Residents offer mixed feelings on new push to revitalize Riverside

Bob Summerlin of Northampton speaks at last Wednesday's "Riverside Rediscovered" meeting, where residents were asked to identify what type of things they feel Riverside needs. (Credit: Tim Gannon)
Bob Summerlin of Northampton speaks at last Wednesday’s “Riverside Rediscovered” meeting, where residents were asked to identify what type of things they feel Riverside needs. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

About eight years ago, Southampton Town officials held a meeting in the Phillips Avenue school on a proposal to revitalize Riverside through the creation of a new Main Street business area, and people at the meeting were asked to break into groups to discuss what type of things they feel Riverside needs. 

Last Wednesday, that happened again, only this time, officials are hoping the end result isn’t the same.

In 2006, the town proposed to turn the former Flanders Drive-in property into an industrial park that would be complemented by some stores with apartments on the upper floor.

To date, the drive-in property is mostly vacant, except for a few warehouses where small business store equipment.

The town had hired a consulting firm to lead that study.

This time, the effort is being led by Renaissance Downtowns, a Plainview-based for-profit company that isn’t being paid anything by the town and will have to make any money it earns from actual development in Riverside, according to Sean McLean, the company’s vice president and a Flanders resident.

Renaissance is a contract vendee to develop about six acres of town-owned land in Riverside, mostly near the state police barracks, which it has a right to build on, according to Mr. McLean

They also plan to partner up with surrounding property owners to increase the development potential of their properties by piecing together several smaller parcels to create one big one, he said.

Renaissance has until next April to submit a development plan to the town, and it also can make recommended zoning changes, he said.

“It’s worked elsewhere,” Mr. McLean said, indicating that his company has done or is doing similar projects in Huntington, Bristol, Ct. and near the Nassau Coliseum in Hempstead Town.

Mr. McLean and Siris Barrios, the community liaison for the effort, dubbed “Riverside Rediscovered,” are speaking with residents and property owners in the hamlet to get their feedback and determine their level of interest in the revitalization efforts.

Mr. McLean said he’s met with about 60 percent of the property owners in the target area and all of them are “on board” with the revitalization efforts, once they realize it doesn’t involved condemnation of their land.

“Some of them want to get rid of their property or can’t sell it for what they want,” he said. “Some of them can’t sell it for what they paid for it. Others want to develop it for themselves. We can partner with them, or we can invest in their project and bring in other partners. Sometimes, we just provide free planning services and we don’t make anything off of it.”

Reaction from some of the residents who spoke Wednesday was mixed.

“I’ve lived in this community since I was a little girl,” said Tanya Collins of Riverside. “When I was a child, we were able to leave our doors unlocked, and we knew everyone that lived on the street. Now, we no longer leave our doors unlocked and we no longer know everyone that lives on the street.”

She said she has a vested interest in the area and wants to make sure she has a voice in the efforts to change it.

“We’ve been listening to this type of discussion for many years,” said Marianne Fitzgerald of Riverside. She said when developer Dede Gotthelf wanted to build a hotel in Riverside a few years back, Southampton Town “fought her tooth and nail” until she walked away from the project.

“These groups come and they go,” Ms. Fitzgerald said. “They all say the same things. I’m so sick of hearing ‘let’s break into groups.’ That thing across the street (the drive-in property) was supposed to be so wonderful, yet all it is is a couple of warehouses. Come knock on my door when you’re actually going to do something.”

Mr. McLean said he understands Ms. Fitzgerald’s frustration. He said if Renaissance doesn’t develop land in Riverside, it will not make any money.

“This is not a planning effort or a fake type of thing,” he said. “I have to develop property, and I can’t unless the community participates. I respect your frustration.”

Ms. Barrios said many of the people she’s talked to in the community are “tired of all the studies” of Riverside that have been undertaken. She said people have also raised issues of crime and prostitution in the area.

Southampton Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming asked what can be done to ensure that local labor benefits from the redevelopment project and that local property owners aren’t displaced once the neighborhood gets nicer.

Mr. McLean said in Hempstead they required local employees be used in the redevelopment projects as a condition of the zoning.

As for the “gentrification” issue, he said they want to make sure that if people are displaced from their homes as a result of the revitalization efforts, that they be relocated within the Riverside area.

Among the items residents said they wanted to see in Riverside, after they had broken into groups to discuss it, were a sit-down restaurant, a bakery, small shops, a village green, community services like a medical clinic, apartments above stores, a community center, workforce housing, fair code enforcement, Neighborhood Watch programs, a grocery store, a pharmacy and a laundromat.

Southampton Councilman Brad Bender, a former president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, said it is also important that residents vote yes on a referendum this November to allow “alienation” of town parkland that’s needed for the expansion of the Riverside traffic circle into a two-lane roundabout.

The alienation is required because the plan calls for the town land to be swapped for a larger piece of county-owned land adjacent to it.

Mr. Bender said that while the swap is beneficial to Riverside, he is concerned that residents in other areas might vote against it, since it is a town-wide referendum. He said he will be speaking to community groups throughout the town to urge people to support the alienation.

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