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Riverhead Town considering plan to allow conversion of empty big box stores into apartments

Large vacant retail store sites like those occupied by the former Kmart, Walmart and Toys R Us on Route 58 would be “recycled” into other uses such as “micro apartments” under a plan being discussed by Riverhead Town and Suffolk County officials.

The apartments create additional housing and in turn, bring more shoppers for other stores in the area.

“Empty large-scale retail or big box space has long plagued many communities across the United States, including Riverhead,” said Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar at Thursdays Town Board work session. “The COVID-19 pandemic will most certainly add to the growing eyesore of abandoned store fronts in our area.”

The county also has been discussing similar plans and Suffolk County legislator Kara Hahn (D-Port Jefferson) discussed those plans virtually with the Riverhead board Thursday.

The county is planning to do a “generic” environmental impact study of the plans that could be adopted by individual towns at no cost. Riverhead officials say that would save about $35,000.

Ms. Hahn said these types of projects have been happening all over the world, even before COVID-19. The county has a draft version of the proposal and had discussed it last month with the supervisors of the county’s ten towns.

She said the proliferation of online shopping has played a big role in the vacanies and that’s been intensified since COVID, as people are afraid to go to stores.

“It’s not just big box stores,” she said. Vacant supermarkets also present an opportunity for reuse.

“In my district alone, it probably takes two hands to count the number of vacant supermarkets we have,” she said. Department stores in malls, neighborhood retail stores and gyms are other uses being considered for conversion to housing by the county, she said.

In addition, she said, when an anchor tenant in a shopping center goes out of business, it hurts the other stores that are located there.

“We need to find ways to make it easier for the development to happen where we’ve already done the damage and we’re not cutting down trees or paving over farmland.” Ms. Hahn said.

She added that vacant buildings should be reused.

Councilman Frank Beyrodt said there is also an influx or people from the city who are moving to the East End and Riverhead.

“So now, more than ever this is a critical time to have this discussion,” he said.

The county proposal can be adopted to fit individual towns, officials said.

Ms. Aguiar said Riverhead may want to have market rate housing, rather than affordable housing, since there are already a number of affordable housing units in town. She said moderately priced, market rate apartments is what she’d like to see.

The county is defining “micro apartments” as being between 350 to 400 square feet, but Riverhead could change that to a larger number, Ms. Aguiar said. She said the county would have no oversight role in what individual towns choose to do.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said the town would incorporate the county plan into the town’s master plan update and it could incorporate transfer of development rights into the proposal. TDR allows development rights to be transferred off farmland the town aims to preserve and into areas where additional development is sought.

Mitchell Pally, the executive director of the Long Island Business Alliance, said a recent study done by the Stony Brook School of Business found that the micro apartment plan would not have an negative impact of school populations.

Ms. Giglio also said the impact the proposal would have on the town’s sewer district costs also must be looked at. People in that district will see a $400% increase in their sewer taxes because the county failed to apply its sewer stablization rate, which caps sewer tax rate increases at 3%.

The proposal is in its early stages, Ms. Aguiar said.