Learning What Works Downtown On Smart Growth Saturday
Another round of tours is in the books as Saturday marked another successful Smart Growth Saturday.
Elected officials, community stakeholders, businesses and residents joined Vision for the second event of 2014 with tours of Rockville Centre, Great Neck Plaza, Babylon and Port Jefferson.
“It was exciting to see Long Islanders that care about the health of local downtowns take the time to learn about four more great places on the second Smart Growth Saturday tour. Sharing design techniques, recent projects and plans for future growth was a key feature and the municipalities that manage these local Main Streets are passionate and dedicated to their community. I am looking forward to the next round of tours in the spring,” Vision Long Island Director Eric Alexander said.
This was the second Smart Growth Saturday; the first event took place this spring in five different downtowns. Nearly 200 people gathered to explore Bay Shore, Farmingdale, Huntington, Mineola, Patchogue and Westbury in May.
The contingent in Rockville Centre met with Deputy Village Administrator Kathleen Murray to review Transit-Oriented Development business district, new developments, restaurant row and the village’s approach to placemaking.
Downtown Rockville Centre is home to more than 70 restaurants, with variety and options for all demographics. And getting to those restaurants is even easier with the help of traffic-calming measures, expanded parking and additional sidewalks. The community is among the first in the nation to use Park and Save meters; motorists receive coupons for local stores with their parking receipt.
The Rockville Centre LIRR station is easily walkable from downtown and offers a 30-minute trip to Manhattan. A few blocks away, the Avalon Rockville Centre project was created as a Transit-Oriented Development. The completed first phase has 349 one- and two-bedroom apartments. A second phase across the street could also provide more much-needed rental housing in the village.
“I would like to thank Vision Long Island for helping the Village of Rockville Centre showcase everything we have to offer,” commented Mayor Francis X. Murray. “Our downtown business district is the most visible indicator of community pride as well as the economic health of our Village. Rockville Centre has a thriving downtown, where people can live, walk to public transportation, run their errands, have a great meal and enjoy themselves. This is a community that engaged in smart growth before the term was even invented.”
“I was very impressed with the RVC downtown and the amount of multi-family housing and design. As someone who works in downtown revitalization, it’s always important to go to other communities and take back some inspiration which I definitely did today,” Glen Cove Downtown BID Executive Director Fran Koehler said.
In Great Neck Plaza, Mayor Jean Celender began with a presentation about completed pedestrian safety projects and future development before hitting the streets. While in the field, the group witnessed safety improvements like bulb-outs, crosswalk improvements and a roundabout. They also noticed how a number of restaurants took advantage of the extra sidewalk space to add additional outdoor dining. And although there wasn’t time to visit Great Neck Road which had undergone a road diet, Celender discussed the somewhat counter-intuitive benefits of removing travel lanes on a roadway.
The group also visited future sites for a LaunchPad business incubator and four-story mixed-use building on Grace Avenue, as well as the site of a future road safety project between the Barstow Road roundabout and the Post Office. They observed placemaking improvements around the village, like a trompe l’oeil – optical illusion – mural and a mosaic mural next to the train station, a shelter for sidewalk benches, brick sidewalks and abundant flower baskets and landscaping that helps to enhance the historic character of many of the 1920s downtown buildings.
“I was thrilled to have the Village of Great Neck Plaza included in this year’s group of highlighted communities. Here in the Plaza, we have instituted several different smart growth measures for the benefit of our residents; traffic calming projects to improve safety and mobility for pedestrians, bicyclists and people of all ages and abilities in our downtown and mixed-use developments to retain our youth through more affordable housing options. Not only do smart growth projects improve the quality of life in the community, they help local businesses thrive. More mixed-use developments and traffic calming initiatives means more people staying in our towns, walking in the downtown business district, and spending money locally in our retail establishments. Once again, I want to thank Eric and the staff at Vision Long Island for allowing me to be a part of this great cause. I encourage all municipalities to participate in ‘Smart Growth Saturdays,'” Celender said.
The story in the Village of Port Jefferson was both of success and challenges.
Deputy Mayor Larry Lapointe, Suffolk County Planning Commission Chair David Calone and Vision board member David Berg led a crowd of about a dozen through parts of downtown Port Jefferson and discussed uptown Port Jefferson – part of the village north of the LIRR tracks and neighboring Port Jefferson Station. They’ve seen some improvement in both, Lapointe said, but they still need to focus on improving both downtowns. One has a problem with alcohol consumption on the weekend while the other has a drug abuse problem.
Village officials kicked off their 2030 Comprehensive Plan five years ago, examining current situations and planning against potential issues in 16 years. The plan has been approved by the village, is currently in SEQRA review and should be approved by the end of the year. Parking, architect Michael Schwarting said, is a major focus. The plan calls for replacing 300 parking spaces along Port Jefferson Harbor with green spaces; that parking would divvyed up among other lots throughout the village.
Parking is also a hot button topic Lapointe touched on. Downtown merchants were very unhappy when parking meters first appeared in Port Jefferson seven years ago, and again when village hall added two hours to the meters’ hours. The deputy mayor said that’s the reason why more restaurants aren’t participating in a new system that can keep patrons ordering off the menu. Customers in two restaurants are able to tell staff their parking number, and the restaurant can pay for the parking and add it to their bill. All parking fees go specifically to downtown improvements, Lapointe said, with paid parking found only in the center of downtown.
“Monday through Friday, parking is not a problem,” he added.
The renovation of a former twentieth century shipyard building into a community center was far less controversial. Reopened in 2005, the old steel building is used for community programs, has function rooms to rent and boasts the Village Living Room with couches, Wi-Fi and a quiet place to read. But another project involving older buildings is drawing heat. The village Planning Board is hearing a proposal to replace former bank and police buildings owned by the Town of Brookhaven with two rental units and five apartments. As it stands, the plans would have new residences abutting existing second floor residences and fail to address stormwater issues.
Port Jefferson officials are also working on the Rocketship playground. The existing 4,000 square foot playground from the mid-1970s needs major work and to create accessibility for children of all abilities. The deputy mayor confirmed they’re looking for alternative sources of funding for the $600,000 project beyond raising taxes. They’re hoping to start construction in two years.
“It was an excellent opportunity to show the progress we’ve made in the village and get the input of people who are looking for ways to improve downtowns across Long Island,” Lapointe said.
Also along the South Shore, Mayor Ralph Scordino led the tour group through the Village of Babylon. More than a dozen gathered as Scordino opened with a demonstration of their Smart Growth Award-winning drainage system. He also highlighted some measures the village has taken toward storm-preparedness like new fire and rescue vehicles.
Babylon Village resident Judy Skillen gave a tour of the Historical and Preservation Society, giving some insight to the history of the village. History plays a prominent role in Babylon, with the original Babylon Town Hall located on Main Street. Now a part of the National Register of Historic Places, the building was reopened in 2010 as the Town of Babylon History Museum.
Throughout their trip in downtown Babylon, the mayor pointed out some of the things that make the village so viable, like restaurants with alleyway seating, apartments over storefronts, clearly-marked pedestrian walkways and a mix of recreational uses in the downtown. Many residents live within walking distance of the village’s park system, especially the park surrounding Argyle Lake. Lake water flows from Belmont State Park up north, with a path through the woods to North Babylon.
“[I was] happy to have the opportunity to present our village to Vision Long Island and other communities, and how much we value the elements that Smart Growth stand for: walkability, transportation and a sense of community and history,” Scordino said.
The response to tours of 10 communities in both sets of Smart Growth Saturday tours has been overwhelmingly positive, Alexander said. Vision Long Island will organize additional visits in the spring of 2015.