Viewpoint: Great Neck Village should adopt Complete Streets Strategy for Middle Neck Road

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Great Neck village residents have made clear what they don’t want from “revitalized” incentive re-zoning (code for allowing higher density), forcing the village board to withdraw the legislation.

Now they will have the opportunity to say how they want to revitalize their village, at a town hall on April 8, 7:30 pm, at Great Neck House. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, who has advocated for Complete Streets and Revitalized Downtowns and put the county’s support behind local efforts, is expected to attend.

The village approached the process from the wrong end. If the problem that the village wants to solve is filling the empty commercial spaces (a problem that is actually everywhere, even in Great Neck Plaza which already has introduced higher-density and Transit-Oriented Development; Manhasset; New York City and all across Main Street America), the solution needs to start with a Complete Streets strategy.

That is, instead of offering incentive zoning to build bigger (which the village already has, apparently no takers? Or developers have been put on hold? It was never made clear) the Middle Neck Road corridor should be more walkable, bikeable, aesthetically pleasing so that people will want to spend their time there and merchants will have customers.

It is so ironic, given the vigorous opposition and condemnation of the VHB “generic draft environmental impact study” and recommendations that were based, apparently, on 2013 traffic levels and other pie-in-the-sky projections, that last year and this, VHB was the presenter of the Complete Streets strategy at Vision Long Island’s conference.

Some 100 people were there, including representatives of Manhasset, Huntington, Baldwin, Babylon, Valley Stream, Hempstead, Ronkonkoma, Freeport, Farmingdale, the Town of North Hempstead, even the Shinnecock Indians, but as in years past, no one from the Village of Great Neck.

They would have heard of seven case studies of projects to revitalize downtowns and make communities safer, more liveable, stimulating economic development and quality of life from places like Lynbrook, Baldwin (Grand Avenue), Seacliff, Lindenhurst, Long Beach, Atlantic Beach, Suffolk County.

They would have met the state Department of Transportation Region 10 head who hands out millions of dollars in grants to improve streets (go to the website, www.dot.ny.gov, to learn of Complete Streets and Transportation Alternatives Program grant programs); would have learned how Nassau County is working with localities to improve their downtowns; would have met the AARP regional director who is happy to send a team of volunteers to do a free “walkability” audit and make suggestions.

The common theme: engage all the stakeholders early on and throughout. Have a mission, goals, collect data, involve stakeholders (again) in the design.

Frank Weffering, of the consultancy Greenman Pederson Inc., gave background on the village of Lindenhurst’s “Walkability Study” for a project to achieve downtown revitalization, economic development, connectivity, accessibility, sense of community (placemaking), attractiveness, safety, public health.

“There were lots of vacant stores, every fifth or sixth store vacant until recently,” he said. “It’s very important is to get the community on board, get public buy-in, get the opinions, feedback, let people know how we proceed.” They conducted six Lindenwalks with different groups of stakeholders, taking different routes, different times of day, even a night walk.

Had the village of Great Neck come to the conference, they would have learned about the communities that won the $10 million state Downtown Revitalization grant through the Long Island Regional Economic Council — and if they really had an interest why their proposal lost (and when I heard the summary, no wonder), they could have read through the winning projects from Westbury, Hicksville, and Central Islip which each won the $10 million.

They would realize how a goal to make the village more liveable, walkable, and promote alternative transportation to the Long Island Railroad would more likely win that funding.

They would have learned of the essential need for outreach and community engagement, and methods to bring all the stakeholders into the process (an interactive website that invites comments; software that projects how a recommendation would look like once implemented, even animated).

And they would have learned why Complete Streets is such an excellent strategy for communities as the base for economic development and to relieve pressure on the tax base — to the extent that Gov. Cuomo signed Complete Streets Legislation in 2011, unleashing millions of dollars for communities.

Indeed, Dan Winkelman of VHB (the same consultant that the village hired to come up with recommendations for the incentive zoning, who worked on the Baldwin Downtown commercial Corridor and Resiliency Study, and is working on Downtown Kings Park), offered a list of National Best Practices for Complete Street Projects. Things need to be done early on:

Scoping: collect all the data you need in order to make sound decisions — vehicle, volume data, crash data, pedestrian injury/fatality data. “Without that information, you can’t come to conclusion on recommendations or back up recommendations.”

Consideration needs to be given to how the community is likely to change over 10 years.

Community input, stakeholder input: “First, foremost, it is extremely important to get this early at the outset of the project. Make sure you have info from all the key players; without it, you really won’t get the support of the community behind you. I cannot stress how important it is to get input early.”

Outreach, education and training: provide case studies, results of similar projects that were successful, statistics that support. This is especially important if a “road diet” is part of the proposal.

Here’s my proposal to revitalize Middle Neck Road: Put it on a “road diet” which means one lane of traffic in each direction with a bike lane or separation from parked cars, bump outs for small shuttle bus (perhaps a cutesy-pie trolley) to pull in, and left turning lanes, pretty up the median so that it doesn’t impede visibility of ongoing traffic, put in passive parks and pretty street lighting and flower planters (like the Plaza).

This needs to be done in conjunction with Nassau County (she was a major figure behind the Baldwin/Grand Avenue revitalization and cited how Great Neck Plaza has won a $400,000 grant to improve the intersection at Middle Neck Road and Barstow). Middle Neck Road is a county road and the county is apparently supposed to repave it — a once in a 20 or 30-year proposition — so maybe should be put off until planning is in place. Then work on business development strategies, community events and activities, zoning that encourages mixed-use development.

And what about collaborating with the Great Neck Village Officials Association for a Complete Streets/Transportation Alternatives project that would extend the length of Middle Neck Road corridor?

The Great Neck Park District deserves huge praise for piloting its Buzz bus program. That should be in partnership with the entire Peninsula, especially as Long Island Railroad opens up the Grand Central link, which is expected to increase railroad ridership by 20 to 30 percent.

“A lot is going on in the county when it comes to Complete Streets,” Curran said. “It is all part of my plan for making Nassau County a place to live, work and play — it creates better quality of life, more active, easier to get places, and reduces congestion.”

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