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$10M grant sought for Riverhead’s downtown revitalization

Downtown Riverhead could see some major changes if the town is awarded a $10 million grant through the state’s 2019 Downtown Revitalization Initiative. 

Officials outlined a conceptual plan that they hope will win Riverhead the grant, which has previously gone to Westbury, Hicksville and Central Islip.

The plan envisions moving some of the parking along the Peconic Riverfront to north of Main Street to accommodate a new town square. The town-owned parking lot at Court Street and Railroad Avenue would be “leveraged” to private developers, who would build a parking garage for the town in exchange for permission to build apartments above it and include retail stores at the ground level.

The recipient of the $10 million is expected to be announced around the end of the month. The money would be awarded by the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, one of 10 such councils across the state, each of which chooses one downtown area to receive the funding.

Riverhead community development director Dawn Thomas said the town has already studied the target areas extensively and rezoned them.

“Every single parking study for the last 30 years has talked about having public gathering space near the river,” Ms. Thomas said. She added that using the space along the river for parking makes little sense.

The conceptual plan for the establishment of a town square alongside the Peconic River — on what is currently parking — includes things like a town green overlooking the water, a splash fountain and a water garden, as well as a bioretention area that would cleanse runoff instead of letting it go directly into the river.

The parking spaces to be moved are those located south of the former Swezey’s and West Marine buildings. They would be shifted to the parking lot north of the former Woolworth’s, which would be reconfigured to create about 70 additional spots.

The town has received separate grant money to do that, and work is set to start in September, Ms. Thomas said.

The parking south of stores between Summerwind and PeraBell Food Bar would remain in place, under the conceptual plan.

Dee Muma, who owns Dark House restaurant on the south side of East Main Street, cautioned Ms. Thomas at a recent Riverhead Business Improvement District Management Association meeting that “you are on a swamp there. The water comes up from the ground; it doesn’t go down.”

She said it will be flooded with mud.

“I get that,” Ms. Thomas said. “You’re not going to solve that problem, but I’d rather have a flooded parking lot than an empty one. They built the Hoover Dam, so I’m thinking there must be somebody who can figure it out.

“If we don’t do something with that area, I think it’s a complete waste. What we need to do is get those buildings revitalized in the core,” she said. “They are big empty buildings in the code of our town, and people don’t want to walk past them.”

She noted that these buildings were once the business center of downtown.“That’s where people went, that’s where all the cool stuff was,” Ms. Thomas said. “Now it’s like a black hole.”

If the town were to receive the $10 million grant, “it’s going to be really transformative,” she said.

The town proposal also calls for the creation of “transit-oriented development” on the town-owned Railroad Avenue parking lot.

That lot was built by the town for use by the state and county courts, as an incentive for the county to keep the courts in Riverhead. But officials say the lots are largely empty most of the day, with their biggest use coming in the morning, when court convenes.

The lot, according to the town’s grant application, “could be leveraged to create structured parking, retail and residential uses.”

“The addition of the structured parking would allow the town to leverage the publicly owned parking lots along the riverfront for a town square and other public uses,” it says.”

Officials say several developers have expressed interest in such a project.

Ms. Thomas said the hope is that a private developer would build an above-ground parking garage for the town, and in exchange they would get to build residential development on top of the garage, and retail on the ground level. The existing parking lots would remain, with the building going on top of it.

The town also received funding from the state’s Empire State Development Consolidated Funding Application for a strategic planning study for a transit-oriented development on Railroad Avenue in February.

The cost of the TOD is estimated at $5.5 million, of which the town would have to pay $1.4 million, Ms. Thomas said. If the town also receives the $10 million DRI money, some of that could be used to cover the $1.4 million.

The DRI grant is a straight $10 million grant that doesn’t require any financial contribution from the town.

If the parking garage were built on Railroad Avenue, people could park there all day and walk to downtown destinations, Ms. Thomas said.

“It’s only a 10-minute walk,” she added.

“This is the fourth year we’ve applied for the DRI grant and our presentations have gotten stronger each year,” Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith said in an interview.

Ms. Jens-Smith said downtown Riverhead was also designated in 2018 as a federal Opportunity Zone, which is an economically distressed community where builders who invest in those communities can get a reduction or elimination of capital gains taxes incurred at the end of 10 years.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from developers interested in investing in our community,” she said.

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