For several elected officials from Riverhead and Southampton towns, the former Howard Johnson’s that stood at the south side of the Riverside traffic circle brings back memories of yesteryear.
Riverhead Councilwoman Catherine Kent recalled how her first job was to scoop ice cream at the Howard Johnson’s. Councilman Jim Wooten remembered how it once served as a meeting place for many families who would gather for bagels after church. State Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) said every trip to downtown Riverhead as a child always ended with ice cream at the restaurant.
For the younger generation, though, the site has represented emptiness — a vacant, run-down building that has sat unused and became to symbolize an area in desperate need of revitalization.
“Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to enjoy a meal at the [Riverboat] diner that used to be here,” said Sarah Huneault, 21, the vice president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association. “As long as I can remember, it has been rundown and abandoned.”
The long push toward revitalization finally gained traction with the demolition last month of the former Riverboat diner to clear the path toward construction of a medical office building that will include two workforce apartments on the second floor. The project, spearheaded by developer Paul Pawlowski of Mattituck, represents the start of a new chapter for the area and illustrates what can be accomplished when a community, its elected officials and the private sector work together toward a common goal, officials said at groundbreaking ceremony Thursday morning.
“The last 15 years it’s been just sitting there, boarded up building, graffiti, broken windows, a real eye sore,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “A lot of us who drive through this area all the time going, ‘We have to make something happen.’ It’s such a prime location … How can we get this in motion? And we did it.”
Several excavators on site have already begun digging the hole to form a foundation for the 8,000-square-foot building. Mr. Pawlowski, under the name 20 Riverleigh Corp., acquired the property in November. Developing the project with input from community leaders at FRNCA and Riverside Rediscovered — the group working under the Southampton Town appointed “master developer” Renaissance Downtowns — the foundation of the new building quickly began to take shape.
Mr. Pawlowski said the time between buying the property and construction beginning has been faster than he could have imagined. The project is expected to be completed by summer 2019.
“It’s been a thoughtful process, everyone looking at the details, but getting to work,” he said. “We’re fortunate for that. People just got to work.”
A third floor on the building will be attic space, but could eventually be transformed into usable space when a new sewage treatment plant is implemented. The Southampton Town Board in June announced it planned to buy land in Riverside as a site for a new plant to help spur development.
Mr. Pawlowski said it was always surprising to him seeing the area go undeveloped for as long as it has.
“First, the location is great,” he said of his decision to pursue the project. “Second, the support behind it is even better. We just look for properties that have good visibility and it doesn’t get better.”
An artist’s rendering of the building shows a tower in the middle above the third floor that county Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), a former Southampton Town Board member, described as a “gateway to this wonderful community.”
“I really applaud the architect from Renaissance Downtowns and the developer for following the vision of the community,” she said.
An expansion of the Riverside traffic circle into a roundabout that features two lanes in some parts is expected to be completed soon, the chief engineer for the Suffolk County Department of Public Works, Bill Hillman, said last month.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said the building will be a “wonderful improvement over to what was a blighted area that marred this location.” She also thanked the county for its efforts to secure funding — $4.6 million — toward the roundabout.
Looking ahead, Mr. Pawlowski envisions a “completely revitalized” area in Riverside in the years to come. He said he’s “keen on the entire area.”
“The vicinity around the circle headed east could look new, in my opinion,” he said.
Top photo caption: Officials from Riverhead and Southampton towns and community leaders celebrated the groundbreaking of a medical office building in Riverside Thursday morning. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)