Viewpoint: Old Village should reject incentive zoning; begin true revitalization plan

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Hardly anyone would disagree that Great Neck’s Old Village needs revitalization.

But the plan being advanced now for an incentive zoning overlay on the Middle Neck Road and East Shore Road corridors is not what I would call a “revitalization” program.

Spot development, perhaps. A windfall for developers, absolutely. Benefits to the village residents? Questionable.

By my account, the smattering of people who came forward in support of the incentive zoning plan cited the need for affordable housing – for elders to live in assisted living (apparently, the three facilities 1.5 miles away in Great Neck Plaza, with ample vacancies, are too far for Sabbath-observers) and for young Great Neckers wanting to have their own young families here.

But what makes anyone think that what affordable housing units there would be would go to native Great Neckers? And what makes anyone think that any of these big projects would result in tax revenue for the village, rather than qualify for tax abatement; one can even envision the possibility of a religious foundation “building” senior housing and claiming a religious exemption.

In fact, VHB could have incorporated into its DEIS the actual economic benefit to the village of an existing high-density, five-story building: the Avalon on East Shore Road.

And the reality is that while the village board maintains that this is only “incentive” zoning, an overlay to existing zoning that gives the board the ability to grant larger density (four and five stories) based on getting back some community benefit, after the first five-story structure is approved (on a mere five days public notice), the next one that is denied will sue claiming the denial is discriminatory or capricious, and the village will cave.

In fact, the 16 “properties of interest” along the Middle Neck Road corridor, and the 17 POIs on East Shore Road were not randomly selected or recruited; rather, initiated by the property owners interested in redeveloping.
VHB’s “environmental impact study” provides no rendering of what four or five stories would look like from the street view, or from adjacent buildings, the impact on “shadowing.”

There is no measure of impact on the value of nearby properties which lose their aesthetic view. But a property that can be tripled in size would probably triple its value, as former trustee Mark Birnbaum noted.

“Where’s the math,” a frustrated Ruth Grusercio demanded of VHB, in reaction to the statement that the projected increase of 35 trips during the “peak” pm hour on East Shore Road would have “no adverse impact.”

But that’s a 20 percent increase when now, even in early afternoon, it can take 30 minutes to go a mile to Northern Boulevard.

More questionable is the statement of “no impact” on Middle Neck Road, where the am peak traffic is expected to go from 227 to 329 trips – a 45 percent increase in volume – and the pm peak hour volume is expected to go from 378 to 461 trips, a 22 percent increase.

Meanwhile, the Village has made no attempt to redesign Middle Neck Road to calm traffic, before Nassau County undertakes a once-in-a-generation repaving.

VHB also concluded that adding 82 children to the school district would have “no impact”, that these children can be “easily absorbed” despite the study’s projection that this could cost $2,281,076 in additional property taxes.

That amounts to 1 percent of the school budget, or half of what is allowed as an annual increase under the state’s 2 percent cap, with no accommodation for increased enrollment. That prompted resident Barbara Berkowitz, who happens to have served on the school board for 27 years, to question how that number could have “no impact” or even how the 82 number was calculated, noting that Avalon has already generated 70, when the “forecast” was for 6.

To our knowledge, the Great Neck Water Pollution Control District, which would have to issue permits for the high-density buildings and certainly should have had input into the DEIS, and the Great Neck School District, were not consulted, nor even specifically notified of the presentation.

There was no mention of the need to pump more water, with the danger of salt-water intrusion into Great Neck peninsula’s water supply. “No impact. No impact.”

There is nothing in the DEIS that refers to the impacts of climate change on the proposed 17 high-density POIs on East Shore Road – the likelihood of even a few inches rise in the level of Manhasset Bay and more superstorms like Sandy, which a resident of 320 Kings Point Road said resulted in water up to her chest.

And as we noted before: this isn’t just the village of Great Neck residents who are affected by the proposed zoning increase, it affects the entire Peninsula.

I remain as skeptical that there is no cohesive plan, an actual vision, nor even the vague attempt of doing a true revitalization program involving much-needed traffic calming, streetscape and quality-of-life improvements (“Complete Streets” is the jargon of the day), that would qualify for state and county funding.

Gov. Cuomo just announced the fourth round of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative where 10 winning communities are awarded $10 million each to develop “a downtown strategic investment plan and implement catalytic projects that advance the community’s vision for revitalization.”

On Long Island, Central Islip, Hicksville and Westbury have all won these awards. Nor has the village sought DoT “Complete Streets” funding.

The village is holding its one and only public hearing on Feb. 19 (during the school vacation week), which is also the deadline to receive public comment.

Theoretically, no matter what concerns, issues or questions are raised, the board could vote to close the public hearing and then vote immediately to adopt the incentive zoning law.
So why hold a public hearing at all, if the questions, concerns, objections have no impact?

We are told that Mayor Pedram Bral may adjourn the public hearing and continue it on March 5. But we still question how much of the “citizens advisory” or the public comments or the public hearing are addressed in the new zoning.

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