SUNY planning students tackle downtown Riverhead

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | East End Art Council's Pat Snyder and Riverhead residents Amy Davidson and Nancy Swett write down suggestions for students about downtown's assets and detractions.

People have been trying to figure out how to fix downtown Riverhead for years, and not much has changed during that time. Now, a group of 38 architectural and engineering students from Syracuse are going to give it a crack.

Free of charge.

The students, from SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, will apply their planning skills to a section of downtown Riverhead as their project for the next three months, according to their instructor, Preston Gilbert, an adjunct assistant professor in the department of landscape architecture as well as the operations director of the SUNY Center for Brownfield Studies.

“Once a year, the students work with the Center for Brownfield Studies to tackle a redevelopment project,” Mr. Gilbert said. “We go out and look for a particularly challenging, complex project.”

The students are studying either landscape architecture and urban design or environmental engineering.

So how did they come to pick Riverhead?

“I was working with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council on the freight village study, and EPCAL [Enterprise Park at Calverton] was one of the sites they were looking at,” Mr. Gilbert explained. As part of that job, he met with Riverhead Town’s community development director, Chris Kempner, in her office at Riverhead Town Hall.

As it turns out, Mr. Gilbert is originally from Riverhead, and as he looked out the window of Ms. Kempner’s office, he was reminded of a time when, as a young boy, he watched the Town Hall building being constructed from the window of his nearby Brook Street home. The Town Hall building was originally built as a supermarket. Mr. Gilbert said he spent the first six years of his life in Riverhead, and hadn’t returned for 54 years since.

But his visit to Ms. Kempner’s office spurred memories. He can recall when Central Suffolk Hospital (now Peconic Bay Medical Center) had a cornfield behind it. Thrifty Beverage Center on the Riverside traffic circle was a dry cleaning business owned by his father — one of the only dry cleaning business on eastern Long Island, he said. And the Star Confectionery on Main Street? It’s still there.

So when it came time to look for a challenging, complex redevelopment project, Mr. Gilbert didn’t have to look much further than his old hometown.

For the project, students will be broken up into four groups and will plan the redevelopment of a 10-building stretch of the south side of Main Street, from the East End Arts Council west to the unnamed road by the Riverhead Grill, an area dominated by large, empty and deteriorating buildings.

“They will develop a master site plan for improvements to accommodate the development of what we’re calling the Eastern Long Island Farmers Market Community Center,” Mr. Gilbert said, describing the center as a “year-round wholesale and retail farmers market, in a building that will also be a community center, a demo site for hydroponic farming. It will also have a small retail environment and a high-quality outdoor environment.”

Specific questions — such as who would run the facility and whether buildings would have to be added or removed to make this happen — will be answered by the study, which will be complete in April.

“This would probably be about a $200,000 study if you had to pay for it,” Mr. Gilbert said.

The students met at the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts Center downtown on Friday, where they were joined by some local community members who provided input. Among those present were Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, Ms. Kempner, Amy Davidson of the River and Roots Community Garden, Ray Pickersgill of the Business Improvement District, Nancy Swett of, Pat Snyder of the East End Arts Council and Chris Sheldon of the Flanders Riverside and Northampton Community Association.

Sustainable Long Island, a nonprofit planning organization, is also involved in the project. “This is an academic exercise to generate ideas for downtown Riverhead, and you never know where those ideas will go,” said Sarah Landsdale, that group’s executive director.

Can the town use the study if they like it?

Mr. Gilbert said in the past, his classes’ studies have inspired municipalities to consider some of their recommendations, although they are not officially used by those municipalities as planning studies.

The students are raring to go, too.

“I’m from Long Island, so this is going to be a fun project,” said Jessica Haerter, a senior forestry engineering student from Huntington.

Another Long Islander, Brian Teller of Westbury, is an environmental resource engineering student who said he’s worked at the 4H camp in Baiting Hollow.

“I know this place very well and I often come down here to eat,” he said. “I’m really excited about this project. It’s the first real big hands-on engineering project I’ve done.”

May Mohamed of Syracuse, another environmental engineering student, had never seen Riverhead before, but said she’s excited about the project as well because there will be input from a lot of segments of the community. She said it’s also good hands-on experience.

The students toured downtown Friday and were headed back to Syracuse on Saturday. And that stretch of downtown they’re about to tackle didn’t intimidate them.

“This is awesome,” Mr. Teller said.

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