For probably three decades, Riverhead Town officials, business owners and residents alike have been reaching for answers on how to bring foot traffic to what was once upon a time a bustling downtown area.
But it’s been a chicken-or-egg type of question for most downtown rejuvenation efforts, says Eric Alexander of Vision Long Island, a nonprofit group that advocates for so-called smart growth techniques in Long Island communities.
That is, do incoming businesses attract downtown residents, or does the appearance of downtown residents yield the opening of businesses?
“You need a healthy downtown to attract the people that want to live there, and then the other piece is you need enough people to make that healthy mix viable,” Mr. Alexander said. “I think you need to grow them both simultaneously. Maybe as you’re building your housing a coffee shop opens up.”
In Riverhead, some say that’s exactly what’s happening.
Between downtown building owners installing new apartments and the 52-unit Summerwind affordable apartment complex going up next to Vail-Leavitt Music Hall, some say the revitalization of downtown Riverhead has never been more palpable. This time around, said Martin Sendlewski, a partner in the Summerwind project, revitalization is “for real.”
“I’m a lifelong resident of Riverhead and through my years of involvement in committees and my current position on the [Business Improvement District], we’ve seen many good attempts at getting it right that haven’t come to fruition,” said Mr. Sendlewski, an architect. “The stars are aligned and downtown Riverhead is being revitalized before my eyes.”
Mr. Sendlewski said the Summerwind group’s acceptance of county grant money means agreeing to affordable apartment rental rates for 31 years after the Peconic Avenue building opens. The workforce housing project, which already has a bar and grill called Joe’s Garage lined up for the first floor, doesn’t allow subsidized or high-income renters, he stressed, but will target young professionals who can’t find quality, affordable rentals in the walkable downtown area.
“With the town’s master plan, which targets the downtown area for workforce housing, everything has fallen right into place,” he said.
Anthony Coates, who recently moved into newly renovated apartments above Parto’s Pizza on Main Street, said he’s lived in downtown Riverhead for about six years.
“I’ve always been in secluded areas on the water,” Mr. Coates said, “Here it’s a totally different lifestyle.”
Where Mr. Coates said he was once wedded to his vehicle, he is now a walker and biker who loves the convenience that comes with living downtown.
“I walk down my flight of stairs and across the street to the community garden, pick some lettuce and basil and then go back home to prepare a salad grown right across the street,” he said. “I didn’t get in my car, I didn’t have to subject myself to Route 58. I’m buying local and growing local.”
To Mr. Coates, a political adviser to the town’s supervisor, the chicken-and-egg predicament isn’t one at all. He sees the answer as being obvious: Nobody “came first,” the chicken just evolved that way.
“The supervisor has talked about building by building, block by block and if you’re going to be realistic, that’s the way it has to be done. In the past, we were treated to futurama photos of what Riverhead will look like in the future and it’s far-fetched because Riverhead is not some George Jetson village, it’s Riverhead,” he said. “You gotta do it the old-fashioned way, the way Patchogue did it, a little bit at a time. It’s not if you build it, they will come, it’s if they come, you’ll have to build it.”
To Mr. Coates, the Summerwind project and the possibility of other downtown business owners putting apartments into their historic buildings are vital to making a flourishing downtown a reality.
“I hear people say all the time, ‘Why don’t we get a Trader Joe’s?’ You’ll get it when they’re ready to be here; when there’s enough critical mass. I’m one piece of the mosaic of getting enough people down here to make it realistic.”
Downtown Riverhead is also on the verge of being nationally recognized as historic, according to Richard Wines, chairman of Riverhead’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, something that will make federal tax credits available for large-scale restoration projects.
“The designation was approved by the state earlier this year,” Mr. Wines said. “Approval by the Federal Department of the Interior is usually automatic, but takes a while.”
Mr. Wines said once the area is federally recognized, building owners can apply for both federal and state tax credits, at 20 percent each, on the costs of their projects, totaling 40 percent.
That’s a big chunk of tax credits for someone who is putting, say, $300,000 worth of work into a building restoration.
“It needs to be a major restoration, but buildings built from 1962 on apply, which encompasses a lot of the downtown buildings,” he said.
He said tax credits normally just apply for income-producing properties, like businesses and rental properties, but because the census district is below the state average, homeowners can apply if they bought and revamped a home within the district.
“We’re looking to get the area just north of downtown recognized as well,” he said.
Historic credits aside, there are also other ways business owners have been getting help with costly renovations, town officials said.
“We have main street grants and New York Division of Housing and Community Renewal money,” said Chris Kempner, Riverhead’s community development agency director. “We’ve been applying for and getting these grants since 2002 to target Main Street’s rejuvenation.”
Such grant money has benefited several downtown businesses, including the five office and living space duplexes Dee Muma built above her downtown restaurant, The Dark Horse, for which she received $150,000. The downtown Business Improvement District and Riverhead Industrial Development Agency share space in one of the duplexes, though it did not appear that anyone is living in the building yet, and Ms. Muma wouldn’t give specifics.
The effort to revamp and reopen the historic Suffolk Theatre received $250,000. And $2.4 million went to the East End Hyatt project at the Long Island Aquarium through a “Restore New York” initiative. The Summerwind project is getting over $2 million from the county.
“We’ve gotten so much money,” Ms. Kempner said. “It’s like $20 million,” all added up.
Despite the huge injection of state and county grant money, some downtown business owners are still wary about going ahead with upper-story apartment projects because of the extensive costs involved.
Jerry Steiner, owner of Allied Optical on Main Street, said he’s considering building four one-bedroom apartments or six mostly studio units, but remains unsure whether he’ll be able to undertake the project, even with help.
“What kills you is the fire suppression,” he said. “You need to open up the street, install central station arms for the sprinklers, the whole nine yards — you’re talking about $100,000 before you even get started.”
For Mr. Steiner it isn’t that grant money is available, but how much of it there is.
“It all boils down to if they give me enough money to make this economically viable then I’ll do it, but if they don’t then I’m probably going to pack it in and sell this place,” he said. “Politicians talk, but until you get the coin and you can bite it and know it’s gold, you don’t know what you got.”