Riverhead Town’s Landmarks Preservation Commission on Monday approved the demolition of the former Sears building and three buildings east of it, on the conditions that they be replaced with something compatible with neighboring historic buildings and that whatever is built where the Sears building is now be set back from the East End Arts Council, which is next door.
Riverhead Enterprises, which owns all four buildings, will still need a demolition permit from the town building department before it can take them down.
With the landmarks issue out of the way, chief building inspector Brad Hammond said he will probably issue an interior demolition permit this week, but the full demolition permit is contingent upon the property owners disconnecting all utilities on the sites.
Riverhead Enterprises principals Sheldon Gordon and David Silverman said they don’t know what will be built there after the demolition is complete.
Last summer, the building was going to be sold to a group called Georgica Green Ventures and replaced with a five-story mixed use complex with stores on the ground floor and 160 workforce housing apartments on the upper floor.
But by December, Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter, who said he had been trying to broker a deal for the Sears’ building for two years, had said at a Town Board work session that the state Historic Preservation Office wouldn’t allow the Sears building to be demolished because it had historic value and is in the National Register of Historic Places.
The deal between Georgica Green Ventures and Riverhead Enterprises eventually fell apart, and Georgica Green Ventures is now planning a similar project at the site of the former McCabes building at the corner of McDermott Avenue and East Main Street, which was most recently used as a farmers market. Connie Lassandro, a consultant for Georgica Green, said they also have an agreement now to buy the property just south of the former McCabes’ site.
They originally planned a five-story building with ground floor retail and about 95 workforce housing apartments on the upper floors. Ms. Lassandro said they haven’t determined how much apartments they will build with the addition of the property to the south.
Landmarks commission chair Richard Wines said the commission had no objection to the demolition of the Sears building.
“It’s a contributing historic building downtown because it was built at a time when Riverhead was in its zenith, but only the facade is considered significant,” he said.
The commission “wants to make sure any future construction on the site is compatible with the historic buildings on the two sides,” he said, referring to the East End Arts property and the United Methodist Church across the street.
“And by compatible, that doesn’t mean it has to look like them,” Mr. Wines said. “We’re trying to encourage contemporary construction in downtown Riverhead, although without much success so far.
“We’d love to see some really nice, modern contemporary, creative gems that will become the historic buildings 50 years from now.
“We’d prefer to see the (Sears building) facade saved, but its not required.”
Ms. Lassandro, who attended Monday’s meeting, asked what Riverhead Enterprises’ intentions for the property were after the demolition.
“Is it going to be just a flat piece of land?,” she asked. “Because that’s going to impact what we’re doing on McDermott.”
She said if Riverhead Enterprises were only building a three-story building, for instance, Georgica Green Ventures could put windows on the west side of the upper two floors of its proposed five-story building, something they wouldn’t do if Riverhead Enterprises were to build a five story building.
The buildings owned by Riverhead Enterprises extends east to the former McCables building.
“Whatever we do, it will be nice,” said Mr. Silverman. “We don’t want to keep it as just land…We don’t know what we’re going to do now. It depends on who buys that property.”
Ms. Lassandro also expressed frustration with the Landmarks Commission, indicating that Georgica Green had planned to preserve the Sears building.
“What is the theory of having an historic building if you’re going to allow it to be torn down?” she asked. “Why even bother with the historic district? Either it is or it isn’t. You can’t have it both ways.”
Mr. Wines said the three Riverhead Enterprises buildings adjacent to the Sears building are not considered historic.
As for the Sears building, he said, “Among historic buildings, there are some that are more historic than others and there are ones that are not, and that we’re not going to go to the mat for to try and save. Something like the Sears’ building, we’d encourage them to preserve the facade, but we’re not going to require it.”
Mr. Wines said officials from the state historic preservation office used those same terms to describe the Sears’ building when he spoke with them.
“It’s not an historic building that they would go to the mat for either,” Mr. Wines said.
Any new buildings proposed in this area will need to go before the landmarks commission and the town’s architectural review board, he said.
Photo: The Riverhead Landmarks Preservation Commission okays the demolition of the former Sears building and three adjacent downtown buildings Monday. (Credit: Tim Gannon.)