck (left) discusses his Landmark at Riverhead plans with the Riverhead Town Board during its Jan. 26 work session, as Riverhead planner Greg Bergman takes notes. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Landmark at Riverhead developer Wayne Steck presented plans to the town board today for the mixed-use building he’s proposing at 103-105 East Main Street, the former West Marine building. The existing building on the site will be demolished.

The ground floor will be occupied by a “food court” on the order of Chelsea Market, he said. The space will feature high ceilings and big windows, so that people inside will feel like they are in an outdoor space, Steck said.

He said he’s had a lot of interest in his market concept, from businesses stretching from the South Fork to Manhattan.

“I want to really create a destination downtown, right? This is going to be the cool place for lunch, to come in and hang out,” Steck said.

The 48 apartments on the upper floors would be market-rate rentals.

The building would be 51 feet above grade at street level and 56 feet above grade on the parking lot side.

In his staff report, Bergman recommended the board consider requiring compliance with various recommendations of the pattern book the town adopted but has not yet codified — including stepbacks on upper floors and increased setbacks from the street.

Steck said he likes the idea of increasing the setback on Main Street. “I thought we had to stay level with the buildings in the front,” he said. He said he will talk to his architect and have the building shifted back three feet.

Town board members reacted favorably to the design of the building.

“We really want it to be the landmark of Downtown Riverhead —  that’s the name and our goal,” said Steck, who is also a partner in Summerwind Square, the first mixed-use apartment building constructed in the downtown district under the zoning adopted after completion of the 2003 comprehensive plan.

Bergman said he would submit a resolution classifying the action for SEQRA and authorizing circulation of the application to involved agencies.

‘Where are these people going to park?’

The Landmark and Suffolk Theater buildings would together create 76 new apartments in the downtown district, which spurred a discussion about parking issues among board members. Neither proposal would provide off-street parking for residents and business patrons. Both sites are within the downtown parking district and under current law are not required to provide off-street parking.

“Where are these people going to park?” Councilman Tim Hubbard, town board liaison to the parking district, asked Steck.

The town for years has been discussing changing the law to require new residential developments within the district to either provide off-street parking or payments in lieu of parking, creating a revenue stream that would allow the parking district to expand parking capacity with either new surface parking or “structured” parking — a parking garage. But the town has not taken action on the payments in lieu of proposal plan, which seemed to take Supervisor Yvette Aguiar by surprise.

“We’ve been using that practice, right?” Aguiar asked. No, Hubbard replied.

“We haven’t initiated that — at all?” she asked. No, Hubbard said.

Hubbard noted that the town square would remove parking on the riverfront. “So with all these projects coming in, needing more parking, and we’re losing parking, it’s something I think we have to figure out before we go any further.” He said collecting fees in lieu of off-street parking wouldn’t solve the problem because land that could be used for downtown parking is “just not there.”

Community Development Director Dawn Thomas said the town needs to implement the parking plan it had drawn up a few years ago. It would shift some parking north to Court Street, where the town’s Transit Oriented Development District calls for structured parking.

“And then adding potentially some kind of structured parking on the north side of Main Street would be ultimately, I think, the best solution, because then those people could filter down to the town square,” Thomas said.

Hubbard said he thinks that’s necessary because people living on or coming to East Main Street are not going to want to park on Court Street.

In the interim, Thomas said, the town can better manage its parking, as recommended by the strategic parking plan — using timed and staged parking in existing parking lots. While some lots are full, others are only half-full, she said. The town can improve their utilization, as recommended by the strategic plan, she said.

Hubbard asked the status of development downtown in relation to the 500-apartment “cap” set forth in the downtown zoning code, adopted in 2004, that allows five-story apartment buildings.

Bergman said the sum of apartments for all proposals currently filed with the town is about 512 apartments.

“The market study that came with the town square project recommended abandoning that 500-unit cap,” Thomas said.

Bergman also noted that the code as written applies the 500-unit cap to the number of certificates of occupancy issued. He said the board should consider what would happen to projects for which applications have been filed once certificates of occupancy for 500 units have been issued. “Would you not give a guy a C.O. because he’s the last guy in?” Bergman asked.

“We also have to consider the comprehensive plan,” Aguiar said. She asked Building and Planning Administrator Jefferson Murphree how far along the comprehensive plan is.

“We are about a third of the way through,” Murphree replied.

“About a third?” Aguiar asked. “I thought we were a little bit higher.”

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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.