“Rebooting the Burbs”

Late last year, Tom Suozzi, the progressive Nassau County Executive, took stock of the surrounding landscape of aging suburbs and derelict downtowns. This bastion of single-family homes, he found, had reached a terminal state. “Nassau County has stopped growing,” he declared in an appeal to civic and business leaders. “We are suburban sprawled.” In response, Suozzi put forth a plan he called New Suburbia: 90 percent of the land would be left as is, while the remaining 10 percent would be rebuilt to bolster needed growth. Long Island, it seemed, was on the verge of a smart-growth revolution.

Suozzi was soon tossed out of office amid a taxpayer revolt, but make no mistake: New Suburbia is coming to Long Island—and to downtowns across the nation. “Long Island has encountered problems that newer suburbs are going to encounter in the next five or six years,” said Lawrence Levy, executive director of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “What happens here is going to be the canary in the coal mine.”

Against a backdrop of eroding salaries, vanishing jobs, and a plummeting youth population—almost 70 percent of residents aged 18 to 34 say they’re itching to move out within the next five years—Long Island’s two suburban counties have become a test case for reverse-engineering sprawl. Suozzi may be gone, but in his wake town officials, citizens’ groups, architects, and planners are creating an eye-opening preview of suburbia’s next act. Throw in a new ideas competition sponsored by the Long Island Index, and the burbs might even be headed for a rebound.

Of the 95 smart-growth projects currently built, under construction, or in planning phases on Long Island, the poster child for suburban opportunities is by all accounts the Lighthouse, a planned $3.74 billion project that would radically reinvent the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum as the centerpiece of a 150-acre, mixed-use community. A joint venture headed up by software entrepreneur Charles Wang and developer RXR, the project would encompass some 30 buildings—many of which would stand between 10 and 20 stories tall, a shocking sight in an area of two-story homes on cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs—and refurbish the coliseum for the New York Islanders hockey team, which Wang also owns. Though supported by Nassau County officials, the project has been roadblocked by the town of Hempstead, and is currently on hold pending further review of its scale and impact.

The appeal of the Lighthouse lies partly in the way it would knit together with a larger vision for the Nassau Hub spanning the coliseum along with the Roosevelt Field mall, Hofstra University, and parts of Mineola and Hempstead that could become a showcase for Long Island’s smart-growth aspirations. Connected by new light-rail lines linking to the Long Island Rail Road, it would be hands down the most game-changing Long Island development since Levittown itself. “What makes this project unique for Long Island is that it has the opportunity to become a true place, destination, and essentially a new town center redeveloped out of a sea of asphalt and unworkable sprawl,” the smart-growth advocacy group Vision Long Island wrote in a strong endorsement.

But there are many other opportunities to reinvent Long Island. Indeed, a recent report released by the Long Island Index called Places to Grow found 8,300 acres of vacant land and parking lots in downtown areas that can be repurposed for new development, specifically citing two dozen places with high potential, among them Hempstead, Mineola, Patchogue, and Glen Cove. The latter, in fact, is currently home to a planned $1 billion project known as Glen Isle, which shows how density can be grafted onto traditional town centers.

Located along the shore of Hempstead Harbor, the 56-acre development is being carried out in concert with a $120 million Superfund cleanup of the former brownfield site. In 2008 developer RXR joined the team, helping design a plan with 860 residential units, a 250-suite hotel, office space, and public waterfront esplanade. Also on tap is a high-speed ferry terminal that won $8 million in stimulus funding, and is expected to offer commuter service to Manhattan. The complex endeavor—involving public agencies that control the land and an ecological restoration—in some ways makes it a model for the New Suburbia. “It’s not just a private development deal,” said Matthew Frank, executive vice-president of development and design for RXR, which is currently finalizing project approvals. “It’s a public-private partnership. That way you get a coordinated balance between the needs of the community and the economic realities of building a successful development.”

Some of Long Island’s most creative smart-growth projects, however, have come out of small villages, where mayors directly control more of the land-use machinery. In Patchogue, for instance, several projects are reviving a downtown that had fallen on hard times. “One of the things Patchogue is blessed to have is quite a bit of blighted property,” said Mayor Paul Pontieri. Several acres near the train station were transformed into two projects with a total of 80 condominiums and 48 apartments. “That’s 22 or 23 per acre, but you’d never know it,” Pontieri said. “I’m a believer that density is a product of design. If you design it properly, density will follow.”

Meanwhile, developer Tritec is now building a $100 million, mixed-use project at the core of the business district that will house 240 apartments. Also under way is the Artspace Patchogue Lofts, containing ground-floor commercial space and 45 units of affordable live/work housing for artists and their families. The building is one of the few new downtown designs that departs from its historic context. “Because it’s a creative-class type of setting, we encouraged them to do something that reflects on the past, but more important, looks to the future,” said Matthew Meier, partner of Buffalo-based Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects, which worked in collaboration with Gary Cannella Associates of Patchogue.

Projects like these can often be hamstrung by outmoded local ordinances. “A lot of the zoning on Long Island ends up coming down to parking,” said Salvatore Coco, partner at Beatty, Harvey, Coco Architects, which is working on a 140-unit, sustainably designed development in Hempstead. Current zoning requires two parking spaces for every one-bedroom apartment, hardly a transit-oriented approach. “We’ve proposed a one-to-one ratio, and the fact that we’re a half-mile away from the Baldwin train station actually makes this achievable,” Coco said.

While still dominated by the car, Long Island’s low-density downtowns are well poised for transit-oriented development (TOD). John Loughran, senior associate at FXFowle and project manager for an update of the village of Hempstead’s comprehensive plan, pointed out that beneath the omnipresent sprawl is a layer of transit infrastructure and density that simply needs to be reinforced. “Places like Hempstead, Garden City, and Rockville Centre were the original TOD,” he said. “They all have transit at their core.” And that has helped the region hang on with its core assets intact. “Long Island hasn’t had the cascade of failure and the abandonment of malls and strip centers—yet,” said June Williamson, professor of architecture at City College and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia.

To help look toward the future, the Long Island Index is launching an ideas competition on March 31 called Build a Better Burb, with a $10,000 top prize going to the most imaginative design visions for how Long Island’s downtowns can be reinhabited in ways that are socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. “Places like Stamford, Connecticut or in New Jersey have dramatically reimagined what they might be, but Long Island has fought these ideas tooth and nail,” said Ann Golob, director of the Index. “We’re really trying to push the edge of the envelope,” she added. “It’s going to take some people thinking pretty boldly about what might be possible.”

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