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Riverhead Town seeking $10M state grant to go toward Town Square project

Riverhead Town is hoping to get a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant this year, which could offset costs of its $5.5 million Town Square project.

The town plans to acquire three downtown buildings, two of which are vacant and will be demolished, to open up the view from Main Street to the Peconic River for the Town Square.

The cost of the Town Square program will be offset by grant money and “public-private” partnerships in which some town-owned land at the site may be sold or leased to private entities, according to Dawn Thomas, the town’s Community Development Director.

The town had received an $800,000 Empire State Development grant for the project in 2019, and it recently got permission to use reallocated grant money it had acquired but not spent. These include $613,000 in county money that had been allotted to the town for the purchase of land for water quality improvement but was unspent, according to Ms. Thomas. 

The county allowed the town to use the money for the Town Square, which will have an open space, park component, she said. 

The other grant the town got permission to use to use on the Town Square was a $400,000 county grant originally intended to move the bus station and get a bike share program at the Riverhead railroad station. The company that was going to do the bike share went out of business, and the town convinced the county to allow the $400,000 to be used on the Town Square, since it was part of an alternative transportation project and thus, qualified for the grant, Ms. Thomas said.

That’s a total of just over $1.8 million in grants. 

Officials expect the sale of the buildings to close “within the next couple of weeks” and the town would also then need to issue a request for proposals to demolish the two vacant buildings.

The town hired Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh to design the Town Square. 

That firm, headed by Barry Long, also recently developed the town’s “pattern book” for developing the downtown area. 

“There’s lots of good stuff going on,” Councilman Tim Hubbard said at the Town Board’s work session, where Ms. Thomas updated the board on the status of the Town Square and other projects. 

The $10 million state grant will go to one community within Suffolk and Nassau counties and is one of only 10 that will be awarded statewide. 

The state didn’t issue a grant last year due to COVID-19, but Riverhead has been a finalist in three of the four years it has awarded the grant, according to Ms. Thomas. 

The 2019 recipient was Baldwin in Nassau County, and the three prior recipients were Westbury, Hicksville and Central Islip, the latter being the only Suffolk County recipient. 

Is Riverhead overqualified?

“I would say that some communities have much less development going on than we see here in Riverhead,” Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a 2019 interview when asked about Riverhead not being selected for the $10 million. 

“They need that catalyst and that jumpstart sooner,” she had said.

She encouraged Riverhead to “keep trying.” 

Riverhead is also trying for even bigger grants.

“We are also applying for about $18 million from a federal Department of Transportation program called Build 2021,” Ms. Thomas said. “This is a large program where $1 billion is available nationwide.”

The town is also planning a “Transit Oriented Development” on Railroad Avenue. The Town Board recently approved new zoning there that would allow 50-foot high buildings with stores on the ground floor and apartments on the upper floors. 

This would be built on the site of the parking lot across from the train station. 

The town owns the parking lot but it is used by the Suffolk County courts next door. 

Ms. Thomas said the TOD will involve doubling or more the amount of free parking there. 

The town built that parking lot for the courts in the 1990s when the courts were threatening to leave Riverhead. 

Ms. Thomas said the town will need to discuss how to handle parking during construction.

“The county is aware of this and has been super supportive of it,” Ms. Thomas said. “I don’t expect any issues other than temporary inconvenience.”