Members of Valley Stream’s Downtown Revitalization Task Force gathered at the village courthouse on Jan. 29 to hear from three Nassau County mayors how they improved their downtowns, the pitfalls they faced and the strategies they employed.
Speaking to a crowd of a couple of dozen task force members and elected officials, mayors Jean Celender, of Great Neck Plaza; Scott Strauss, of Mineola; and Ralph Ekstrand, of Farmingdale recounted grant-seeking efforts, strong-armed negotiations with developers and hands-on architectural review processes to bring in more business and make their villages a destination to eat, drink and shop for visitors from miles away.
Throughout the forum, the officials described the challenges they faced and continue to face, which include pushback from constituents, complaints from school districts and a difficult economic environment for shops on Long Island, where property taxes are high and e-commerce in the internet age has encroached on the business of those with physical storefronts.
Still, the mayors encouraged the Valley Streamers to be bold in their initiative, and noted that whatever efforts they undertake to revitalize Rockaway Avenue, they should fit the surrounding neighborhood.
“I’m not saying the buildings we built in Mineola would fit in Valley Stream or Farmingdale or Great Neck Plaza or anywhere else, but they fit for us,” Strauss explained. “Some of them might be a bit taller than I might like, but the world’s a compromise.
“Change is going to happen in Valley Stream,” he continued, “and if you don’t manage the change, it’s coming anyway, so you need to manage the change and adapt . . . to the surroundings.”
The push for transit-oriented housing
The three agreed that higher density, mixed-use — or transit-oriented — housing around the downtown area and train station would be necessary to bring in additional tax revenue as well as foot traffic into the businesses, but the nature and size of the construction could vary.
Ekstrand — who entered Farmingdale politics seeking to improve its downtown as the owner of a drug store on the village’s Main Street — said the revitalization effort that began in 2010 when the village filed for a $300,000 state Department of Environmental Conservation Brownfield Opportunity Area grant, allowing it to hire a consultancy firm to create a master development plan.
The village formed a committee of roughly 20 local business owners to submit suggestions to the firm, and held public hearings to gather community input. The draft master plan that emerged focused on Farmingdale’s train station, and called for a rezoning of the area to allow mixed-use, higher-density buildings.
“The biggest challenge we had was the height,” Ekstrand said of the new zoning and what developers were seeking. “If they asked for six stories, they might as well have been asking to take [the residents’] daughters.”
He and Strauss agreed that dealings with developers should involve compromise and negotiation — not granting them everything that they are seeking, but finding a happy medium and extracting concessions and additional services .
“You don’t always need the density,” Strauss said. “… If the developers get the return on their investment, we’re not here to make them rich.”
Additionally, Ekstrand recounted his requirement to a developer seeking to build parallel to the village’s train tracks that it construct a new sidewalk and place street lamps along the railroad line at no cost to the village.
Regarding school districts, which typically resist higher-density residential projects, Ekstrand said the concerns of overcrowding did not bear out. He noted that the 300 new dwellings built in Farmingdale since the redevelopment efforts began have added 23 children to Farmingdale schools, and the district’s total student population has declined.
In Great Neck Plaza, Celender described a grant-seeking campaign to revamp its downtown streets to increase walkability and slow traffic. And she advised that parking measures should be carefully thought out to balance the needs of residents, shoppers and employees.
Regarding tax breaks and industrial development agencies, Strauss advised village governments to find workarounds. “Don’t be afraid of the [Industrial Development Agency],” he said. “Manage it.”
He suggested the village work directly with the developer to form a host community benefit agreements to recoup losses in local taxes from IDA deals.
The results, the three agreed, were undeniable.
In Mineola, Strauss said, the village has been able to use the additional tax revenue from its new buildings to keep village taxes flat for the past two years. In Farmingdale, Ekstrand described the state of the village’s downtown as a “total turnaround,” and that Main Street went from having 30 vacant storefronts to three. For Great Neck Plaza, Celender said that business has largely recovered from the effects of the 2008 recession, but acknowledged that she does see significant turnover in shops.
A loss of identity?
As part of the plans the three villages developed, they included strict architectural standards, particularly regarding storefront signage.
Eliminating what the mayors referred to as “sign noise” and creating a standardized environment was their stated goal, but the suggestion of uniformity prompted Anthony Natoli, of Valley Stream, to raise concerns about a loss of character in the neighborhood.
Celender replied that although her administration had adopted an aggressive stance on requiring that signage be as simple as possible, strict uniformity was not required, saying that would be boring.
In Farmingdale, Ekstrand said that its sign code was intended to eliminate a specific type of illuminated box sign, and that storeowners would be asked to pay 20 percent of the cost of replacing a sign to remain compliant, with the remaining 80 percent provided through community development block grants.
The policy, he said, was intended to raise the quality of signage, not “to get rid of the stuff that works.”
The mayors had some warnings. Strauss advised that neighborhoods be wary of the proliferation of offices and medical buildings, which he said bring people in on weekdays, but don’t generate nightlife or weekend activity. And in response to continued community pushback, and worries about congestion, Mineola in 2015 imposed a moratorium on new construction, which Strauss said was intended to see how some of the latest projects would “shake out.”
Farmingdale also imposed a building moratorium last month, which Ekstrand said was needed after nearly eight years of continuous construction. “People were getting tired,” he said.
But at what point do downtown revitalization measures become unsustainable? Strauss had some advice: “When is enough is enough?” he asked. “… That’s a barometer that you’ll need to read, and you’ll get it from the residents.”