No one from the Village of Great Neck government was at the Vision Long Island Complete Streets summit this month, but the village’s consultant, VHB, which has received $100,000 to do a Corridor Study for the village, was a presenter.
Still, had Mayor Pedram Bral or a trustee or the public works superintendent been there, they would have had a better “vision” for the village, which is now contemplating the most dramatic redevelopment of Middle Neck Road and East Shore Road in its history.
As it is, the draft document (which can be seen online), which the mayor has said is just a survey, just the opening to a conversation about redevelopment, is unintelligible, impossible to visualize.
The single message that comes through is that the village is looking for more mixed-use development, more multi-family, senior and affordable housing construction, and the singular tool it can use to get it is new incentive zoning.
In a word, more density, as the way to dig the village out of its moribund state.
What’s interesting is that most of the properties along Middle Neck Road are highlighted by VHB as “properties of interest.” What does that mean? Well, if a property owner says they want to build a five-story apartment building, just ask.
But had the mayor or any other village official been at the Complete Streets Summit, he would have seen what making a hazardous road like Middle Neck Road safer for pedestrians and cyclists could also calm traffic (and motorists), beautify the streetscape, encourage people to stroll and linger and spend money at the stores and cafes which the mayor dreams will open in the village.
He would have seen examples of villages that have undertaken Complete Streets improvements – the before and after photos – like the project underway on Grand Avenue in Baldwin – and learned of New York State Complete Streets legislation, met Glenn Murrell of state Department of Transportation which hands out grants to villages (like Great Neck Plaza which has used them so effectively).
He would have heard from Jivanna Bennaeim whose husband was killed by a hit-and-run driver crossing Middle Neck Road on his way to the railroad, who has become active in Families for Safe Streets; and from Sylvia Silberger of Car-Less Long Island about incorporating transportation alternatives to cars. Perhaps he would have gotten new ideas of how to connect the Old Village with the Long Island Railroad, which would be an asset for home values – a cutesy trolley car like in Del Ray Beach, Florida, or Louisville, Kentucky, perhaps, supported with advertising and merchants.
He would have heard from Bernard Macias of AARP NY, which has some 300 volunteers who are happy to do a walkability study of a village, free of charge. “We want people to age in place. It takes engineering and education, but it takes community elected leadership and community inclusiveness and consideration to make walkability in a community happen, and make a community livable.
“Great Neck Plaza is great example of community-elected leadership that took the baton of age-friendly liveable communities. The Plaza created an action plan and is building off it.” Indeed, North Hempstead and Great Neck Plaza are two of the 17 communities designated “age-friendly” in New York State.
The timing is critical because Middle Neck Road, a Nassau County road, is due to be completely repaved as soon as 2019.
That would be the village’s once-in-a-generation opportunity to work together with the county to make the road safer, and the village more walkable, bikeable, aesthetic. And that would benefit the merchants and landlords, as well.
Mayor Pedram’s redevelopment strategy, it seems, boils down to encourage merchants and landlords one by one as properties changeover, is foolish – at that rate, women will reach income parity before the village has a liveable, workable streetscape.
The mayor speaks with tremendous pride over getting the new bakery to open a rooftop sitting area, which required a waiver.
But in fact, the village has little control over what merchants come. What a village does have control over, though, is the streetscape and zoning.
You can’t just open your arms to four and five-story buildings without also addressing what happens to traffic and demands on infrastructure.
So if higher density structures – assisted living facilities, workforce housing, senior housing – are being pursued, there has to be a code requiring the property owner to provide shuttle transportation to the railroad, either just for the building or in concert with other buildings. They could also be required to offer a certain number of zip cars to their residents, like at the Avalon development on East Shore Road, where the residents are completely dependent on cars, in exchange for requiring fewer parking spots.
There needs to be a plan to beautify Middle Neck Road (and East Shore Road).
How does a village pay for sidewalk improvements?
Well, most villages have a Business Improvement District, but the Village of Great Neck no longer does.
However, they can figure out the plan, take out a bond, and apportion the cost of annual debt service to the commercial property owners who benefit.
Right now, the Mayor’s next step toward achieving his highly ambitious redevelopment plan is to appoint a committee of individuals with varying degrees of expertise in development (a real estate developer is on the committee, but not allowed to have any commercial interest in the village).
Their function (which sounds more like a civic association which the Village of Great Neck also lacks) seems to be more of a sounding board and a public relations liaison to residents, who very likely will hear “higher density” and freak.
“The reason behind the study is to learn what kind of incentives [will promote development in the village],” Mayor Bral told me. “Not to go overboard… to invite developers to make enough money to do what we as residents want – we want walkable, invitable, new, stores, enough light. We are asking the advisory committee to come up with ways to light sidewalks to be more inviting.”
“My vision,” Mayor Bral said, “is to revitalize Middle Neck Road to what it used to be, the jewel of the tri-state – people from Connecticut, New Jersey, other parts of Nassau County, and Suffolk would want to come to shop, dine, walk. How do I get there without destroying our infrastructure? We have limited resources… My job is to find the right incentive with the use of VHB and the committee to bring in the right investors, developers to do something that isn’t going to overcrowd the village, not lose its character, but bring back the delight, what we used to have. “
Let me tell you, Middle Neck Road in the Old Village was never “the jewel of the tri-state” or a destination.
“I give my word to a developer, to do what it takes and I won’t quit until he puts something, totally different, out of this world, nowhere else – except perhaps Manhattan. Rooftop seating – no one thought that could be done. . . I am very proud of what I was able to accomplish – because of that, across the street, Everfresh is doing the same – will change the façade.”
For the mayor’s edification, I will provide the essentials of Complete Streets, which came out of the Vision Long Island summit:
Walk appeal is key.
This isn’t just a matter of safety but yields economic benefits: it raises property values, promotes economic activity; and households, particularly those seniors you are looking to draw, can do without a second car; health benefits; environmental benefits; social equity benefits; and other benefits such as reducing taxing wear and tear on roadways, traffic and parking demands.
“Properly designed complete streets benefit all roadway users, create a sense of community, promote local businesses, leverage growth and vitality.” You know who said that” Marwa Farwaz of VHB, the consultant the village paid $100,000 to do its Corridor study. “Complete Streets are a catalyst for economic development and downtown revitalization.”
And if you want to see examples, you don’t have to travel to Saratoga Springs, Sarasota or Del Ray Beach, Fla.; Louisville, Ky., Westbury, Farmingdale, Port Washington or any exotic, faraway place.
Just mosey up Middle Neck Road to Great Neck Plaza and you will see all the elements of Complete Streets and transit-oriented development.
Here’s a radical idea: have VHB to come up with a visual design that you can present to your residents and give your committee something to chew over.