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Howell House in Riverhead may be replaced by parking lot

History or parking?

That’s the question being asked with regard to a 112-year-old house that’s proposed for demolition in a historic district in downtown Riverhead.

The East Main Street building, known as the Howell House, has been unoccupied for many years and sits immediately west of the Preston House, a 112-year-old building on East Main Street and Ostander Avenue that was renovated by developer Joe Petrocelli and is being turned into a restaurant. A five-story, 20-room hotel is going up behind it.

Mr. Petrocelli is now seeking to buy the Howell House property, which is across the street from the Hyatt Hotel and Long Island Aquarium, of which he also is an owner.

The plan is to demolish the Howell House and create a 24-stall parking lot in its place to be used in conjunction with the Preston House project.

The lot would have access from the adjacent town parking lot to the west, according to attorney Eric Russo, who spoke on behalf of Mr. Petrocelli at a public hearing before the Town Board on Oct. 17. Four of the lots on the new lot would be for public use, to replace the four lots that will be eliminated in the public lot.

The purpose of the hearing was to ask the Town Board to overturn the town Landmarks Commission’s June denial of a permit to demolish the Howell House.

According to commission chair Richard Wines, the Howell House was built in 1905 by B. Frank Howell, a banker and former Riverhead Town supervisor and fire commissioner. He also was involved in the Riverhead Masons, the Patchogue Elks and he was a founder of Riverhead Country Club.

“Do we really want to line Main Street, the entrance to our beautiful town, with parking lots?” Mr. Wines asked. “Even if there is landscaping in front, it’s still going to be a parking lot, no matter how you look at it.”

The plans do propose landscaping along East Main Street.

With regard to landmarks, town code says that “property that contributes to the historic district shall, to the greatest extent practicable, be retained with its historic features altered as little as possible,” Mr. Wines said. The property owner also can qualify for tax credits to restore the building, due to its status as a landmark, he said.

The commission suggested that instead of taking down the Howell House, Mr. Petrocelli rehabilitate the building and seek to acquire properties farther north on Ostrander Avenue for parking. Mr. Wines said Mr. Petrocelli has expressed interest in buying the lot behind the hotel that’s being built behind the Preston House.

Mr. Russo said their current proposal makes more sense.

Mr. Petrocelli is seeking to buy the Howell House property for $250,000 but doesn’t yet own it, according to Mr. Russo, who said the cost of maintaining the house and refurbishing it as either an office, a bed and breakfast or a residence, is about $670,000.

The applicant estimates the cost of demolishing the building at about $175,000, which doesn’t include possible asbestos removal costs, Mr. Russo said.

John Breslin, an appraiser hired by Mr. Petrocelli, said that two similar buildings on Ostrander Avenue are selling for under $400,000, whereas the cost to buy and rehab the Howell House is over $900,000.

Andrew Giambertone, the applicant’s architect, said the building has not been maintained in years and has longtime water infiltration and extensive rot throughout the building.

“Left unattended, it would only be a matter of time before the building came down,” he said.

Mr. Giambertone said that regardless of its historic value, the extensive damage and deficiency in the structure make it “virtually impossible to bring this building back to life. You’d have to build a new building in entirety.”

Mr. Petrocelli and his companies have already acquired and rehabilitated the Preston House and the 167-year-old East Lawn Building farther east on East Main Street, and have created parking at the northeast corner of Ostrander Avenue and East Main Street and across the street from the East Lawn Building, Mr. Russo said.

Mr. Wines acknowledged Mr. Petrocelli’s efforts to preserve historic structures in Riverhead.

“We love Joe Petrocelli,” he said. “He deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done.”

The Town Board took no action of the proposal.

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Photo: The 112-year-old Howell House on East Main Street has been proposed for demolition. (Credit: Tim Gannon)