Viewpoint: Revitalized Great Neck Village Officials Association looks to Complete Streets strategy for Middle Neck Road

Karen Rubin

Good news! I’m hearing about a reinvigorated Great Neck Village Officials Association under the new leadership of incoming president, Great Neck Estates Mayor Billy Warner and vice president, Thomaston Mayor Steven Weinberg, which is eyeing a Complete Streets strategy to make-over and revitalize Middle Neck Road, the Peninsula’s Main Street.

We used to have a GNVOA that recognized the importance of working together for a “greater Great Neck” which accomplished important things about emergency management, sanitation and the water supply.

The village officials have finally recognized they need to work together for a Peninsula-long improvement and revitalization of Middle Neck Road, which is the main artery and commercial center for the entire Peninsula, all nine villages and unincorporated areas.

“The reason I took the job was to do whatever I can, we can, to revitalize the Middle Neck Road corridor, starting at the Plaza, moving down Great Neck Estates and ending in the Old Village,” Mayor Warner told me.

The first GNVOA meeting in September will be the kickoff. The organization intends to draw upon the expertise of Eric Alexander and Vision Long Island – and the new intensity was triggered after the Revitalizing Downtown forum held in the spring by Blank Slate Media and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock.

“We want to do something interesting – bringing together developers, municipalities, to improve the downtown such that young people want to move here.”

At the recent Downtown Revitalization forum that Blank Slate Media hosted, Nassau County Deputy Commissioner of Public Works Shawn Sallie said was very willing to work in conjunction with the village officials before the county goes ahead with its once-in-a-generation-or-two repaving project, to incorporate Complete Streets strategies that promote economic revitalization as much as quality-of-life.

More pedestrian and biking-friendly artery means a safer road and a more pleasant experience for everyone.

“That meeting got me jazzed,” Mayor Warner said. “I am very interested in doing what we can. – take on all the obstacles, the Amazon obstacles. Brick-and-mortar stores are on the way out.”

“I listened to Ralph Ekstrand, the mayor of Farmingdale [ and president of the Nassau County Village Officials Association]. This can be done. I don’t think about recession-proof stuff, but certainly, we can do better. We offer very attractive commuting, in a short time we will be able to go into Grand Central on the LIRR. We offer things that others don’t. To think about how we can revitalize, minimize traffic, making shuttles, Citibikes to get up/down Middle Neck Road…Yes- we need money to do this. And because we’re all different villages with different codes, boards, we are not seamless, like Farmingdale.”

All the more reason we need a robust Great Neck Village Officials Association to tackle the issues collaboratively.

We have been hearing this now for years – that the empties along Middle Neck Road are due to Amazon and e-commerce muscling retail shops out.

Yet, when you go to villages and towns, you see robust downtowns. The answer is in the kind of shops, eateries, services that contribute to “placemaking.” That means that they are sufficiently unique, interesting, and basically provide what shoppers want.

But it starts – not ends – with Complete Streets that beautify and make a Main Street attractive and safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

I saw this first hand just this week on a trip to hike in California’s South Yuba River State Park. That brought us to two neighboring small villages: Grass Valley, population 12,000, and Nevada City, population 3,000, both with vibrant downtowns, chock-a-block full of interesting specialty shops and eateries and services that Amazon can’t replace.

These are towns that were built on mining and you can bet both Nevada City and Grass Valley underwent significant decline after the mines shut down. But they rebuilt, they created a sense of place, a place where people want to come, stay over, and so many want to live, that there is a rental housing shortage.

That night, we also discovered they were having an art walk – when the galleries (so many galleries!) were open late, some had music and served wine and cheese, there was a band playing outside on bump-outs that were turned into seating areas for outdoor dining and for music (actually taking away parking spots). The restaurants are special, memorable, places you want to return to.

There are brass historic markers on every significant (even insignificant) buildings that add interest and importance.

Buildings have been repurposed to serve today’s interests and needs, not yesterday’s. In Grass Valley a bank building has been turned into a bakery (the teller counter is where they serve ice cream), gift shops and a hair salon (which has the bank vault); the old City Council building is a restaurant; the Independent newspaper building is something else. Instead of an assay office, there is a variety of consulting services – notably ones that have to do with the environment.

We returned to Nevada City on Saturday morning for its Farmers’ Market – locals and visitors alike were there.

We came for hiking, and stayed (and spent money) for the dining, shopping, art and concerts.

Visitors benefit a community: they spend money, support local businesses and enterprises, but don’t overtax the infrastructure (schools, and such), as residents do.

Our community thinks way too small – you want economic prosperity but not increase in population, you want affordability but don’t want density.

Well, you can have both those things if you promote more visitors – people who come to shops, restaurants, our world-class Gold Coast Arts Center and International Film Festival (a major economic engine for Our Town), and cultural and historical attractions, then leave. When you think back to when Great Neck was vibrant, it was when we had interesting restaurants and specialty shops.

Communities around the world have had that epiphany. Time for Great Neck to get some enlightenment.

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