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Prioritizing reuse over new construction along Route 58 a key for comprehensive plan update

While downtown Riverhead has recently been on the receiving end of multi-million-dollar grants and regular interest from developers of multi-story apartment proposals, Route 58 is gradually filling vacant storefronts that once were home to major shopping centers.

In the past, Route 58 drew the attention of developers, while officials tried to fill vacancies in downtown. 

Those two areas were highlighted in the economic development portion of the Riverhead comprehensive plan update last Thursday.

The town has been holding regular forums on various sections of the comprehensive plan update, which started in fall of 2020 and is expected to be completed by late 2022 or 2023, according to consultant Bob White of AKRF, the project manager for the update.

The town last updated its comprehensive plan in 2003. That plan began around the time that large commercial projects like Home Depot and Target were coming to town. The plan’s vision statement said:“With the increasing popularity of the North Fork as a tourist destination, Riverhead should develop attractions that can capture a significant portion of the emerging tourist industry.”

It also recommended, among other things, “promoting office and industrial development, agriculture, retail development and entrepreneurial and small-business activities in appropriate locations.” 

As for the draft plan being developed, some of its top goals include furthering the promotion and growth of cultural attractions and tourism-related designations both downtown and along Route 58; and enhancing and promoting safe streets downtown. 

A community survey undertaken as part of the update showed the most important issue with respondents was farmland and open space preservation.

That was followed by the reusing vacant retail space on Route 58 and reducing traffic congestion. 

Rounding out the top five were downtown revitalization and protecting natural resources and the environment.

The reuse of vacant retail space on Route 58 was a topic that came up frequently in the updates. 

In the past few years, national retail chains with locations on Route 58 like Kmart, Toys R Us, Sports Authority, Modell’s, and Borders Books have gone out of business, leaving vacant space behind.

Walmart relocated to a new location on Route 58, leaving a vacant building behind. 

Some new uses are beginning to take shape. The former Kmart building will be partially occupied by the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. 

The former Walmart building will be partially occupied by Restaurant Depot, a food service wholesaler.

The Sports Authority building was divided into three smaller storefronts, two of which are now occupied.

The former homes of Borders, Modell’s and Toys R Us have new tenants as well. 

One of the suggestions of the comprehensive plan was to “prioritize reuse over new construction” and to allow flexible zoning to allow for a greater range of uses on Route 58. The top two suggestions were entertainment and fee-based indoor or outdoor recreational facilities. Hotels and micro apartments were the least favored reuse. 

The town for many years tried to lure a multiplex movie theater to Route 58, but the proposal never came to fruition. 

The comp plan also recommended allowing for a greater range of uses downtown, including mixed uses, entertainment, shopping, restaurants and hotels, although there already are a number of restaurants and hotels downtown. 

Among the suggestions from attendees at last Thursday’s forum, local real estate specialist Larry Oxman suggested what he called a “feeder road” that runs parallel to Route 58 and enables cars to go from one parking lot to another without reentering the main road.

Town planner Greg Bergman said the town has sought agreements from developers that require them to allow such easements, but it doesn’t work unless property owners on both sides agree to do it.

“I’m OK with traffic being slow on Route 58,” said attorney Kim Judd. She said she lives north of the Route 58 traffic circle.

“The traffic going east and west of the traffic circle, they’re not even stepping on the brakes,” she said. “I’m surprised there are not more accidents there. They just go though the yield sign.”

The next comprehensive plan meeting is scheduled for April 25 on housing and community service, followed on April 26 on transportation and infrastructure. On April 27, the topic will be agriculture, farmland and historic preservation. All of the meetings start at 5:45 p.m. at Riley Avenue school.