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Town seeks ‘master developer’ for Railroad Avenue

Riverhead Town officials hope to do a Joni Mitchell in reverse, by taking a paved parking lot and turning it into paradise.

On Friday, the town issued a “request for qualifications” for a master developer for the parking lot area adjacent to the Long Island Rail Road, which also serves as a Suffolk County bus station.

The town seeks a master developer to design and implement a major “mixed use” overhaul of the town-owned parking lot through “transportation-oriented development.”

That would involve building an above ground parking structure along with stores or offices on the ground level and apartments on the upper level 

The specifics of the project would be up to the master developer the town selects. 

“The plan, in part, involves the town leveraging the train station surface parking lot for a new mixed use transportation-oriented development that we are confident will transform this long blighted area,” said town community development director Dawn Thomas.

Applicants’ responses to the RFQ are due on May 14, and the selection of finalists will be done in mid-June.

Presentations to community groups and the public are slated for mid-July, according to the plan.

“The creation of a transportation-oriented development at the Riverhead railroad station will vastly increase public transportation options to live, work and play in downtown Riverhead and beyond,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said at a press conference about the proposal Friday.

The two-acre parking lot has 237 parking spaces. It was built in the 1990s, when the Suffolk County courts were threatening to leave Riverhead unless the town provide parking for the courts. Officials say that parking lot is often less than full. 

Kevin Law of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council. (Credit: Tim Gannon)

The town created new zoning for the railroad area that allows buildings up to 50 feet high; in some cases 60 feet is allowed for mixed-use buildings with art uses. 

“From a business perspective, this makes sense,” said Kevin Law of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council. “We need to revitalize our downtowns, which are great for the economy. Downtowns have suffered during this pandemic and we need to do everything we can to revitalize them.”

The town is seeking a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Incentive grant from the state, and Mr. Law is on the panel that decides who gets that grant. 

“This is the way you do it,” Eric Alexander of Vision Long Island said of the request for qualifications. He said he’s seen other plans from the town in the past that “haven’t gone where they needed to go, obviously.” 

He said the current plan allows the town to “get qualified folks in to invest in your train station area” and noted that this type of development has been happening across Long Island. 

Mark Woolley, a representative for Congressman Lee Zeldin, said Riverhead came very close to securing a federal transportation grant of $18 million last year, and he feels the town has a good chance of getting that award this year. 

“We couldn’t be more supportive about what the town is trying to do here,” Mr. Woolley said. 

“The transportation hub is going to be a real game changer,” said Cailin Kaller, executive director of the Long Island Science Center, which is moving into the former Swezey’s building.

This will increase the number of people who visit us,” she said. 

“By investing in this transit area, with its location only a few blocks from Main Street as well as the municipal court area, we are further solidifying our commitment to the revitalization of Riverhead’s downtown,” said Councilwoman Catherine Kent.