Guest Spot: Downtown needs comprehensive approach

All of us want the same thing downtown: a vibrant center of activity for our community.

All of us understand downtown’s lifeblood has been drained by the development of Route 58 and the construction of Tanger Outlet Center. Downtown has been trying for a long time to re-create itself with projects such as the aquarium, the Culinary Arts Center, the new Supreme Court complex, the Hyatt hotel, the renovation at One East Main Street and the Summerwind retail/apartment complex.

Every one of these projects, including The Riverhead Project restaurant — and every other new development project downtown — was, incidentally, either complete, under way or planned when I left office on Jan. 1, 2010.

Despite various projects launched over the last decade, a large swath of the south side of Main Street from the Rendezvous Restaurant to the Riverhead Grill and the area surrounding the empty Suffolk Theatre continue unused, unchanged and forlorn.
We all agree on our shared objective downtown. We don’t all agree on the best way to achieve that objective.

The best way to achieve our objective is, I believe, a comprehensive redevelopment rather than piecemeal redevelopment favored by my successor. A comprehensive redevelopment is especially appropriate for the long-vacant south side, which opens to the river, and the long-vacant north side surrounding the theater. These blighted areas face each other at the center of our downtown.

Central downtown presents a unique opportunity for precisely the kind of comprehensive downtown renewal recommended by planning professionals.

The Downtown Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) for which Apollo Investors paid nearly $1 million several years ago greatly benefits current developers and makes the downtown particularly attractive for comprehensive redevelopment. Developers can avoid the usual 18-month delay occasioned by a site-specific Environmental Impact Statement by using Apollo’s GEIS. and adding a short supplement.

The stubborn refusal of the current administration to consider comprehensive redevelopment, including condemnation in central downtown, and its total reliance on the piecemeal approach is a mistake.

Creating a vibrant center of community activity is an important downtown objective. A second, equally important objective is to grow our commercial tax base so that the tax burden on the rest of us is reduced. This objective cannot be achieved when our Town Board fails to monitor the actions of the Riverhead Industrial Development Agency members who serve at the board’s pleasure.

The Town Board cannot stand silent when incredibly long (20 years in one case) and incredibly large (100 percent for each of those 20 years) real estate tax abatements are awarded to developers who are already fully committed to projects that have already received substantial state and county grants with town sponsorship.

The real estate tax burden lifted from the developer must be carried by the rest of us. This raises an issue of fundamental fairness to which the current administration appears oblivious as it acquiesces to excessive and unnecessary tax abatements for some downtown projects.

There is a “Better Way” to redevelop our central downtown: planned comprehensive redevelopment using every available tool to overcome blight, and the good sense to say “no” to excessive and unnecessary tax abatements, which add to our already crushing tax burden.

Mr. Cardinale is a former Riverhead supervisor who is running as a Democrat for his previous post. He is a Jamesport attorney.