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Long Island, nation's first 'Suburbia' needs to embrace 'Smart Growth'

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What if "Smart Growth" planning principles were applied to the Old Village of Great Neck? It wouldn't be so tired, so dreary, so abandoned looking. There would be people strolling the streets, a vibrancy and vitality. A feeling of pride and community spirit.

What are smart growth principles? You only have to look at the Village of Great Neck Plaza for the contrast: planters hanging from Victorian street lighting s, brick pavers on the sidewalks, bump outs that make it easier to cross the street and slow traffic, roundabouts and a "road diet" that calms the traffic (and drivers) so pedestrians and bicyclists can cross the street with some measure of safety. In general, a reduction in the stress, an overall improvement in quality of life.

And there is so much more - plenty to do from dining to shopping to movie to concerts to the library. And when you want to get to the Big City, you merely have to catch the Long Island Rail Road for a half-hour transit to the hurly burly.

On a Saturday night, we headed to Bare Burger for a late dinner. We purposely parked just opposite the Kensington Gate because it is so delightful to stroll up Middle Neck Road at this point into the Plaza's "downtown" and look at shop windows, the lights, see neighbors as you walk.

There is no such desire to walk up the Old Village's "main street" - you may make a quick trip to Ace Hardware or CVS or Raindew, or grab a coffee at Dunkin Donuts, but there is little to lure you to "stroll," and very little continuity in the streetscape to lure you.

In fact, after you watch a movie at Great Neck House on a Friday or Saturday night, if you wanted to go for coffee or an ice cream, you are more likely to drive up to the Plaza - the Old Village is shuttered and dark and completely dead.

What is the big beautification accomplishment in the Old Village? Rose bushes in the median which have added some color but are downright dangerous for anyone trying to make a left turn across the opposing traffic.

Middle Neck Road in the Old Village, curvy, hilly and far too narrow to support 2 traffic lanes plus parking in each direction is downright dangerous. Just attempting to cross the street evokes tremendous anxiety, and it isn't any better if you are driving, hoping no idiot driver suddenly opens a car door into the traffic.

When we raise this issue with a village trustee this past weekend, we are told that they can't prune the bushes until the roses have finished blooming.

Also, the Old Village can't make the improvements suggested years ago by a Complete Streets consultant (paid for by a grant) because Middle Neck Road is under the jurisdiction of Nassau County. Well, the Village of Great Neck Plaza adopted many of his recommendations, and the results have been marvelous.

In fact, the Old Village is in jeopardy of losing out of a $260,000 grant because of Nassau County's inaction.

What is clear is that the people who are in charge of such issues at Nassau County haven't a clue about "Complete Streets" principles - something that became painfully obvious at Vision Long Island's "Complete Streets" Summit in April. Christopher Mistron, the Nassau County Traffic Safety Coordinator, had no clue about the concept - which is intended to make streets safe for pedestrians and cyclists as well as cars, add to the aesthetics of a "walkable, livable community" and promote economic revitalization to boot. (He expressed complete surprise at learning that buses in most other places, including Florida and even neighboring Suffolk County actually have bike racks - he said he had never seen such things! His single answer to how Nassau County addresses "traffic safety" was the red-light cameras, which have the added benefit of generating revenue for the cash-starved county, but he seemed uninterested in following up with the appeal for better signage at major intersections and more visible numbering at buildings to cut down on driver confusion that could lead to accidents and unnecessary burning of fossil fuels.

No one from the Old Village attended the Complete Streets summit. But if they had, they might see what other communities have accomplished, and why it is such a benefit - in terms of enhancing community and community pride, safety, and even the local economy - which means higher property values and lower property taxes. Maybe there wouldn't be so many "empties" if people were inspired to actually stroll passed shops.

The Village landlords don't see it that way. They don't see any self-interest in beautifying the street. The Village can't even get a Business Improvement District going (as they have in the Plaza), because the property owners are too concerned they will have to pay dues or an assessment for some improvement.

Look at the string of shabby single-story stores at Baker Hill Road - this should be prime for a modern, multi-story, mixed-use development that could perhaps offer affordable (not necessarily cheap) housing alternatives for young professionals and empty-nesters.

Another place would be in that stretch of Middle Neck Road that is part of the Unincorporated Area (under North Hempstead's jurisdiction) where the Associated grocery store is, which would be ideal for a multi-story, mixed use building, possibly with incentives for empty nesters and young professionals to live there.

And maybe if the Great Neck Village Officials Associations worked together, they could state and/or federal grants and local business support (ha!) for a cutesy trolley-style bus to operate along Middle Neck Road, as so many communities have (Lenox, Massachusetts; Delray Beach, Florida; St Petersburg, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky, even Port Washington, to list but a few). The trolley could be supported with advertising dollars as well - merchants could distribute shopping circulars and maybe coupons - and maybe a $1 fare. (And maybe they could get some of the millions in grant money that went to the completely useless group spinning wheels about the Nassau Hub.) (Please don't tell me that the trolley bus that the useless Chamber of Commerce used to run over a few days during the Christmas holiday lacked traffic - they would run it during the holiday week when everyone had already left town.)

What is lacking in the Old Village is a sense of community and pride - which a Complete Streets/'Smart Growth' philosophy actually helps inject.

This can be seen in the way that some communities have created Farmers Markets (go to the Town Dock in Port Washington on a weekend and see how thrilled people are to purchase fresh produce) but the Great Neck Chamber of Commerce and literally a couple of shopkeepers nixed the plan for the Village Green (yes, they tried again a small effort on a Thursday morning - who is around on a Thursday morning????) The seniors who live in the village Housing Authority building next door would have been given a weekly $25 voucher from New York State in order to purchase fresh produce.

In fact, Friends & Farmers, which promotes farmers markets, won Vision Long Island's Smart Growth "Community Revitalization" award this year. The group manages the Long Beach market, open Wednesdays and Saturdays- and the weekend market attracts musicians and artists, "adding to the sense of community. Long Island Greenmarket also manages farmers markets in Amityville, Kings Park, Nesconset and the Spinney Hill, Great Neck market. They also perform cooking demonstrations, distribute recipes and give NYS vouchers to senior citizens (food stamps are also accepted). How delightful would that be on the Village Green?

The shopkeepers in the Old Village are very simply close minded. During the summer, the Parks Department offers outdoor movies on the Green and Rotary Concerts. Have you ever seen one of the restaurants or deli's promoting a picnic dinner to take? There are weekend concerts at Steppingstone Park - have you ever seen anyone put out a sign to 'Pick up your picnic dinner here'?

There could be so much more activity on the Village Green that could help create a sense of community spirit - you can see it during the annual Octoberfest. Perhaps the Village (and Parks, obviously) could cooperate with the Gold Coast Arts Center (no longer the Great Neck Arts Center) on an outdoor art show, like they used to have in Greenwich Village. Or put on a "battle of the bands."

The lack of community spirit (or vision, for that matter) is what killed the Old Village's best idea (at the time advanced by then-Mayor Stephen Falk): to reclaim the East Shore Road waterfront for residential and public use. But around the country - including Buffalo, Tampa, Portland and San Antonio - and around the world (as I saw on my recent trip to Taiwan), communities are reclaiming their waterfronts from blighted industrial uses and converting them into public recreation areas - bikeways and pedestrian trails.

But at the Smart Growth awards, we see where communities are doing it right.

The Old Village could take some notes from Smithtown, which won the "Strengthening Communities" award for its "Downtown on Main" project, which is taking a blighted, abandoned lumber yard and turning it into the centerpiece of a project that will house 56 apartments and up to 15,000 square feet of retail in four buildings, including three, three-story residential buildings and 11,149-sq ft. mixed-use building with 20 units, plus 20 apartments set aside for workforce housing. Construction boss Andrew Zucaro and DC5's Jared DeLew said the building would feature a turn-of-the-century appearance. (Please, the 7-11 which is going up where a gas station closed is no comparison.)

Greenview Properties won the "Sense of Place" award for Bay Shore Revitalization including a new mixed use development that "provides a new demographic of residents...The neighborhood is very much on the upswing."

Watchcase won the "Compact Building Design" award for turning a 1931 Bulova Watch factory in Sag Harbor - an eyesore for 25 years - into a multi-family building with 47 lofts and 17 units of adjacent townhouses including pool and outdoor pavilion, new sidewalks, underground parking, which is becoming the centerpiece of a "walkable," "liveable" community. The project is much denser than is typical of Long Island communities - built on a principle of suburban sprawl - but this means more open space for public use, "a win-win."

Wincoram Commons - a project that resulted from the collaboration of The Coram Civic Association and Town of Brookhaven, the Community Development Corporation of Long Island and Conifer Realty - won the award for Housing Choices. "There wasn’t a sense of community –the community wanted a center, a destination. The theater had been closed for years. Residents wanted something to give a sense of place." It will create 176 units of workforce housing and 13,300 sq. ft. of commercial space, framing a pedestrian-friendly plaza. Civic Association President Erma Gluck said residents are excited about having a downtown, "which will both create a sense of place and support local business by locating stores near homes."

Envision Valley Stream and the village of Valley Stream won the award for "Mixed Use." The village changed zoning to allow mixed-use developments and the LIRR is undertaking a study to explore promoting development around its stations. The Valley Stream Village Board approved Complete Streets legislation - which means policies designed to make the roads safer by narrowing lanes, adding bicycle lanes, improving intersections, creating pedestrian islands and lowering traffic speeds - and looking to turn the buildings which once housed mom-and-pop stores with owners living above, to housing for seniors and young professionals "trying to live in walkable downtowns by public transportation," said founder David Sabatino.

Common refrains during the Smart Growth Awards included "walkable," "livable," "mixed use" and, significantly, "sense of place." These are concepts that are driving a renewed Long Island which can no longer afford the suburban sprawl paradigm. They will support downtown merchants and raise property values while reducing - not increasing - property taxes. "It's a win-win for everybody," Here's another refrain: "sense of community" which results from such projects.

But it boils down to community spirit - a desire to make the community better - as well as leadership. And this often requires courage, commitment and vision to face down the perennial naysayers such those who defeated the East Shore Road revitalization.

There needs to be recognition that the Old Suburbia is not sustainable - people say they can't afford the property taxes, the overuse of fossil fuels is destroying the planet let alone polluting our communities, the unaffordability of housing is leading to the brain drain as young people move away and the growing income inequality of living on Long Island is putting us on a downward spiral. And yet, the visionaries, the community leaders so often have to fight the naysayers who reflexively oppose higher density, or make a claim that an improvement will increase traffic or worse, bring outsiders, and even worse "make us look like Queens."

Great Neck Plaza Mayor Jean Celender won a "Smart Growth" award in 2012 for her leadership, and I recall how she had to fight to rebuild Great Neck Road along Complete Street principles (tell the truth: it is much better now).

This year, the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District won the "Sustainability" award for the way it has combined and upgraded its sewer plant, not only to address the mandated reduction in nitrogen pollution to the Long Island Sound, but introducing technology that has enabled the Village of Great Neck to shut down its own plant - a mere 500 feet away - capture methane which is produced as a byproduct to use to generate electricity, and reduce operating expenses by $830,000.

"One of responsibilities of government is not just to use money wisely, but lead by example," commented Superintendent Chris Murphy, who credited former North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman for his leadership (he wasn't the only one who credited Kaiman). The project, overall, was an example of the "community banding together."

Inexplicably, Vision Long Island bestowed its "Regional Leadership" award this year on Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, who was unable to attend because he was meeting with federal authorities in order to get $600 million in funding for the new outflow pipe to the ocean from the Bay Park sewage treatment plant. Superstorm Sandy has proved a godsend to the County to cover its billion-dollar liability to upgrade its sewer plants.

Mangano actually took credit for the improvements in the downtowns that - if anything - were inspired under Tom Suozzi, who held workshops on revitalizing downtowns and campaigned to rehabilitate brownfields rather than develop what little open space was left in the county. The only way Mangano would know the definition of "Complete Streets" or "Smart Growth" is by reading a script. "A revitalized downtown helps everyone," he dutifully recited in a video.

But Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who gave a fabulous talk at the Complete Streets summit , really does get it - not just in words, but in actions.

"This is about the future of Long Island," he told the Vision Long Island Smart Growth Awards record-sized audience of 800 at the Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury. "If we will have vibrant future, we have to be about sustainable growth.

"In Suffolk, we want to create an innovation economy. We have the ability to reverse brain drain -that’s what should be judged on. We need to retain young, highly skilled workers who power the innovation economy.

How to achieve this? "By creating walkable downtowns, connected by transit to the things they need and want – jobs, affordable housing, entertainment, parks and recreation."

In an economy where talent and business can move anywhere, he said, "we need to build a quality of life eco-system."

In fact, Long Island, he declared, "should be in one of the hottest places in the world!" prompting applause.

But this requires a new way of looking at Long Island.

Long Island - the First Suburbia - was designed for the automobile. The only thought in designing the infrastructure was how to move cars.

But Suburban Sprawl (and not school taxes) is the reason that our property taxes go up and up without abatement, and why we do not have a sustainable economy beyond the meager revenues the counties take from a share of retail sales.

It means adopting mixed-use zoning, higher density housing with more open space and public recreation around, It means improving mass transit through better bus service, perhaps light rail or even trolleys (especially on north-south routes)., It means better connections between communities and neighborhoods, not just internally.

"For me, if we are going to have sustainable growth, a vibrant economy, a safe place and quality of life for all of us, then Complete Streets is integral part of that effort," Bellone said.

"We know Complete Streets improve health, environment, promote pedestrian safety – so many wonderful things. For me, this is not just some feel good initiative to say our roads should be designed with all users in mind – this is just sound public policy and it’s important we are moving together in this region to implement. But for the past 20 years, our region has been losing young people at record rates. If we are going to build sustainable economic growth, if we are going to build an innovation economy we have to be a region that can retain and attract young people – a young creative class is essential – high knowledge, high skilled workers, young people – and for whatever reason, our region has not been competitive in retaining and attracting that class."

"If we fail to do that, then we will relegate ourselves to an economic future that is less vibrant, less bright, that is adding costs, more rapidly aging demographic, lower property value s- that’s the future if we cannot be a region attracting and retaining young people," Bellone said. "In my view, complete streets is absolutely essential to reversing the brain drain."

Indeed, you can look around the country at college communities - Troy, New York, for example where Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is located and see a revitalized "downtown" chock full of new offices of newly graduated young professionals and innovators stay after graduation, first because of business incubators which give them the opportunity to commercialize what they had investigated in college, and then because they have laid down roots.

"We can’t build one giant area where we have a version of Silicon Valley or Research Triangle – we don’t have the space," Bellone said, "but we can build a series of innovation campuses in downtowns, as hubs, all connected to one another, to our research centers, our job centers, to universities, and to parks, recreation and open space."

"Here’s what we know about young people: They want recreation, they want to be able to ride a bicycle, want to be active. They don’t want to always get in a car to get around. These are the things that Complete Streets do – they are designed for all users, not just the car – so we can create a more vibrant economy. It's so important for health, safety, quality of life, and for everyone who cares about future, who wants economic vitality, to attract young people, and keeps families intact."

Besides making streets friendly for bikes and pedestrians, Complete Streets means transportation alternatives - more bus rapid transit, fast trolley, light trolley, hopefully equipped with bike racks (one of the Smart Growth honorees this year, Jay Schneiderman, won the "Transportation Choices" award for instituting Sunday bus service - but it only took him seven years to achieve.

Other countries "get it" - I've seen such communities in Lisbon, Portugal and more recently in Taiwan (where, by the way, the high-speed trains take you from north to south of the country in 1 1/2 hours, for $55.

Long Island may have been the birthplace for Suburbia. But that paradigm is no longer sustainable, and apparently, that reality is beginning to take hold.

"There's a movement on Long Island to eschew suburban sprawl in favor of community living," said Smithtown's DeLew.

Karen Rubin, Long Island Populist Examiner
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