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Town, planners tout new Grand Avenue plan

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Lori Estrin is frustrated — the real estate saleswoman has been trying to sell the building at 800 Merrick Road for years. Potential developers have come and gone, frustrated with the long waiting times for variances and building permits.

The property is just one example of properties that been vacant along Grand Avenue and Merrick Road for more than a decade, despite numerous efforts to revitalize Baldwin’s downtown.

Each one has failed to produce results — but town officials said at a town hall meeting on Aug. 30 that they’re confident their new plan to create an overlay zoning district along the corridor will finally bring the area back to life. “Tonight we talk about moving down a new path,” Town Supervisor Laura Gillen said. “A natural and organic path to sustainable development.”

Under the plan, the town — in collaboration with engineering firm VHB — will create a zoning overlay district that will stretch along Grand, and expand east-west on corridors such as Sunrise Highway and Merrick Road. The overlay district would establish additional criteria for properties within the zone, meaning developers could build more projects as of right, and not have to go through the town’s board of appeals for a variance.

That means buildings, like the one at 800 Merrick Road, could be built on at a quicker pace.

“As a developer, it will just streamline the process a little bit more quickly for you to be able to do what you want to do,” Gillen said, “because the zoning will already be in place and you won’t have to make these applications for variances.”

The exact boundaries of the district and how it might affect the area’s density will be determined during the planning process and will take residents’ concerns into consideration. VHB plans to present a draft of the district in October, and the town is looking to vote on a proposal next spring. VHB officials said they’re looking for a mix of density along the corridor, with the highest being near the Long Island Rail Road station.

Much of the plan is modeled after the state-funded Baldwin Downtown and Commercial Corridor Resiliency Study, which the town voted on Aug. 7 to use as a “guiding document” to revitalize Grand Avenue. One of the study’s suggestions is an overlay-zoning district for the corridor, in addition to undertaking several infrastructure projects. Baldwin’s elected officials, including Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat from Baldwin, support the zoning-overlay.

“I think the overlay idea is interesting and absolutely be explored,” Curran said in an interview before the town hall. “I encourage the town board to move forward with a workable plan.”

The town’s Aug. 7 vote came three weeks after the Engel Burman Group and Basser-Kaufman Inc. dropped out as the developers of a town-backed project to acquire buildings along Grand and develop mixed-use buildings downtown, citing a “profoundly shifting economic landscape” as its reason for dropping out.

Some residents questioned how the town would attract developers to the area once the zoning was approved, to which officials said there is already interest. “Many people are already watching it,” said Karen Montalbano, president of the Baldwin Civic Association. “I’ve already been approached … there are people who are out there who keep their eye on it.”

Eric Alexander, executive director of planning group Vision Long Island, said two developers were in the crowd at last Thursday’s town hall, though he declined to point them out.

Regarding incentives for potential developers, Alexander said tax breaks on individual projects would be determined by the Nassau County and Town of Hempstead Industrial Development agencies. He added, though, even if a develop is granted a payment in lieu of taxes, the neighborhood will still be making more than if the sites were to remain vacant.

Alexander said similar initiatives have been successful in Patchogue, Riverhead and Farmingdale’s downtown areas.