Image: Urban Design Associates

Ten months after a public hearing on proposed code revisions to implement the downtown pattern book — the town’s adopted $175,000 plan intended to improve downtown development standards — the fate of the legislation remains uncertain.

Riverhead’s Business Advisory Committee — which objected to the code during a May 3 public hearing last year and asked the Town Board for time to work with the Downtown Revitalization Committee on a compromise — is poised to recommend the Town Board reject most of the code revisions that would implement the pattern book.

The pattern book, an initiative of the Downtown Revitalization Committee, was adopted by the Town Board in January 2021. It recommends a four-story/50-foot maximum building height, with a 45-degree step back on the fourth floor — down from five stories and 60 feet. It also recommends multiple architectural design standards.

The Business Advisory Committee, whose members include influential members of the business and development community, is opposed to those changes, as well as the plan’s recommendations to make development more environmentally friendly, such as a “green roof” and “zero net energy” standards.

The committee, led by Riverhead architect Martin Sendlewski, objects that the proposal’s design standards are too restrictive for architects and diminishes property owners’ rights.

A revamped code proposal has been worked up by the Business Advisory Committee. Both Sendlewski and Council Member Bob Kern, Town Board liaison to the committee, declined to release a copy of the revised draft, though Sendlewski confirmed its recommendations in an interview. The committee discussed the recommendations during its meeting in Town Hall this month. 

“We prefer that they be discussed at the work session first at which time they will be public info,” he said in a text message.

The pattern book idea was first pitched by the Riverhead Downtown Advisory Committee in June 2019. After a request for proposals process, the Town Board in August 2019 awarded a $175,000 contract to the planning firm Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to develop the pattern book. 

Urban Design Associates held community forums and stakeholder meetings, conducted two online surveys and launched an online interactive map to gather input from residents, property owners and downtown businesses. UDA unveiled the completed document in October 2020.

The Town Board voted unanimously to adopt the pattern book on Jan. 20, 2021. It got the support of two members who initially opposed the initiative, Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and Council Member Tim Hubbard. Aguiar, when she was running for office in 2019 called the idea “an unnecessary, costly half-step.” Hubbard voted against awarding the contract, stating that the town has “very qualified” people on its Architectural Review Board and Landmarks Preservation Commission to guide redevelopment downtown and didn’t need to spend the money on out-of-town consultants.

Code amendments to implement the pattern book’s recommendations were the subject of a public hearing on May 3, 2022. The proposed code amendments would exempt projects pending at the time the pattern book was adopted. 

At the May 3 hearing, residents who helped develop the pattern book urged the Town Board to adopt the proposed amendments. Sendlewski, speaking on behalf of the Business Advisory Committee, made comments in opposition to the proposed code.

After the hearing, Sendlewski asked that he and other Business Advisory Committee members meet with members of the Downtown Revitalization Committee, to create a new code that addressed the Business Advisory Committee’s concerns. 

At the board’s May 12 work session, Council Member Bob Kern suggested that  the code amendments be put on hold until the matter was resolved. Board members agreed. 

Members of the Business Advisory Committee and Downtown Revitalization Committee met behind closed doors recently and discussed the proposal. 

Members of the Business Advisory Committee said during the committee’s meeting this month that Downtown Revitalization Committee members were receptive to recommending jointly that the board retain the five-story maximum downtown, as long as set back requirements are in place. 

But Downtown Revitalization Committee Co-chairperson Janice Scherer said the two committees were discussing the possibility of requiring certain business “performance standards” in exchange for the ability to build a fifth story, such as contributing to something of public benefit. Conversations between the committees were still ongoing, she said.

Scherer said she had not seen the copy of the proposed code discussed by the Business Advisory Committee earlier this month. 

“I think everybody wants to get it right; it’s just a matter of understanding what it takes to build a building, what it takes to require certain things,” Scherer said. “What the community wants is a massive part of it. I don’t think that they get their fair say, and that’s very important.”

Downtown Revitalization Committee Co-chairperson James Farley did not return calls seeking comment.

Business advisory committee members also criticized most of the building mass and design standards section of the code and agreed to recommend eliminating several items in that section. Those recommendations would be sent to the Downtown Revitalization Committee, they said.

In an interview after the committee’s Feburary meeting, Sendlewski said that he doesn’t think “anybody on the Business Advisory Committee saw a big difference between having a five-story building or a four-story building,” especially if there is a setback on the fifth story. Reducing the size of the buildings down to the proposed code’s standards would restrict businesses by not allowing more rentable units, he said.

“Basically, people would be losing a certain amount of opportunity that they have on a property,” he said.

The code that went to a Town Board public hearing last May exempted projects with applications submitted before the adoption of the pattern book from the requirements. Town officials said during the public hearing said those projects include a five-story mixed-use expansion to the Suffolk Theater; the Zenith Building, a four-story mixed-use apartment project designed by Sendlewski on McDermott Street; and the 165-unit mixed-use apartment complex proposal at 203-213 East Main Street by Metro Group. During the public hearing, town officials said there was only one project that would have been legally required to comply with the pattern book if the code was adopted, that project being Landmark at Riverhead, which is planned for the former West Marine building on East Main Street.

MORE COVERAGE: Suffolk Theater five-story, mixed-use addition and four-story, mixed-use building on McDermott Avenue to receive preliminary site plan approvals

Town officials and developers have said that the 203-213 East Main Street building, although still five-stories tall, made changes to its design to reflect the recommendations of the pattern book, including setbacks for its fourth and fifth stories. According to a staff report on the project delivered in December, it is unknown whether the building’s facade will be influenced by the pattern book. Town Board members reacted positively to the building’s design renderings during the report presentation.

MORE COVERAGE: Town Board presented revised plans for large Main Street apartment complex

In interviews, Kern, Hubbard and Beyrodt said they were receptive to following certain recommendations of the Business Advisory Committee. Rothwell and Aguiar did not return requests for comment. Community Development Director Dawn Thomas also did not return requests for comment.

Kern, who before his election to the Town Board in 2021 was chairperson of the Business Advisory Committee said he agrees with what was recommended at the committee meeting, which, as Town Board liaison to the committee, he attended.  “I had no objections,” he said.

Hubbard said he supports the pattern book’s recommendation for changing the maximum height for new buildings, but he is against 100% lot coverage recommendation. He said building on the entire lot could cause problems, such as where dumpsters would be located. 

Beyrodt said he also likes lot coverage as it is now. He said he does not have a strong opinion about whether the maximum height of buildings should remain at five stories or be reduced to four-stories, but added that he relies on the business community’s recommendations when making a decision. He said he favors the set-back requirement.

“I think that set back really gives a visual appearance of a story less, and I think this is all going towards making the downtown a better, more vibrant place for business,” Beyrodt said.

Business Advisory Committee members said they were against 100% lot coverage at their meeting. Sendlewski said having less space to develop on the property would allow developers and the town to work together to create another use for the rest of the property on the street level, including having a setback for the building along Main Street for more sidewalk space.

The original design proposal also required new development to adopt zero net energy standards, which requires the building be energy efficient and use energy generated from an on-site renewable source like solar panels. Sendlewski criticized the code for zero net energy standards at the time of the hearing, stating that the language was vague because it states it both “requires” and “strongly encourages” renewable energy.

“I think that developers should certainly consider that, but I’m not a person that’s fond of mandates, especially in my business,” Beyrodt said when asked his opinion on requiring energy standards in the code. “Make it available, make it enticing for them to do that, and it will happen. That’s my opinion.” When asked if he thinks the town should be adopting code to motivate developers to use renewable energy, Beyrodt did not give a concrete answer. “I’m sure that we can, but a lot of it comes from economics.”

Hubbard said the Business Advisory Committee saw that requirement as very restrictive. “I’ve got to look at that harder before I make a final decision on it,” he said. He added that sometimes those requirements “aren’t practical.”

Sendlewski said that many of the design standards outlined in the pattern book, drawn out of a desire to have a consistent look for future development downtown, should not be requirements, but “guidelines.” He said the committee does not want to restrict architects. 

“To the extent possible, you want to certainly have buildings that fit in and are nice projects to the town aesthetically, and they’re not out of place,” Sendlewski said. “But to try to codify that, we just think it’s too burdensome to have that many things that are considered to be codified requirements of a project.”

Sendlewski said that, in terms of lot coverage, 80% would allow there to be more sidewalk and setback spaces for buildings. “And then I think as part of the design, as each project goes through its design scenarios, they can leave it up to the developer and the planning… [architectural review board] and all that, to determine where the best area is for that open space,” he said.

Hubbard, Beyrodt and Kern all signaled in their comments support for the board not to adopt strict design standards for new buildings. 

“I think you’ll have to look at each case individually,” Hubbard said. “You don’t want a downtown where one building is cloned right after the other and then the next one and the next one. Obviously you want a lot of variation, but you want to make sure that the variation all fits in with one another.”

Beyrodt said there should be “some template” for them going forward, but they should be guidelines, not mandatory.  

“I would think that the town people would want it to have a real historical look almost,” Beyrodt said. “That’s why we have the Landmarks Preservation, we have the Architectural Review, to help steer those kinds of projects, and I think that those committees are going to be really helpful moving forward.”

Scherer, who is herself a professional planner, said that having cohesive design standards downtown was the “whole purpose of the pattern book.” The document would give “a clear consensus of what people want to see how we want to see [downtown] evolve and develop, and then give people a roadmap to get there so that they don’t not invest in downtown because it takes years and years and years for anybody to agree on what anything should look like,” she said.

“The understanding I have is that everybody didn’t like the pattern book because they wanted to give architects as much latitude as possible to create whatever they wanted for these buildings,” Scherer said. “What you end up getting is like the cheapest, podium style building,” she said. “if you don’t require those upgrades in a code, you’re not going to get them, and that was our whole point. We wanted the upgrades. We wanted people to invest. We wanted something that emulated, where it belonged in a DC-1 Historic District, and we wanted something that evoked a certain amount of civic pride,” she added.

Whether the design standards get codified will determine whether or not the document will “just sit in the background,” Scherer said.

Sendlewski and other members of the Business Advisory Committee also questioned the legality of some of the items in the design standards, which, they said, were “subjective.” 

Scherer, the planning administrator in neighboring Southampton Town, said that is not the case.“The government has the ability to regulate massing and design based on community character and the fact that you’re in a historic district. How much they want to regulate it and how onerous they want to make it is a policy matter, not a legal matter,” she said.

In community surveys done during development of the pattern book, respondents identified buildings as being “too massive” — the second “biggest threat” to downtown. When respondents were given the option to choose, out of four possible choices, of how large a building should be downtown, 88% chose a building smaller in height than the current standard downtown; 59% of respondents favored the choice that displayed the smallest building with the least amount of lot coverage.

Respondents also said regulating architectural style downtown was of importance, but respondents were divided in another survey on whether buildings should appear stylistically consistent or stylistically eclectic. The recommendation of the pattern book appears to balance the two, recommending a mix of contemporary, pre-WWII and post-WWII styles.  

Former Council Member Catherine Kent, an advocate for the pattern book from the beginning, said in an interview this week she believes “the pattern book should be codified as it is.”

“It was based on a lot of feedback, it was a long process and many people weighed in,” Kent said.

“When you get a lot of feedback and you hear from the people of Riverhead, I think that should carry weight. And decisions shouldn’t be made by small special interest groups,” she added.

The pattern book’s “ultimate goal was to create more beautiful buildings in our downtown area” and came out of a growing sense that residents “don’t want to see the five-story buildings down there,” Kent said.

In her experience, she said, developers and architects would tell the Town Board they actually wanted standards and wanted more guidelines. “I think when you have standards and guidelines it actually moves the process along more quickly for the developer,” Kent said.  “And I think it’s key to creating a beautiful downtown area.”

Town Board members said they expect the code to appear at a work session soon. 

Hubbard said he’d like to get the long-delayed code adopted.  

“We just need to get this done now,” he said.

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.