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Five stories or less? Debating the future of downtown Riverhead

02/01/2019 12:00 PM |

The future of five-story buildings in downtown Riverhead generated mixed reaction at Thursday’s public forum on what to do about building heights between Griffing and Ostrander avenues.

About 20 people spoke at the 2 1/2 hour meeting.

One reaction from several of the speakers was that the five-story buildings already constructed downtown make the area look more like a city, and that there is limited parking. They wanted to preserve the rural character of the area.

Another reaction from several speakers was that five-story apartment buildings are needed downtown to create walking traffic that will benefit restaurants and stores; current zoning has driven investment to downtown Riverhead, they said. Those speakers said to change the zoning now and reduce height limits will drive away investment in the area.

And yet a third reaction voiced by several speakers was that it’s largely a moot point since the proposed zoning changes only affect one development proposal, since the town is nearing its 500-unit cap on new apartments downtown. The proposed 170-unit market rate apartments planned at the former Sears site is the only large apartment proposal that has not been approved, they said.

The proposal to reduce downtown height limits came from the town Planning Board, and is based on recommendations from prior downtown studies that were never carried out, according to Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith.

The town recently proposed reducing the maximum height on downtown apartments from five stories to two, but would allow developers to purchase farmland development rights in order to buy height, up to a maximum of four stories.

Ms. Jens-Smith said at Thursday’s forum that the transfer of development rights proposal “is off the table,” and didn’t have support among Town Board members. She said the town is now proposing simply a four-story maximum. Downtown property owners had voiced opposition to the transfer of development rights proposal at prior meetings.

Ms. Jens-Smith also said the town has received a draft of a parking study they commissioned last year that the Town Board will soon discuss.

“This discussion is really about my project, because after that, there’s no more room,” said Robert Muchnick, the developer of the proposed five-story, 170-unit apartment complex.

He said he needs “a significant part of the fifth floor” in order to get the building density needed to get an economic impact from the project.

According to town building and planning administrator Jeff Murphree, the 500-unit cap on apartments in the Downtown Center-1 zone, which stretches roughly from Ostrander Avenue to Griffing Avenue, is close to being reached. The cap refers to projects with a certificate of occupancy.

So far, Summerwind Square (52 units), Woolworth Apartments (19) and Peconic Crossing (45) are built and operating, for a total of 116 units.

Riverview Lofts, with 116 units, is approved and under construction, which would bring the total to 232 units.

Mr. Muchnick’s project, at 170 units, would bring the number to 402.

Beyond that, Mr. Murphree said, the Suffolk Theater is proposing 28-apartment unit addition to the back of its building,  builder Ray Castronovo is proposing a nine-unit apartment complex on McDermott Avenue, and other projects and existing apartments would total about 70 more, Mr. Murphree said, for a total of 509 units.

But Ms. Jens-Smith said the 500 cap is not a “hard and fast number” and “has the potential to go away at some point.”

The Downtown Center-1 zoning allows apartments on the upper floors and retail on the ground floor.

Officials said zoning would allow a five-story office complex with no apartments, although speakers said there is no market for that.

Isabelle Gonzalez, who lives downtown and is a member of the Business Improvement District Management Association, said the town is proposing to allow more apartment units but is not counting the overcrowded housing already there.

“As far as development, these block buildings look like projects in New York City and Brooklyn and Queens,” she said.

Susan Frohnhoefer, who has lived in Riverhead since 1982, also opposed five-story buildings.

“Since that time [1982], I only see Riverhead getting worse and worse,” she said. “I don’t think there should be anything higher than two stories in downtown. I didn’t come to the East End of Long Island to live in New York City, and that’s what I see happening.”

She also said she doesn’t go to a lot of downtown stores because she can’t find parking. She said the tenants in the new apartments will add more cars.

Councilman Jim Wooten, who said he’s lived in Riverhead since 1962, told Ms. Frohnhoefer that the small country stores will not be economically sustainable in downtown Riverhead without residents there to provide foot traffic. He said it will never be a small country town again.

Astrid Lehman of Baiting Hollow said one of the things that drove her to come to this community was an “actual village” on Main Street.

“That character is what people who live here like,” she said. “This is what we want.”

She said five-story buildings aren’t attractive.

Former Supervisor Sean Walter, who lost a bid for re-election in 2017, said it was difficult to convince developers to come to downtown Riverhead. He said he was able to convince Riverview Lofts developer David Gallo to do so, but it took several years.

“You’ve got a downtown that is starting to become exciting,” he said. “Don’t hold it back.”

He said Riverhead is similar to Patchogue, which drew moans of “no way” from audience members. He said Patchogue Village has 770 residential units.

“Let the zoning stay in place, so that these projects can be funded,” he said. “Otherwise, things are not coming.”

Noreen LeCann of Riverhead said none of the other East End towns and villages have five-story apartments.

“Parking should be the focus of this entire conversation,” said Chrissy Curtis of Riverhead, who pointed out the lack of available parking.

Mr. Wooten said he believes the town will have a structured parking garage in the future.

Architect Martin Sendlewski, who led a group of downtown property owners who opposed the reduction of height, and is a member of the town’s parking district advisory committed, said a draft of the parking study indicates the utilization of existing parking needs to be improved, and that currently, only 60 percent of the parking downtown is being used on a daily basis.

He said he parked in the lot across from People’s National Bank Wednesday and had the entire lot to himself. It took just over a minute to walk to his business on Roanoke Avenue, and three minutes to walk to Main Street, he said.

Connie Lassandro of Baiting Hollow, who is a consultant for Mr. Gallo and introduced him to Riverhead, said that Riverview Lofts is the first “really big building” to come to downtown, and that the town “needs to take a step back” and see what it looks like and what impact it has before talking about changing zoning.

“You do need foot traffic,” she said.

Mr. Gallo has “$20 million of private dollars invested in this site,” she said.

Ms. Jens-Smith said the town isn’t looking to stop development.

The town next wants to get recommendations from the Downtown Revitalization Committee, the Landmarks Preservation Committee and the Architectural Review Board, and then decide the next step, Mr. Murphree said.

Ms. Jens-Smith said the town also might put out a survey to get more public impact on the downtown zoning.

Photo caption: A rendering released in 2016 of the proposed five-story, 170-unit apartment complex at the former Sears site.

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