Joe Petrocelli at the April 14 town board work session, discussing his proposal for the Riverhead town square project. Photo: Alek Lewis

The Riverhead Town Board designated J. Petrocelli Development Associates as master developer of the new town square last night, authorizing the the start of negotiations to further the project’s development.

The board’s decision was unanimous and board members expressed excitement for Petrocelli’s concept for the town square, an idea the town has been pursuing for more than two years. They applauded the proposed development pitched by builder Joseph Petrocelli, who has completed major construction and restoration projects in downtown Riverhead, including the Long Island Aquarium, the Hyatt Place East End, the Preston House and Hotel, and the Howell House and East Lawn. 

The proposal, which was publicly aired for the first time at Thursday’s town board work session, includes a four-story, 84-room hotel on the east side of the square with retail shops, a restaurant and museum space on the ground floor. The proposal also includes a two-story building on the west side of the square, abutting the Long Island Science Center building, that would have retail shops and a firehouse museum on the ground floor with offices above; a plaza area; communal green space and recreation space; an amphitheater; a boat house on the river, and a four-story condominium building on the riverfront, located on the western end of the municipal parking lot.

See prior story: Riverhead poised to name Petrocelli its master developer for town square project

Rendering showing portion of the J. Petrocelli Development Associates proposal for the planned Town Square on the Peconic Riverfront. Rendering by Andrew V. Giambertone & Associates Architects, P.C.

The town won a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant in May, which the town expressed in its application it wants to use a large portion of to aid in the development of the square in a public-private partnership. The town owns all the land where the development is proposed for, including the sites of three East Main Street properties the town purchased for $4.85 million last year and the parking lots along the riverfront. 

Councilman Ken Rothwell, who was not present at Thursday’s work session, said yesterday that the plan was “very impressive” and applauded Petrocelli for his continued investment in Riverhead. 

“You have been a leader in our own economic growth for many years and I commend you, and I think that you are more than qualified — you’re qualified to lead this endeavor and I know we’re in great hands,” Rothwell said. 

Councilman Tim Hubbard said before he voted that he doesn’t understand why anybody would be opposed to the development.

“I go home from here from these meetings sometimes scratching my head and thinking that if somebody offered to come into our beautiful town and build a children’s hospital for cancer and offer free treatment that there would be somebody at that microphone or somebody on Zoom that would find fault about it,” Hubbard said. “And I wonder what gets into these people sometimes, but I give up trying to figure that out. For the life of me, when good projects come to our town and good things come to make our town a better place, that there’s any opposition whatsoever, it just baffles me,” he said.

“You believed in us. You invested here when no one wanted to invest. You’ve proven yourself,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said, addressing Petrocelli, before casting her vote. “We don’t want someone from New Jersey or Pennsylvania telling us what to do here in the East End, so I proudly join my colleagues and I vote yes.”

Rothwell asked in his comments at the beginning of the meeting that the whole of the board, not just the supervisor, be authorized to take part in negotiations of the town square on behalf of the town, both in executive session and in processes open to the public.

“Many resolutions say ‘authorize a supervisor to execute an agreement with ABC company’…and I want to make sure that that’s not how this is gonna go down, this is going to be based on a full five-member board vote,” Rothwell said in a call today. “I’m not going to vote to allow the supervisor to speak on my behalf for how I feel the town square should be done, and that everyone is involved and we’re all part of the agreements,” he said.

“I think sometimes that the supervisor wants to be a controlling entity and I think that we, as individuals, have to be individually responsible for the decision making of this project,” he added.

Although Petrocelli’s proposal was heralded by some residents during the meeting, others took issue with how the town went about the process of choosing its master developer.

Laurel resident and former town supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the board perhaps rushed in designating Petrocelli the master developer only five days after the proposal was publicly presented.

“It’s really a very short notice to be able to formulate your questions to really take a look at this project and be able to ask questions of the board before you are approving it,” Jens-Smith said. “So I would ask that you delay the vote on this to have another meeting where Mr. Petrocelli can present the project to the public, they’re able to ask their questions, have them answered and then put the project on.”

Riverhead resident John McAuliff said Petrocelli’s proposal looks very different from the renderings created by the town’s consultants, Urban Design Associates. He said the impression from the original designs showed a significantly wider space for the plaza area than the 70-feet-wide plaza in Petrocelli’s proposal and the Long Island Science Center would be the building on the west side of the square.

“It gives a very, very different feel. I don’t know whether the investment of the money to tearing down the buildings was intended to provide space for a new hotel and whether that is really what we want as opposed to open space along that side,” McAuliff said.

“We always knew that the proposals that we would get for the actual development by a developer in business would be somewhat different than that. It was a jumping off point,” Community Development Director Dawn Thomas responded to McAuliff. “And as this — what we’re looking at today is also a jumping off point.”

She said that UDA’s designs were preliminary and the Long Island Science Center’s project is contingent on what happens to the town square property “…so I think that moving forward as quickly as you can, if that’s possible, is not a bad decision,” Thomas said.

McAuliff also asked how long the town has been in discussion with Petrocelli and whether the town did a request for proposals for the town square project.

Aguiar said the whole town board has been in discussions since December on the project. There were no work session discussions regarding the town square or an urban renewal project listed on work session or executive session agendas in December.  

Both McAuliff and Jens-Smith also inquired why the town did not issue a request for proposals, a more lengthy but competitive process, to search for a developer for the town square.

“The TOD project [transit-oriented development project at the Riverhead railroad station] was done through an RFP but there was no design. The town board spent considerable time and energy and along with the public in creating the preliminary design for the town square. So the projects are different in that respect.” Thomas replied.

In a call today, Thomas also said there is a time issue associated with issuing an RFP, stating the process could take up to two years, and the DRI grant funding requires projects that need to be “as shovel ready as possible.”

Ron Hariri, an Aquebogue attorney, was antagonistic in his comment during the meeting, suggesting the judgment of the board may be influenced by campaign contributions made by Petrocelli companies. 

“Those members of the board that have received financial contributions, political or otherwise, from this applicant may have their judgment tainted by those payments. And I would request that they abstain from voting on this matter,” Hariri said.

Petrocelli companies have regularly contributed to the campaigns of political candidates in Riverhead, most often Republicans. In the most recent election, Petrocelli companies gave money to every Republican town board candidate on the ballot and to the town Republican committee.  

Hariri also said the process of choosing the developer of the town square should have been more transparent and had more public engagement. 

The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.

Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: