Viewpoint: Great Neck should vie for revitalization grant

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Karen Rubin

It’s wonderful that the Great Neck Village Officials Association, under new leadership, seems to be rekindling its mission (“the greater Great Neck”) and plans to focus on a Complete Streets approach to Middle Neck Road – presumably making it more pedestrian and cyclist friendly, a place where people want to stroll and shop.

But what if GNVOA were really ambitious and did a joint downtown revitalization program – a project that could win one of New York state’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grants? Wouldn’t improving our Main Street – the entire Middle Neck Road corridor – lift all the villages and unincorporated areas?

If a Complete Streets revisioning involved Nassau County and stretched from Northern Boulevard to the Old Village, revitalization could incorporate other improvements that the greater community has been working so frustratingly hard to achieve: restoring and reopening the Saddle Rock Grist Mill; saving the Stepping Stones Lighthouse so it could ultimately host visitors and educational programs; addressing access to the Long Island Rail Road and commuter parking; filling the empties and fulfilling the need for mixed use development and affordable housing.  All of these BLANK impact the tax base (the property taxes we pay) and the quality of public schools and services we can afford.

Under Gov. Cuomo’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, one municipality from each of the state’s 10 regional economic development regions is selected as a $10 million winner “to help communities boost their economies by transforming downtowns into vibrant neighborhoods where the next generation of New Yorkers will want to live, work and raise a family.” So far there have been four rounds. Among the Long Island villages that have won the $10M: Westbury, Hicksville, Central Islip and Baldwin.

“It’s like winning the lottery,” Glenn Murrell, who hands out grant money for New York State’s Department of Transportation Region 10, told Vision Long Island’s Complete Streets summit. The candidates are chosen by the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council.

One village, even the largest of Great Neck’s nine — the Old Village — is not likely to produce a Downtown Revitalization Project proposal that would win the $10 million state grant, but the nine villages working together very well might.

So what wins the $10 million? The terms that come up the most are “streetscape,” “placemaking,” “pedestrian friendly,” “mixed-use.” What can we use as a blueprint for Great Neck?

The grant for Amsterdam, pop. 17,844, is particularly detailed and illustrative. There are 15 “transformational” projects aimed at enabling the upstate New York city to “transform the area into an attractive downtown core that supports growth in community events, business, and year-round recreational activity. The city plans to use participation in the DRI to welcome new businesses, visitors and residents to the city warmly referred to as ‘home.’”

Amsterdam’s DRI-funded projects include: Strengthen Chuctanunda Creek Trail’s Downtown Presence ($288,728); Transform Southside into a Vibrant, Walkable Community (including a boardwalk, improved streetscape and civic spaces, $312,785); Construct Waterfront Entertainment Destination, a catalyst for future investment ($60,000); Transform Part of Highway into Public Open Space ($547,087); Create a Gateway to the Downtown District (make the intersection pedestrian-friendly, attract visitors to patronize downtown businesses with public art, new lighting, landscape improvements, sidewalks and signage, $1,000,000); Create a Community Dog Park ($323,400); Relocate and Enhance Skate Park to complement the new recreation center ($93,000); Install Streetscape Improvements on Bridge and Main Streets ($350,000); Launch Unified Marketing and Wayfinding Campaign ($500,000); Establish Design Guidelines to Create a Cohesive Downtown ($50,000); Establish matching grant Downtown Improvement Fund to promote projects including mixed-uses and that will create jobs and advance community revitalization goals ($600,000); Renovate and Expand the Free Library ($1,800,000); Create Community and Recreation Centers ($2,500,000); Transform Key Bank Building into Mixed-Use Anchor ($1,000,000); Renovate Samuel Sweet Canal Store ($275,000).

Amsterdam, among other winning downtowns, developed a Strategic Investment Plan to revitalize its downtown using $300,000 in planning funds from the $10 million DRI grant. “A local planning committee made up of municipal representatives, community leaders, and other stakeholders led the effort, supported by a team of private sector experts and state planners,” the governor’s office said. The Strategic Investment Plan for downtown Amsterdam examined local assets and opportunities and identified economic development, transportation, housing, and community projects that align with the community’s vision for downtown revitalization and that are poised for implementation.”

Other recent winners include Lockport, pop. 20,569 (10 projects); Auburn, pop. 26,704 (13 projects); New Rochelle, pop. 79,946 (six projects) and Oswego, pop. 17,465 (17 projects).

Notably, several downtowns received the $10 million without even making specific proposals for projects, including Peekskill, pop. 24,272; Fulton, pop. 11,906, Niagara Falls, pop. 48,460 and notably, Baldwin, Long Island, pop. 24,033 (see specifics at www.ny.gov/programs/downtown-revitalization-initiative).

“Baldwin’s targeted area for DRI investment centers on the commercial corridor of Grand Avenue with its proximity to the Baldwin Long Island Rail Road station and the surrounding cluster of retail, commercial, institutional, and public recreation uses,” according to the governor’s office. “The town has embarked on a strategic, holistic approach to revitalizing downtown Baldwin with innovative zoning and design guidelines geared towards building a vibrant center of economic activity and priming the area for investment. Leveraging this effort as a framework for future development, the DRI award will advance the community’s vision for a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use downtown centered on an active LIRR station.”

Are any of these communities more deserving or more desirable than the greater Great Neck Peninsula, with 36,000 population?

The GNVOA should take the initiative and engage all our entities: nine villages, North Hempstead, Great Neck Park District, Great Neck Public Schools, Great Neck Library, Nassau County (owns roads, Saddle Rock Grist Mill), Long Island Rail Road, Great Neck Water Pollution Control District (renewable energy! reusable treated water!); and Great Neck North Water District.

Most significantly, engage the community: What is your vision? What should be on the greater Great Neck’s project wishlist? And remember, we are all quite literally connected.

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