By Steve Levy
At the Vision Long Island Smart Growth Summit last week I was asked by a reporter to provide advice to incoming Nassau executive Laura Curran’s transition team. The conversation made me reflect upon my own transitioning before I took office as Suffolk executive in 2004.
It was there I decided I wanted to merge the county’s housing division with the Economic Development Department. I appointed the former head of the Long Island Housing Partnership, Jim Morgo, to head the new department. We created a vision that centered downtown redevelopment upon an infusion of new, vibrant workforce housing to be built in the vicinity of the walkable Main Street corridor.
By the time we took the reins in January, I had already given the directive to create a pool of funds in the amount of $15 million to be used as seed money to incentivize any municipality that would take the plunge. I thought we’d have so many takers that we’d exhaust the fund with the first few days. But, for most, the one thing more powerful than the lure of millions of free dollars was the potential wrath of civic groups that might oppose these proposals of higher density.
There was one leader who called to say he’d take as much as we could give him. That man was Mayor Paul Pontieri who, with his trustees in Patchogue, was prepared to roll out plans for a major redevelopment initiative in the village. And, we agreed, it started with the affordable housing.
Not one, not two, but three major housing complexes were built using almost all of the $15 million we put up. What we found was that the young people renting at the new Copper Beach Village apartments, the bohemian Art Space units for up-and-coming artists, and the Tri-Tec housing and retail complex, were ready made customers for the local bagel stores, dry cleaners, and stationers. And then there were the bars, theaters and restaurants that gave the village a thriving nightlife vibrancy.
There was, however, one glaring problem. So many people were flocking to Patchogue that there wasn’t enough parking. It’s the type of problem, the mayor notes, that other mayors would love to have.
Patchogue’s renaissance put a stake in the heart of the myth that higher density would cause turmoil, homeowner unrest and more social problems. The village morphed from a downtown with a sky high vacancy rate to near full capacity. (It also showed how important sewers were for revitalization.)
What did Paul do that others didn’t? He simply said “yes.” Let developers come in with exciting new plans, let them make a profit, and watch how village revenues will be enhanced and businesses flourish. Watch how young people, who otherwise would be moving to the coolness of Manhattan or Brooklyn, decided to stay home on Long Island.
At a real estate seminar hosted by my law firm, Campolo Middleton & McCormick, my good friend Joe Campolo asked Long Island Builders Institute Executive Director Mitch Pally about Long Island’s future land use patterns. Mitch took great joy in talking about the recent rejuvenation in Farmingdale. He joked about how in the past he would only use Patchogue as an example of how to do it right. It’s not that he didn’t want to cite other examples. It’s just that there weren’t any others to talk about. But, eventually Patchogue’s success proved contagious. Its model is now being mirrored in numerous sites including Bay Shore, Ronkonkoma, and Wyandanch to name a few.
The Smart Growth seminar highlighted these projects and how they are showing that The Island is finally starting to adapt to its changing demographics and economics. There’s still a long way to go, but we are seeing attitudes change. Builder Don Monti, who spoke at the Summit, noted that higher density and affordable housing, which once sparked fears of bringing Queens to Long Island, is far more often today seen as a way to keep our millennials and empty nesters close to home.
Much of it all started in those transition days and with a mayor who was simply willing to say yes. Thanks Paul.