The line of people waiting to get into Riverhead Justice Court on a Monday morning in September 2019. The courtroom was already packed to capacity, as was the interior hallway. File photo: Denise Civiletti

The very long saga of the town’s “space problems” is a classic example of how not to plan and execute capital improvements if you happen to be the governing body of a growing municipality.

Over the years, the town board has thrown away thousands upon thousands of dollars for plans drawn by various architects and engineers for different expansion concepts — $87,500 on one set of plans alone —  but each time, board members got cold feet when it came to actually spending the money to build and/or renovate. The multimillion price tag each time was more than successive boards could muster the political fortitude to approve. 

So here we are, almost 20  years into this navel-gazing exercise in futility, and now that there’s inflation the likes of which we haven’t seen in 50 years, supply chain shortages and rising interest rates, the current town board is presented with a $30+ million dollar plan — very, very roughly speaking — and the board members’ reaction is “Great! When can we start?”

Two years ago, town officials were presented with the opportunity to buy Peconic Bay Medical Center’s Second Street campus — which the hospital purchased from People’s United Bank — for less than the cost of building the new three-story building local architect Martin Sendlewski identified as part of what he called the most economical, most useful option to solve the town’s space problems. We believe the Second Street campus is still in play. Was this option even assessed? Sendlewski didn’t mention it. 

The three-story former Suffolk County National Bank headquarters building has more square footage than the proposed new building. The hospital’s Second Street campus also has three additional buildings on it: a two-story office building on the corner of Second Street and Griffing Avenue, a two-story frame home on Griffing Avenue and the bank branch building on the corner of Second Street and Roanoke Avenue. The branch building is leased to People’s United Bank, and we understand there are several more years left on that lease. So it’s an income-producing property. The site also has ample parking. Was any of this taken into consideration? 

While Sendlewski has apparently been working at no charge on the plans rolled out at Thursday’s work session, he’s doing so with the expectation that he’ll get the job as architect if the town moves forward. Will the town follow its procurement policy when it comes time to hire? Yes, a request for proposals is not mandated for professional services — as town officials will be quick to point out — but that’s clearly the better practice. The procurement policy does require the town to at least obtain three written proposals for a contract like this. This should be done in an open and transparent manner. 

Meanwhile, Sendlewski has other pending applications on behalf of clients, including a five-story building on McDermott Avenue that requires town board approval. What are the ethics of accepting “free” services from someone with pending applications before the town? This smells too much like an old-fashioned “good ol’ boy,” “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” situation. That’s not good government, but nothing about the town’s quest to solve its “space problem” has been an example of good government, going back to the first false start when former Supervisor Phil Cardinale sat in the corner office.

And what of the old state armory? The town asked the state for the armory site specifically for a police/court complex. And the state approved the transfer to the town specifically for that purpose.

Councilman Tim Hubbard was in favor of the armory renovation when he first took office and reiterated his support as recently as 2019 — which was after the site was fully assessed by  architects Ehasz Giacalone and engineers Cashin Associates, who drew up the $13 million renovation plan in 2014. Now, Hubbard says the building is not viable at all and likely needs to be demolished.  Did Sendlewski assess the current condition of the armory site and estimate current costs for the 2014 plan?

If the town has made a well-reasoned decision to abandon the idea of using the armory for a police/court complex, what happens to it?

Hubbard said last week Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio, a former town council member who balked at investing $13 million to convert the armory for the police/court complex, said the town board should “write a letter” to the state asking to change the condition of its transfer to the town. 

The deed has a reverter clause stating if the premises are not used for police/justice court purposes, title “shall revert to the People of the State of New York.”

The only way to change that is with new legislation —  which Giglio has to know and which she is now in a position to introduce.  

If the town wants to get that reverter clause removed — something the town board has discussed for years, by the way, going back to when Giglio was on the board herself — the town board must pass a resolution requesting it and advocating for it. Then our state legislators, Giglio and State Senator Anthony Palumbo, must file bills in their respective chambers to make that happen. And then they must get them passed.

The town should revisit discussions with the hospital about the Second Street site and have its engineering department assess the property, prepare a written report and present its findings at a public meeting. Its central location in the heart of an area the town is seeking to revitalize makes it an excellent choice, in our view — much better than a residential area on the fringe of the town’s central business district. 

If the hospital’s Second Street site is a feasible option for town offices, the town will still need to either renovate both the Town Hall (for justice court purposes) and police headquarters or proceed with the armory renovation. The board should issue a request for proposals for the Howell Avenue renovations and get the cost estimates updated for the 2014 police/court complex at the armory. 

If the hospital property is not feasible, or no longer available, the town should issue a request for proposals seeking a master plan for town office facilities. The town must plan and build for the next 20 to 30 years. Its facilities must accommodate the population growth the town’s own planners are projecting. 

The town has delayed taking action on this for a such a long time, we have to ask: With the current economic situation — inflation, supply chain disruptions and rising interest rates — what’s the sudden rush now? After all this time, Riverhead taxpayers deserve to know that the town board is getting this right. In our view, that remains an open question.

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