Rockaway Avenue revitalization talks begin

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It was clear early on during the Valley Stream Downtown Revitalization Task Force’s second official meeting on Nov. 27 that the challenges of turning the stretch of Rockaway Avenue from Sunrise Highway to Merrick Road into a bustling downtown area would be manifold.

The task force’s objective is to gather input from the community to be included in a submission for a $10 million state downtown revitalization grant. It will be Valley Stream’s fourth application for the grant since Gov. Andrew Cuomo created it.

Chief among the local concerns, the roughly two dozen business owners and residents assembled for the discussion agreed, was school taxes.

Attendees said that it’s tough to afford the high taxes, so attracting new businesses to the area can be trying.

Among the highest taxes

The downtown falls within the boundaries of Valley Stream School District 24, which as the chief driver of property taxes has the highest tax rate among Valley Stream’s four (or five, depending on whom you ask) school districts as of 2016, at $25.37 per $1,000 of as-sessed valuation. The district has the eighth-highest tax rates in Nassau County and the 103rd highest in New York state, according to state comptroller statistics.

“So, you have a tax problem, right?” asked Christopher Jones, senior vice president and chief planner of the Regional Plan Association, an urban research and advocacy organization — one of three development experts who were invited by the task force to answer questions and offer advice.

There are two ways to reduce property taxes, Jones said — cutting costs or expanding the tax base. Of the former, he asked, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I understand you have five school districts? . . . [Have] there been any attempts before to look at shared services between these school districts?”

There have, Committee Co-Chair David Sabatino explained, but over the years, he said, “There has always been a holdout” among the districts. District 30 has historically been resistant to sharing tax revenue collected from the Green Acres Mall, he said, and at times District 24 has expressed that it did not want to be associated with District 13 for various reasons. As a result, Sabatino said, the school boards have “never come to a point where there’s been a referendum.”

Adam Haber, The Town of Hempstead’s deputy supervisor of economic development and government efficiency, another of the experts invited to speak, discounted the savings that school district consolidation would yield, saying that it would net only about a 2 percent budget reduction.

“Really what you save is the 2 percent of the administrative [costs],” Haber said, noting that the bulk of school budgets go to teacher salaries and benefits. “You’re not going to save much more than that, maybe 3 percent.”

Transit-oriented development

Instead, Haber said, and the other experts agreed, the best chance for a vibrant Rockaway Avenue is to establish what they referred to as multi-family, transit-oriented or workforce housing centered around the Valley Stream train station, and marketed to young professionals with lower incomes.

“Multi-family [development], greater than three stories where you’re getting the higher assessed value,” suggested Sean Sallie, deputy commissioner of the Nassau County Department of Public Works, “could put a dent in lowering the overall [tax] liability for your commercial owners and single-family homeowners.”

The suggestion led to discussion of another problem in Valley Stream, the current state of the village’s zoning code, adopted in 1994, according to village law, and amended in 2005, according to Sabatino, to allow for more flexibility in development, but only at the discretion of the mayor and village board.

The half-step zoning measure, called a CA zone, some residents suggested, has led to selective development, while generally not making it easier for a wider array of developers to come in and build.

“What about a PUD zone?” asked Rosa Fernandez, a civil engineer and Gibson resident, referring to what is known as planned unit development, which allows for exceptions to zoning code based on a specific development’s site plan.

Haber suggested going further than that, calling for what an “overlay district” — a pre-conceived zoning plan that overrides local code for a specific area, making it easier for developers to see what kinds of opportunities are available to them and reducing bureaucratic hurdles, which could encourage transit-oriented development.

“In Valley Stream, [you] can create a template for developers who can build as-of-right in the village and sail through a process that’s expedited,” Haber said, referring to developments that do not need to seek variances for a given project from a zoning appeals board. “. . . Once that’s in place, they’ll just come in and let the market take over.”

Mayor Ed Fare did not attend the task force meeting, but said he was open to the idea of an overlay zone, noting that the village’s CA zone had allowed for the construction of the 72-unit Sun Valley Towers apartment complex on the corner of Rockaway and Sunrise Highway. He maintained, however, that without the $10 million grant, the village would not have the resources or expertise to create a more comprehensive overlay zone for Rockaway as well as other commercial zones in the village.

“If we do get the grant, we can actually come up with a complete master plan and come up with where we want overlays and where we don’t,” Fare told the Herald, “but the village currently doesn’t have time or money to do this.”

The state of Rockaway Avenue isn’t bad, however, according to some of the experts. “With villages, we’re looking for downtowns that are walkable,” Sallie said, referring to a downtown configuration that encourages shoppers to get out of their cars and walk to various shops within a small radius. “You have that already.”

“Your main drag is a perfect starting point,” he added. “If you build on that asset, you’re definitely ahead of the game.”

Scooters in the downtown?

Among the other concerns raised was parking, and Haber suggested that the village invite in a scooter-rental service, such as Bird, not only to reduce car traffic, but also to drum up interest and enthusiasm.

“I’m not sure scooters are a great fit for Valley Stream,” resident Bill Florio interjected, noting the large senior population in the village. “They’re not getting on scooters,” he said.

Haber said he understood the resistance to scooters as well as higher-density housing, but encouraged residents to take a chance on making major changes to their neighborhood.

“You have to have the stomach to have that culture come,” he said. “. . . If you keep saying no, you’re going to get the same results.”

The experts encouraged the crowd to be bold in accepting new ideas and major neighborhood transformations, noting that it was inevitable that there would be naysayers — to which Fernandez, who attended the meeting hoping to influence a future bustling downtown, chimed in, “Don’t be that guy.”