Guest Column: Forum aims at restoring pride to downtown Riverhead

Our Main Street should be a source of pride in our community, but it has struggled for a long time now.

Over the past 20 years we have seen Route 58 grow and box stores replace our Main Street small businesses.

But now, things are starting to come full circle. We have seen in countless communities across Long Island that there is a resurgence in downtowns. Once again, they are filling with people, apartments, stores, restaurants, the arts and places for the community to gather and feel proud of their town. Riverhead deserves exactly that.

Fifteen years ago the zoning for our downtown was enacted. This zoning called for five-story, full build-out high-rises in the heart of downtown, fronting the north and south side of our Main Street. Today, while our revitalization has lagged behind other towns, we now have the unique advantage of being able to look at, and learn about, what some of the other successful downtowns have done. If you drive down Main Street in Patchogue, Port Jefferson, Greenport or Sayville, you will see they have all tried to maintain the character of their history on their Main Street corridor and build out their larger developments in the areas surrounding their downtowns.

Current zoning at five stories, full-floor build-out without building setbacks is not in keeping with the character of our historic downtown. It permits construction that overshadows and overwhelms the character of our historic buildings. It overinflates property values and actually discourages development. 

It is time we implement zoning that allows for smart development. We need development that encourages mixed-use buildings that supports both commercial and residential development and enhances the feel of our downtown. Development that encourages economic and social success all along Main Street. This can be achieved with a balance that allows both change and preservation. 

I am advocating for a maximum of four stories, with third- and fourth-floor setbacks to reduce the visual impact of these buildings. New buildings should have a reduced lot coverage of 80 percent. Preservation of current buildings should be allowed 100 percent lot coverage to encourage restoration of our historic downtown buildings.

Parking should be provided on site for each apartment, or a provision allowing payment in lieu of providing the parking to offset the costs of creating new parking. New apartments should also contribute to the downtown community by paying into a parks and recreation fund, as all current subdivisions are required to do. 

Downtown has begun experiencing new growth and we need to keep it moving in a positive way — a way that enhances our uniqueness, highlights our riverfront, and creates an inviting place to visit, shop and live. 

We have paid millions of dollars to study how to create a downtown we can all have pride in. We’ve done our homework, we’ve done our studies and we know what we want. It’s time we started acting on it.

Riverhead needs your input on these vital decisions. This Thursday, Jan. 31, at 6 p.m. in Town Hall, the Town Board will hold a community forum to discuss these topics. I encourage you and your neighbors to attend and share your ideas for the downtown you’d like to see.

Ms. Jens-Smith is the Riverhead Town supervisor.