Viewpoint: Holiday spirit comes to Great Neck. Will it last?

Viewpoint: Holiday spirit comes to Great Neck. Will it last?
Karen Rubin, Columnist

Kudos to the Great Neck Park District for introducing a new holiday event on the Village Green, Lights and Ice. Great Neck’s first Winter Wonderland was a spirited affair bringing cheer to everyone and bringing people together – something that has been lacking, along with a sense of community.

At the recent Vision Long Island Smart Growth event, I listened as one Long Island village and town after another crowed about how festivals and events have helped revitalize their downtowns and reinvigorate a sense of community.

The theme for the summit, actually, was “collaboration” and along with the festivals and events were success stories about Smart Growth, transit-oriented development and Complete Streets projects that actually managed to surmount immovable walls of opposition – the knee jerk reaction that comes when any new project or program is proposed.

Village mayors and town supervisors could not hide emotions that seemed to be a combination of surprise and elation.

“All these projects would not have done without people working together, left, right, environmentalists, civics, people of all races, backgrounds, cultures,” said Eric Alexander, Vision Long Island’s director. “Grand Avenue, Baldwin. Westbury has a phenomenal [transit-oriented development] plan. That only happens with collaboration, bottom-up.”

The most common theme was how each of the projects began with extensive, intensive outreach to inform and engage all stakeholders, often resulting in compromise and modifications. One of the projects was 41 years in the making. Even The Hub at Nassau Coliseum seems like it is finally happening after decades of starts and stops.

Village of Farmingdale Mayor Ralph Ekstrand relating success in rebuilding the downtown using transit-oriented development said the first step is to “get people active in community events. We have four parades from St Patricks to Columbus Day, Spring Fling on Main Street, and we recently renamed Main Street Culinary Corner…You have to have village events.” Farmingdale gives a prize to high school students for the best decorated hand-painted window. “That gets the community involved.”

“For many years, like so many downtowns, big box stores took out the small mom and pop stores. We needed to change ‘stinkin’ thinking’ – to convince folks to rethink,” Lindenhurst Mayor Michael Lavoratat said. “Small business had to change. We looked to what Patchogue was doing: creating more restaurants, family-friendly businesses. My daughter would go to Babylon because we didn’t have restaurants or places people wanted to attend. While other villages were moving forward with transit-oriented development around the train station, we were behind the eight ball. We put it into hyper speed to catch up.”

Westbury Village Mayor Peter Cavallaro boasted that just the night before, after 2 ½ years, a project was concluded, funded by a state $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant, that rezoned 50 acres of property adjacent to the train into 7 subzones of transit-oriented development, which, after a 15-year period for the full build-out, would result in 1,500 multi-family residential units.

“We did a lot of outreach. Vision helped,” Cavallaro said. “We got 500 comments, more supportive of housing for millennials and kids for people living here than for seniors or age-restricted. Housing code incentivizes all: micro-housing, vets, age-restricted – we want a plethora of housing choices. We proactively met with the school board before we made a proposal. If we would have 1500 units of housing, what would that do to the school district?

The Westbury school district has burgeoned over the last decade. We developed statistics from specific projects on Long Island and nationally (Vision helped us) which showed the number of students would be far less than feared, but the additional revenue, even with PILOTs [Payment In Lieu of Taxes offered to incentivize development], would far outweigh the cost of educating additional students.

So the opposition was less than 10 years ago. But we needed to be proactive, develop the information to sell the project, then there would be more acceptance for housing oriented to younger people. We would rather our kids not move to Texas or North Carolina, but they need the housing options to stay.”

“Transit-oriented development is the best answer for redeveloping communities that have suffered,“ Cavallaro said. Indeed, out of 140 storefronts on Post Avenue, there are only three or four vacancies, “so we have an almost fully utilized downtown…. We were fortunate we had virtually no opposition to the project…. We are trying to get greater diversity of services and retail in our downtown, and as we get new consumers and new developments, we will see the diversity of services.

Central Islip was one of the latest to receive the state’s $10 million downtown revitalization development grants. “Everyone was involved,” said Central Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter. “It was an intense process… expedited over 9 months. The community was engaged.” Among the projects: $600,000 for storefront revitalization in amounts of $25,000. “Bay Shore is a poster child for community coming together We’re seeing exciting growth, activity. Friday nights now, people are walking on the street, going to restaurants and more are coming.”

And then I think of the greater Great Neck. It seemed a good start that Great Neck Estates Mayor Billy Warner, the new president of the Great Neck Village Officials Association, convened the GNVOA for the first time in ages, and brought in Eric Alexander of Vision Long Island to give some guidance for revitalization.

What he found instead was individual fiefdoms with little interest in working together to forge a Complete Streets, downtown revitalization plan that would benefit the entire Great Neck peninsula (maybe even a collaborative application to win a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant from the state?).

Sure, what Russell Gardens, Thomaston, and Kings Points need will be different from Great Neck Estates, Kensington and the Village of Great Neck, but all are dependent upon access to the Long Island Railroad, all have pressures to keep property taxes down which means expanding the tax base, not shrinking it.

Alas, the only elected from Great Neck Peninsula I spotted at the Smart Growth Summit to learn about success stories and strategies were Great Neck Plaza Mayor Jean Celender, who has embraced Smart Growth and Complete Streets strategies for years, and North Hempstead town officials.

Great Neck needs to rekindle the spirit of a Greater Great Neck. For now, find that Great Neck spirit at the Village Green. Great Neck’s winter wonderland runs through Sunday, Jan. 12.

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