Guest Spot: The case for a moratorium downtown

Main Street

We have all been waiting and hoping for downtown Riverhead to be revitalized. We strongly believe in Riverhead’s potential and it seems, finally, like it might be realized after so many false starts. New stores have opened, the Suffolk Theater is attracting great acts and we seem on the verge of actually making things happen.

This is why it’s such a critical moment in our town’s development. We must proceed with caution and listen to what’s being recommended for downtown’s redevelopment. Otherwise, we’ll make the same mistakes we made when we rushed to turn Route 58 into a congested shopping corridor.

If we’re not careful, what will we turn downtown Riverhead and EPCAL into?

• RELATED: Guest spot: Downtown moratorium would go too far

Our town hired a consulting firm, using a $567,000 state grant, to conduct a Brownfield Opportunity Area study (BOA) in order to determine what sort of complications could arise when downtown attempts to expand or redevelop. The study pointed out that current downtown zoning allows for 500 new apartments, with no required parking. The BOA concluded that this is “impractical” and recommended that the town amend zoning and cap the number of new apartments at 325. The study also states that, based on the number of new apartments, we would need 1,200 new parking spaces.

The ultimate takeaway of the study was a caution against too much density downtown. Meanwhile, the number of apartments proposed there continues to increase. Our town’s Planning Board seems completely unaware of the study’s findings. That is why I, along with my running mate, Neil Krupnick, have suggested a waiting period on new residential building. The Planning Board’s hands are tied and it must approve five-story high-rise housing submissions with no or inadequate parking unless the Town Board takes the time to review and change the downtown zoning code.

We can’t treat every potential deal as a quick fix to solve all of Riverhead’s problems. Route 58 did not relieve our tax burden, partly because we gave away so many tax breaks. But it did increase our burden as far as traffic and policing are concerned.

So we must use common sense and ask the tough questions about what some of the current proposals would do to downtown. Will these new buildings transform downtown Riverhead for the better or make it worse?

Once the Planning Board gives the go-ahead for a boxy new five-story apartment building — which is what’s being proposed on top of the old Sears building — what is to stop current one-story buildings from selling to new developers who will then demand five-story buildings of their own?

Would downtown Riverhead be able to handle this much density? Can our sewer system handle so many new apartments? And what about the character of downtown? Do we want our town to look like Greenport, Port Jefferson or Sayville? Or do we want our town to look like Queens?

Finally, we have to ask about tax breaks. Riverhead has a track record of giving away the store, most recently giving a reported $1.5 million tax break over the course of 10 years to the new Marriott hotel planned for Route 58. Will the new buildings proposed for downtown receive similar tax breaks or are the developers going to pay their full — and fair — share? Will they pay sales tax on their construction materials or do we, the people, pick up that expense?

If we make the right choices, we can all end up being proud of Riverhead and enjoying the benefits of a thriving downtown. But if we rush and make the wrong choices, we will be forced to live with the consequences for many years to come.

Laura Jens-Smith is a Democratic candidate for Town Board.