What’s the future of traffic, housing and parking downtown?

A birds' eye view of downtown Riverhead earlier this week. (Credit: Andrew Lepre)
A birds’ eye view of downtown Riverhead earlier this week. (Credit: Andrew Lepre)

Twenty one years ago, the News-Review reported that there would “definitely be a 751-space, two-story parking structure” created in downtown Riverhead to address a burgeoning traffic problem.

While that traffic problem remains — and in fact, more residents than ever are living downtown, with more residential units in the works — the parking garage remains a dream.

But that didn’t stop a consulting firm from examining the idea at Town Hall recently after giving downtown traffic a grade of “F.”

That proposal, as well as others, were all part of a wider look into developing downtown Riverhead as it continues to grow — from a traffic perspective, a housing perspective and an overall marketing perspective.

The town hired Nelson, Pope and Voorhis of Melville with the help of a $567,000 state grant it received four years ago. The funds came through the state’s Brownfields Opportunities Areas program, which the state’s website says aims to “revitalize communities, create jobs, support environmental remediation and expand the tax base in distressed neighborhoods that have been adversely affected by multiple brownfield sites.”

The planners gave Town Board members an update June 11, saying that the following areas should be prioritized moving forward: water quality, traffic, parking, marketing, economic development and an effort to reclassify several parcels along the Peconic River through the state Department of Environmental Conservation. That change, through the state’s Wild Scenic Rivers Act, is expected to incentivize development on certain riverfront parcels in the study area, which runs from Hubbard Avenue to Tanger Outlets.

Supervisor Sean Walter — formerly skeptical of yet another downtown study — said Tuesday that he sees one of the firm’s proposals to re-route traffic as the change that could be implemented most immediately after the study, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year. But that’s not the only promise he sees in it.

“The BOA study allows us to do a couple of things,” Mr. Walter said. “It gives us the ability to amend the Wild Scenic Rivers lines. It gives us the information needed to change traffic patterns in downtown Riverhead. And it gives us a parking analysis.”

The planning firm suggested two downtown traffic options.

DowntownOne option calls for making Peconic Avenue northbound-only, with one southbound lane for emergency vehicles. The rest of the southbound traffic would be directed to the bridge by Riverhead Free Library that connects West Main Street to Nugent Drive in Riverside.

A second option — which Mr. Walter called “pie in the sky” — would involve realigning Peconic and Roanoke avenues, a move that would also require condemning a few buildings and businesses.

But keeping traffic in mind, the planning firm pointed out that a full buildout of 500 residential units downtown — the maximum currently allowed — “would permit an impracticable level of development.” The planners suggested reducing the maximum to 325 units.

Existing town zoning allows five-story apartment buildings and doesn’t require them to provide their own parking, since they are already in the public parking district.

The planners recommended limiting the percentage of lot coverage allowed for downtown buildings to allow less development on upper floors, thereby reducing the maximum number of apartments that could be created.

Mr. Walter said he agrees that 500 units are too many.

“I think we have an arbitrary cap of 500,” he said. “Somewhere between 325 and 500 is probably going to be the most you’ll ever see in downtown Riverhead. Will we redo zoning on the south side? I think so.”

Joe's Garage and Grill below SummerwindMore than 60 residential units have been built in the downtown area in recent years, starting with Dee Muma’s five duplexes at the downtown intersection of Peconic Avenue and East and West Main streets. The larger 52-unit Summerwind opened three years later, followed by the creation of 19 apartments in the Woolworth building. Another 48 units wait in the wings as Peconic Crossing, in partnership with the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, awaits approval to establish artists’ housing on the current site of the Long Island Science Center.

Marianne Garvin, president and CEO of CDCLI, said — as have many others — that she sees Riverhead’s trajectory as similar to that of Patchogue, which recently welcomed the 291-unit New Village apartment complex.

“There were a lot of skeptics. People said in Patchogue that housing didn’t make sense,” Ms. Garvin said. “They said you needed jobs and business. But they’re interrelated. Businesses came when people were there. It didn’t happen all at once. A little housing came, and then more business. Then a little more housing. Then a little more business.”

Bill Toedter, president of the North Fork Environmental Council, pointed out that while revitalization in downtown Riverhead is important, “you can’t stress the river.”

As one example of the potential stresses that continued riverfront development might generate, Mr. Toedter pointed to an oil spill last year in the Peconic River parking lot that resulted in some oil seeping into the river. He also said that allowing tax breaks for nearby parcels — Peconic Crossing is only one of several downtown projects to receive tax abatements through the Industrial Development Agency — is at cross purposes with preserving the river’s health.

“It should be costly to develop close to the river because there’s an environmental cost associated with it,” Mr. Toedter said. “If we can smartly plan for environmental and economic purposes, that would be welcome.”

The planners hired by Riverhead also had suggestions for places outside the immediate downtown area. Options included townhouses at the corner of Hubbard Avenue and East Main Street and an “overlook” onto the Peconic River near Buoy One.

As for parking, the study points out that just over 2,700 parking spaces currently exist within the study area, but that only 48 percent are occupied during weekday peak hours and only 19 percent are occupied on weekend peak hours.

However, once downtown zoning reaches full buildout — presumably many years from now — the study predicts there will be a shortage of 1,200 parking spaces downtown.

Saying that a 1,200-space parking garage would cost about $36 million, the study suggested other options.

“It’s more realistic to have a menu of solutions and seek ways to accommodate a smaller structure for a portion of the required spaces,” the study says.

These other approaches include requiring off-street parking for new residential buildings in the parking district, encouraging alternative transportation, establishing designated paid parking areas, having store employees park in remote locations and creating valet parking services.

Mr. Walter said he is already eyeing a few parcels in the Second Street area as future parking lots.

Captions: The corner of Roanoke Avenue and East Main Street downtown. (Credit: Tim Gannon, file); The Summerwind Square complex and Joe’s Garage and Grill.