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At forum, speakers offer feedback on Comprehensive Plan

Brick-and-mortar retail development is dead, right?

Maybe not, according to some who spoke last Wednesday at a forum on Riverhead Town’s Comprehensive Plan update. The meeting focused on downtown Riverhead, Route 58 and economic development, with significant time spent on the future of retail.

The forum was one of five topic-oriented sessions held to generate feedback for use in updating the town’s 2003 Comprehensive Plan. Other meetings dealt with environmental stability, transportation, housing and community services and agriculture/farmland preservation. 

While online shopping often is blamed for killing brick-and-mortar retail, several speakers at last week’s meeting disagreed. 

“Brick and mortar is not going away, it’s slowly changing,” said Dawn Thomas, Riverhead Town’s community development director. As a sign of that change, she cited the recent remodeling of part of the former Walmart on Route 58 for occupancy by Restaurant Depot. 

“We have changing economic conditions and we have to be flexible to work with them,” Ms. Thomas said. 

As for retail vacancies in downtown Riverhead, Ms. Thomas said those had nothing to do with internet shopping, which has long been blamed for the demise of big box stories like Walmart. She said those downtown vacancies go back 20 years.

“When retail moved into smaller or larger stores, the mid-sized department stores couldn’t survive,” she said.

On a positive note, Carl Landis, general manager of Tanger Outlets in Riverhead, said: “Brick and mortar is surviving.” He said online purchases account for about 13% of total sales at the outlets. 

“We’re moving in the right direction. The more residential opportunities we have, the more potential shoppers we have,” said Bob Hennessy, operating director of Tanger. He said a lot of “non-successes” he’s had at Tanger seemed to be more about zoning restrictions.

“The issues we have is not that we don’t have tenants looking to come in here, it’s that they are very selective in what they are allowed to have come in here, such as food tenants,” Mr. Hennessy said.

The town created outlet zoning in the mid-1990s that was designed so that restaurants would not be permitted. Jefferson Murphree, the town’s building and planning administrator, asked if the zoning should be more flexible.

“Most definitely,” Mr. Hennessy said. 

Mr. Murphree said other towns have created planned development districts that permit more flexibility in zoning. 

“For downtown, we have to create an experience so that people will want to go there,” said real estate agent Ike Israel.