Guest Column: Town Board vote will shape Jamesport’s future

01/25/2012 5:00 PM |

LARRY SIMMS PHOTO | One of three vacant stores in a Jamesport shopping mall.

Debate on whether the proposed Village at Jamesport mall would fit the Rural Corridor character and zoning of the hamlet has raged for years. You won’t find any arguments — pro or con — about that here. What you will find is analysis of whether this 42,000-square-foot  project (a) can succeed and (b) will boost our tax base.

If this mall could be built as of right, I’d have no comment. I own a business and have long favored free markets; others may risk their money as they see fit. However, when special permits are needed because planned uses aren’t allowed, applicants must show that their projects warrant changing the rules.

As the Riverhead Town Board considers these permits, let’s see how the Village at Jamesport stacks up.

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Zero-Sum

A zero-sum system is one in which the sum of the gains equals the sum of the losses. To understand how this is relevant, look at restaurants, nearly 20 percent of the proposed mall.

There are six “destination” restaurants within one mile of the site: Bayview Inn; Country Kitchen; Elbow Room; Grana; Luce & Hawkins; Jamesport Manor Inn. And just a 10-minute drive adds many more. Despite fine reputations, not all are thriving; winters are hard for those that rely heavily on agri-tourism, and the economy has everyone eating out less.

If two new restaurants are added to the mix — each much larger than those mentioned — it’s unlikely all will survive. Our population base is growing slowly, so the number of meals eaten out will remain fairly constant, making this a zero-sum micro-economy. If we add two restaurants, we lose two restaurants.

That means we haven’t increased the tax base. We haven’t created jobs. But we have ensured that two more eyesores dot the rural landscape we rely on to draw tourist business. Think Fauna, plus two.

The zero-sum principle applies to retail and office space on a bigger scale: 34,000 new square feet would take a community this size a long time to absorb, even if current space were full.

And Jamesport is far from full. Start at Manor Lane and walk west. You’ll pass 11 shops on the north side of Main Road in 1/10 mile. Of these, five are empty. On the south side, three of nine spaces at Jamesport Center are vacant.

Continue another mile and you’ll hit Vinland Commons. At 29,000 square feet, it’s almost as large as the proposed Village at Jamesport minus restaurants. Though clean and well-maintained, it’s 43 percent vacant; over 12,000 square feet sit empty at this mall alone.

Even when the economy improves, the notion of filling a total of over 60,000 square feet of retail and office space in Jamesport seems crazy. Few businesses — and fewer shoppers — seek the no-man’s-land between Route 58 big box country and the East End; we can only support so many boutiques.

What happens if the Village at Jamesport gets built? Some tenants always jump to the newest mall, so property owners already plagued by vacancies can look forward to more. And as the occupancy rate sinks further, so will market rents. Some landlords will fold; some properties will deteriorate.

It fakes a village

The heart of Village at Jamesport is its bistros: two buildings, each 4,000 square feet. Town code defines “bistro” as a restaurant having 50 or fewer seats; let’s assume the maximum, a 4,000-square-foot restaurant with 50 seats. Think about that.

Both Jamesport Manor Inn and Bayview Inn restaurants are much smaller than each bistro planned for Village at Jamesport, but Jamesport Manor Inn has twice the capacity, at a spacious 26 square feet per diner. Bayview has still more seats, at 21 square feet each. Luce & Hawkins is smaller but is in the same mid-20’s density range, typical for “fine dining.” (Tables and chairs are packed much tighter in casual restaurants.)

The Village at Jamesport bistros will have 80 square feet per customer.

The fewer seats in a restaurant, the harder it is to pay the bills. Food costs and labor vary with the number of customers served, but rent, utilities and taxes are all fixed overhead.

This project’s numbers are so odd that I asked Technomic — a leading national food service consultant — whether they could cite a successful restaurant anywhere with 80 square feet per seat. They said no. I conclude this is either a business plan doomed to fail or the buildings labeled “bistros” are to be something else entirely.

When there’s a red flag as big as this one, it would be negligent to award special use permits without closer scrutiny.

We can’t know what the developer plans to do with these spaces. But it’s routine in Riverhead for property owners to submit plans, build structures, discover “necessary” changes and get retroactive approval for something different. We see it again and again.

A Sensible Option

Dear Riverhead Town Board members, the proposal on your desks is not what it seems, and it can’t work. There’s no net economic benefit to the community, other property owners will be harmed and we can’t handle more vacant buildings. Don’t inflict this project on Jamesport.

It often helps to visualize extremes. Would you green light another aquarium? No. One would obviously fail. It’s no different with restaurants and offices, and since special permits are needed, you’re obliged to exercise judgment.

Don’t be charmed by the illusion of growth. And remember that adding malls everywhere makes it far harder to revive downtown — your stated top priority.

Here’s an alternative. One Jamesport shopkeeper told me, “I thought there were laws against building anything new if there’s a certain percent vacant space.” Now, that’s an idea worth considering — for the whole town. Encourage developers to adapt, reuse and rebuild. Craft incentives. Where variances or special permits are needed, link new construction to removal of abandoned space.

Developers want to build, and should. But instead of rubber-stamping their conventional plans, be creative. Be bold. Innovate. Challenge builders to enhance the community in lasting ways. Our future depends on it.

Larry Simms is a principal in a commercial flooring technology firm. He owns a house in South Jamesport.