Editorial: Influx of people to bring downtown back

Woolworth cops
Riverhead police officers Brian Clements and Chris Parkin in front of the Woolworth building, which was just purchased by a developer.

It’s been a mixed bag of news for downtown Riverhead recently.

A young couple was robbed near the aquarium in December and a drive-by shooting occurred on Third Street last Wednesday. No one was hurt in the drive-by and, thanks in part to heads-up police work and newly beefed-up patrols, four suspects were nabbed within minutes

But police are about to get some help in their downtown crime-fighting efforts: people.

As we saw in New York City’s Times Square in the 1990s, the best way to address quality-of-life issues and an area’s poor reputation is with an infusion of law-abiding citizens living and enjoying the area for themselves. Criminals tend to avoid crowds, due to the potential for witnesses and hampered escapes.

Very soon, downtown Riverhead is going to see a lot of people moving about. In exactly nine days, the Suffolk Theater will open its doors to the public for the first time since 1987 with a 1930s-style cocktail party, complete with a brass band that’s appeared in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”

The theater also has a packed schedule for the coming months, hosting weekday and weekend events that range from screenings of classic movies to NYC- and Hamptons-style dance parties. Hundreds will be flocking to East Main Street this summer for theater events and to check out new shops and enjoy the area’s restaurants.

Meanwhile, the 52 affordable apartments at the Summerwind complex will start filling up as well. The residents will frequent the area’s pizzerias, restaurants, convenience stores and theaters. Vail-Leavitt Music Hall also stands to benefit since it’s right next door to Summerwind.

The News-Review also reports this week that Woolworth Revitalization LLC has purchased the former Woolworth building on East Main Street. With the town’s help, the company’s managing partner, Michael Butler of Sag Harbor, hopes to begin renovations next month. Mr. Butler envisions about 20 apartments in the 25,000-square-foot space, as well as a gym or food market and other shops.

The apartments will be a mix of mostly studio and one-bedroom apartments, with some two-bedroom units, Mr. Butler says. He sees the new apartments as ideal for young people trying to start their lives on the North Fork. Live music and club nights at the Suffolk Theater will only entice them.

But challenges will likely lie ahead. Perceptions of an area don’t change overnight, so while things might start to look and feel better, it could take some time for word to spread. And landlords on the south side of East Main Street might still have trouble filling long-vacant buildings that have outlived their usefulness — due either to their awkward size or to structural issues.

A possible solution to these challenges would be for the town to purchase and condemn a block of aging eyesores on East Main and replace them with a central square. This is a move Councilman James Wooten has called for, and it could be accomplished should the town ever succeed in selling or leasing its land at EPCAL.

It’s easy to picture a green mall in the middle of the East Main Street corridor, leading down to the Peconic River, perhaps with a large, ornate fountain at its center. Throw in a row or two of temporary kiosk spaces similar to those in NYC’s Bryant Park and, suddenly, downtown becomes a real regional destination, attracting waves of new visitors — maybe even new residents — from Long Island and beyond.