Plaza continues tradition with zoning plan

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The Village of Great Neck Plaza, with a history that goes back to 1930 and a heritage that warrants a Historic Preservation Commission, is in many respects the model of a modern municipality. Over the years, Great Neck Plaza has used its zoning power to achieve important social objectives, which in these days, means balancing growth with preserving scale and character – progress with preservation, as it were.

Years ago, when there was a need for senior housing, the village introduced zoning and incentivized the building of two assisted living facilities. Then, when there seemed to be adequate supply, they changed the zoning again, cutting off the spigot.

They have used zoning in a progressive fashion to incentivize affordable housing, and used their authority to issue conditional use permits to get property owners to beautify the village with brick paving.

And they have used their zoning power to provide a very satisfying environment for both residential and commercial uses.

In essence, now, Great Neck Plaza leads the way in a growing trend toward communities which afford ample opportunities to work and live (rather than commute), or walk to mass transportation to get to their jobs, avoiding the stress on one’s emotional state as well as the environment by having to drive to work.

In this respect, Great Neck Plaza – just a quarter square mile and the most congested village in New York State – is more urban than suburban, more like Park Slope than Massapequa Park, and more on the cutting edge of 21st century lifestyle.

On Wednesday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m. the Great Neck Plaza Board of Trustees will hold a public hearing to consider a proposed local law amending its code to allow residential apartments as a conditional use in the Business B District and to increase the height limitations applicable to mixed use residential buildings in said district within the Village of Great Neck Plaza.

While it used to be common to have mixed-use buildings – the proverbial apartment over the shop below – this is the latest trend among sustainable communities – providing for economic vitality without choking off quality of life for residents. It is the essence of “Smart Growth” – allowing the best economic return for property owners (and tax revenue for municipalities) with the least pressure from density.

But in actuality, the Plaza was always reflective of changing social needs, from its earliest days of settlement in the 1600s, to its agrarian and mercantile heritage in the 1800s, to the early 1900s, when the village’s proximity to New York City, and its station on the Long Island Railroad line, spurred new development.

William Russell Grace, industrialist and former Mayor of New York City, was largely responsible for the real estate development, building some of the most iconic buildings, including the Grace Building and 8 Bond Street (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), which he built as mixed-use, with apartments and offices above retail shops.

In many respects, the Plaza is returning to a time-tested land-use strategy.

“The aim is to stimulate economic revitalization of the downtown, our business district, and to encourage mixed use development – including retail on the first, residential or commercial office, civic and other types of complimentary uses, and investments into these properties such as facade and building improvements,” Village of Great Neck Plaza Mayor Jean Celender explained.

The rezoning, she said, is to spur “redevelopment opportunities that can add new life, with investment of public and private resources.

“It allows sustainable development that isn’t overburdening.” Celender said. “We’re doing it on conditional use basis – project by project, to allow flexibility.”

The new zoning would also make revitalization projects in the Plaza eligible for New York Main Street grants (yes, there is still money) – something that Mayor Celender, who in her professional life is a planner, has been successful at, having written Manorhaven’s Main Street Grant in 2005.

New York State Main Street Program supports revitalization of business districts and “strongly encourages” mixed-use (residences on upper floors above commercial) – which means that projects that have these elements get favorable scoring toward winning grants.

Under the “Downtown Anchor Program,” mixed-use projects receive “priority consideration” for funding up to $250,000 per building (not to exceed 40% of the total project cost).

Mayor Celender said that in order to secure Main Street grants, the zoning for the downtown must be in place and this zoning must meet certain guidelines, so the zoning study and amendments are the first step.  However, winning grants isn’t the sole motivation for the rezoning – better land use and revitalization of the downtown are the major motivations.

“We have focused a lot of our zoning over the past decade on the C2- the area that straddles the railroad, and hadn’t looked at improvements to B district,” she said. “We were looking at Main Street program grant and realized it might be time to really look at it, see the potential, and make [B district zoning] more in line with the Main Street grant program, so that when we rezone, would have rezone consistent with that.”

Spurring redevelopment in this way can also help achieve another goal of the village – generating more affordable housing by providing a financial underpinning in commercial use.

As is typical with the Plaza, the issue has been considered and studied for the past year; the village hired professional planning consultants Cameron Engineering & Associates, to analyze the merits and consequences of rezoning. Cameron made a presentation at the November 3 village board meeting.

According to the Cameron report, rezoning to permit for mixed-use will:

Support local businesses. The current economic downturn has hurt local merchants, service providers and property owners. Allowing mixed-use development would offer property owners and owner-operators greater flexibility in responding to evolving market conditions.

Increase activity within the downtown. Mixed uses tend to increase activity within business districts. Downtowns tend to bustle with activity during regular, 9-to-5 business hours, but fold up in the evenings. By encouraging residential uses within the downtown and increasing the resident population, stores, restaurants and other businesses can remain open, increasing business activity. Meanwhile, residents benefit from the increased opportunities for social interaction with more to do.

Provide greater housing options. Young professionals are leaving Long Island because of limited housing options. At the same time, the “baby-boomers” – the largest population block in the United States – are becoming “empty-nesters” and/or retiring. Many of this generation are seeking to downsize from their current single-family homes to apartments or condominiums. Allowing mixed-use development within the Business “B” district would be aptly timed to accommodate these two demographic and social trends.

Take advantage of available state funding. The New York Main Street program provides funds to support the revitalization of mixed-use business districts. A goal of the program is to “expand affordable housing opportunities in mixed-use districts, including accessible upper floor units.” In particular, the Downtown Anchor fund within the program strongly encourages residential units on upper floors, giving such projects “priority consideration” for funding. This fund may provide gap financing up to “$250,000 per building, but not exceeding 40% of Total Project Cost.” Any residential unit that has been rehabilitated or renovated with these funds must be made available for rent to households with incomes of less than 90% of the median family income. Although this funding cannot be applied to market-rate units, the renovation of market-rate units in spaces with affordable rental units may be considered as a local match for program funds.

Promote transit-oriented land use. The mixed-use of properties meshes well with the fact that the Plaza is the hub for mass transportation – the Long Island Railroad and bus service. This makes the village a walking/biking village, energy-efficient and congestion-mitigating transportation modes.

Indeed, additional benefits and opportunities will come to the Plaza if and when the Long Island Railroad is successful with its new service into the Grand Central on Manhattan’s east side. That should stimulate even further demand for housing in Great Neck, as well as facilitate the reverse commute for East Siders who work in Great Neck.

Reduction of growth in vehicle Trips. Mixed-use development within the Business “B” district can also help mitigate current and future traffic congestion. Many current residents of Great Neck Plaza are within walking distance of the Business “B” district. And, potential future residents of the Business “B” district would live in close proximity to many of their day-to-day shopping and service needs. Such trips can be easily made by walking, thus obviating the need to drive.

Promote smart growth. Nassau County and the State of New York support the enhancement of existing centers in order to promote economic development. In fact, Gov. Paterson recently signed into law the Smart Growth Public Infrastructure Priority Act. This new law requires New York State agencies and public corporations to screen their infrastructure programs and investments to eliminate those that fund inefficient, redundant, and costly development. The intent of this law is to prevent sprawl development by channeling infrastructure investments to existing centers, such as the downtown business district of Great Neck Plaza.

Relieve Development Pressures on Land. Planners have sought alternatives to sprawl, a development pattern on Long Island and many other suburban areas that consumes land in an inefficient manner. One solution is to increase the number of residences within existing centers. Mixed-use districts are one technique for reducing sprawl.

The rezoning is not going to trigger a wave of new development, Mayor Celender said, but rather, “we think it will be slow, over many years, project by project. The reason we want conditional use is to have a handle on how it goes. We can look at a project, and If too burdensome, or not in the direction we want to go, we can modify – like when we did assisted care. After we got two, and we felt that was enough, we took it out [or the code]”

That’s the best use and rationale for the local zoning power that villages have (and what the state wants to do away with.)

Another benefit of the rezoning strategy is that it encourages revitalization and redevelopment but does not cost the village anything. In fact, property values would likely rise along with their economic viability and demand, lowering property tax rates for everyone (there is an inverse relationship between property values and tax rates).

“We want sustainable development, development that doesn’t overburden existing facilities, but in a way that allows for growth, so we can keep taxes down,” Mayor Celender said. “We want residential development of our downtown so people can utilize services, stores, restaurants, have a vibrant nightlife, but we’re not looking to change the look of the village, not make it too dense.”

It is significant to note, as well, that the Village of Great Neck is similarly planning rezoning to allow for mixed-use.

The Plaza has made documents regarding the rezoning available at its website:

www.greatneckplaza.

And you can find out about the New York Main Street program at: www.dhcr.state.ny.us/Programs/NYMainStreet/

Karen Rubin

 

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