Rebooting the Burbs

Rebooting the Burbs

The Lighthouse would transform 150 acres in Hempstead into 5.5 million square feet of mixed-use development.
Courtesy Lighthouse Development Group

Late last year, Tom Suozzi, the progressive Nassau County Executive, took stock of the surrounding landscape of aging suburbs and derelict downtowns. This bastion of single-family homes, he found, had reached a terminal state. “Nassau County has stopped growing,” he declared in an appeal to civic and business leaders. “We are suburban sprawled.” In response, Suozzi put forth a plan he called New Suburbia: 90 percent of the land would be left as is, while the remaining 10 percent would be rebuilt to bolster needed growth. Long Island, it seemed, was on the verge of a smart-growth revolution.

Suozzi was soon tossed out of office amid a taxpayer revolt, but make no mistake: New Suburbia is coming to Long Island—and to downtowns across the nation. “Long Island has encountered problems that newer suburbs are going to encounter in the next five or six years,” said Lawrence Levy, executive director of Hofstra University’s wrote in a strong endorsement.

But there are many other opportunities to reinvent Long Island. Indeed, a recent
Glen Isle’s site will activate a former brownfield, and link via high-speed ferry to New York City. (Click to enlarge.)

Courtesy RXR Glen Isle Partners

Some of Long Island’s most creative smart-growth projects, however, have come out of small villages, where mayors directly control more of the land-use machinery. In Patchogue, for instance, several projects are reviving a downtown that had fallen on hard times. “One of the things Patchogue is blessed to have is quite a bit of blighted property,” said Mayor Paul Pontieri. Several acres near the train station were transformed into two projects with a total of 80 condominiums and 48 apartments. “That’s 22 or 23 per acre, but you’d never know it,” Pontieri said. “I’m a believer that density is a product of design. If you design it properly, density will follow.”

Meanwhile, developer Tritec is now building a $100 million, mixed-use project at the core of the business district that will house 240 apartments. Also under way is the Artspace Patchogue Lofts, containing ground-floor commercial space and 45 units of affordable live/work housing for artists and their families. The building is one of the few new downtown designs that departs from its historic context. “Because it’s a creative-class type of setting, we encouraged them to do something that reflects on the past, but more important, looks to the future,” said Matthew Meier, partner of Buffalo-based Hamilton Houston Lownie Architects, which worked in collaboration with Gary Cannella Associates of Patchogue.

Courtesy HHL Architects

top: Artspace Patchogue will offer 45 units of affordable live/work space for artists. above: Patchogue’s new village project, currently under construction, will house 240 units.

Projects like these can often be hamstrung by outmoded local ordinances. “A lot of the zoning on Long Island ends up coming down to parking,” said Salvatore Coco, partner at Beatty, Harvey, Coco Architects, which is working on a 140-unit, sustainably designed development in Hempstead. Current zoning requires two parking spaces for every one-bedroom apartment, hardly a transit-oriented approach. “We’ve proposed a one-to-one ratio, and the fact that we’re a half-mile away from the Baldwin train station actually makes this achievable,” Coco said.

While still dominated by the car, Long Island’s low-density downtowns are well poised for transit-oriented development (TOD). John Loughran, senior associate at FXFowle and project manager for an update of the village of Hempstead’s comprehensive plan, pointed out that beneath the omnipresent sprawl is a layer of transit infrastructure and density that simply needs to be reinforced. “Places like Hempstead, Garden City, and Rockville Centre were the original TOD,” he said. “They all have transit at their core.” And that has helped the region hang on with its core assets intact. “Long Island hasn’t had the cascade of failure and the abandonment of malls and strip centers—yet,” said June Williamson, professor of architecture at City College and co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia.

courtesy trammell crow residential

BHC Architects & Lifang International
top: the alexan at west hempstead station will transform a blighted hotel into a transit-oriented development. above: Hempstead’s Baldwin Commons will contain 140 units plus retail and below-ground parking.

To help look toward the future, the Long Island Index is launching an ideas competition on March 31 called Build a Better Burb, with a $10,000 top prize going to the most imaginative design visions for how Long Island’s downtowns can be reinhabited in ways that are socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. “Places like Stamford, Connecticut or in New Jersey have dramatically reimagined what they might be, but Long Island has fought these ideas tooth and nail,” said Ann Golob, director of the Index. “We’re really trying to push the edge of the envelope,” she added. “It’s going to take some people thinking pretty boldly about what might be possible.”

See this issue’s editorial for more on rebuilding the burbs.