Revitalizing Our Downtowns

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The old buildings at 5 to 9 Grace Avenue in Great Neck Plaza will be torn down and replaced by vibrant street-level stores with apartments above.

Today, suburban neighborhoods are showing wear and tear. The answer for many is to revitalize, rejuvenate the old neighborhoods and attract new businesses, new housing developments and new residents.

The Long Island suburbs were a phenomenon of the post-World War II era, when soldiers returned to the area and sought homes in which to raise their growing families. In the late 1940s and ’50s, many of these young families moved east to developing Long Island villages and towns. Neighborhoods sprang up, sporting new homes, shopping centers and eventually new business districts. It was the exciting rise of the suburbs.

Decades later, these suburban neighborhoods are showing wear and tear, and many towns and villages are becoming outdated. New technologies abound and antiquated hometown shopping districts are often overlooked with the advent of big-box discount stores and online shopping convenience.

How can these once vibrant downtowns turn this trend around? The answer for many is to revitalize—rejuvenating old neighborhoods and attracting new businesses, housing developments and residents. In fact, this change has already begun in some of our own hometowns.

Village of Great Neck Plaza

Not too long ago, the Village of Great Neck Plaza was a bustling downtown. Big changes came quickly, with the Internet and big-box stores attracting shoppers, resulting in small mom-and-pop shops shutting their doors during the past dozen or so years. As the number of closings began to increase, the local government started taking action for downtown revitalization. Plaza Mayor Jean Celender and the board of trustees are seeking measures and implementing projects that will have a positive impact on the community.

While valuing the Plaza’s rich history, the village government is committed to attracting new and emerging businesses and retailers, and increasing and creating safer vehicular and pedestrian flow to enhance the overall quality of life for those who live, work, shop and visit.

In 2011, Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) zoning was created as an incentive to promote flexibility for property owners and developers. The idea was to convert and expand the build­ings above retail establishments in the downtown business district in order to attract young professionals with affordable housing near the Plaza’s convenient public transportation.

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This photo of Great Neck’s “Old Village” in the 1920s shows the intersection of Hicks/Arrandale looking north on Middle Neck. All is now rezoned for apartments, townhouses and private homes, but existing nonconforming uses are permitted to remain. Many of the buildings on the right still stand, though, on the left, where the bank building and beyond once stood, is now an apartment building.

The first project approved under this zoning will soon transform a small strip of retail stores, including a bank ATM and parking lot, located at 5 to 9 Grace Avenue, into a beautiful mixed-use structure that will be the home to 4,000-square feet of new retail space on the ground level and 30 residential units above. Ten percent of these units will be set aside for affordable workforce housing on the second, third and fourth floors, which will help retain the town’s recent college graduates. TOD can also serve the community’s seniors as well as its baby boomers, who originally settled in the suburbs with their families but are now becoming empty-nesters looking to downsize and sell their homes, yet stay in the community.

This trend is sweeping the nation. All across the country, a demand for TOD exists. Communities with downtowns, where people can walk from their residence to restaurants, shops and other services without using their car, are becoming increasingly desirable.

One of only four municipalities on Long Island to receive this state funding, the Plaza is also moving forward with the Transportation Enhancement Program (TEP) grant that the New York State Department of Transportation recently awarded. The $838,000 reimbursement grant will be used toward the Plaza’s revitalization efforts and implementing infrastructure enhancements in the Welwyn Road/Shoreward Drive area. Plans include improving the Plaza’s safety by reconstructing new roadways, creating new brick sidewalks with more visible pedestrian crossings, installing new LED street lights and enhancing this area with new benches, landscaping and street trees. Once completed, the project will be the village’s sixth traffic calming project, one that will enhance the Plaza by making roadways and pedestrian access safer, more attractive and more walkable for residents and shoppers alike.

Town of North Hempstead

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North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth envisions wonderful plans for waterfront areas.

At the top of the list for the Town of North Hempstead is New Cassel, where the revitalization process began more than 10 years ago with a community visioning that included numerous public meetings. This was an effort of former Supervisor Jon Kaiman and has continued with current Supervisor Judi Bosworth. Significant quality-of-life improvements have resulted.

In September 2012, the state-of-the-art, 60,000-square foot Yes We Can Community Center opened, featuring two NBA-size basketball courts, a fitness center, dance and TV studios, senior and teen lounges, Internet café, community meeting rooms and much more.

Through an effort between the town and their Community Development Agency, October 2013 brought The Ideal Food Basket, the first-ever supermarket in New Cassel.

In August 2014, a laundromat opened on New Cassel’s main thoroughfare for the first time.

Affordable living quarters have been created through two housing lotteries held in the past year. The 36-unit Cathedral Place Apartment Complex opened in October 2013.

The Grand Street School, an eyesore, was demolished last summer. The property will be used for affordable senior housing, which will be developed by the North Hempstead Housing Authority.

Hempstead Harbor waterfront revitalization will have a comprehensive, inclusive community visioning process. Ideas include a restaurant or catering hall, environmental learning facilities for students, self-sustaining rain gardens, a water sports rental facility for paddle boards, kayaks and canoes, bike paths and pedestrian walkways along the water.

North Hempstead’s new Yes We Can Center in New Cassel

The town has also released a Request for Expressions of Interest for a conceptual plan for a restaurant facility at North Hempstead Beach Park in the hopes of boosting commerce along the waterfront area. The town has already completed a one-mile extension to the Hempstead Harbor Trail.

The town’s Business and Tourism Development Corporation (BTDC) recently held a Downtown Revitalization Conference with an extensive group of highly experienced economic development experts.

The Village of Great Neck

The Village of Great Neck is termed the “Old Village,” because it’s the original home of the town’s first shops, school, library, bank, voting location, telephone switch­board, church, temple, firehouse and park.

The Old Village, New Main Street visioning began sev­eral years ago with the hiring of downtown revitalization specialists Dadras Architects. After an initial investigation, 12 homogeneous focus-group sessions followed by public meetings were held to hear the positives and negatives of the village and to learn what the community wanted. A report and recommendations included the top consensus points: preserve the historic nature, revitalize the business district and provide much-needed housing while retaining the predominately single-family nature of the village.

After some delays, a new consultant was hired in 2013, and an effort was forged to condense the business district, make it more walkable, provide additional housing and improve Steamboat Road. Public and environmental hearings were held and plans were modified.

In late 2014, the new zoning of most of Steamboat and Middle Neck Roads was adopted, with some incentive zoning on Steamboat and parts of Middle Neck.

During that period, the village rebuilt one of its parking lots, introduced new lighting and applied to Nassau County for a grant to pay 80 percent of the cost to build sidewalk “bump outs” to make pedestrian crossings safer.

Community-benefit funds from AvalonBay, in connection with its 191-unit luxury apartment project on East Shore Road, will offer incentives, including 20 workforce housing apartments, possibly to be used for Middle Neck and Steamboat Road workers.

With an increasing number of high-tech shopping venues coupled with the enormous selection of discount chains, neighborhood shopping districts face more and more challenges as they struggle to maintain local businesses and restaurants. Cities, towns and villages have all found their communities facing uphill battles. On Long Island, many local governments are making strides towards fighting these downturns with their own rezoning and revitalization efforts and are seeking services and grants from state and federal sources, as well. The Town of North Hempstead and the villages of Great Neck and Great Neck Plaza are excellent examples of communities actively working to rebuild their downtowns. Residents from around the area will delighted to spend time in these vibrant new destinations.

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