Testimony on Heartland Town Square Project

The testimony below was presented by RPA Associate Planner Vanessa Barrios on April 26, 2017 before the Town of Islip Planning Board regarding the Heartland Town Square Project. 

I am here today to testify on the proposed amendments to the zoning chapter of the Code of the Town of Islip (Chapter 68 of the Code of the Town of Islip) for the Heartland Town Square project. The Heartland project has potential to help meet Long Island’s acute need for housing that is affordable for young adults and families, a growing senior population and low-income renters. There are few locations with this much development capacity, and few projects of this magnitude that have made it this far in the lengthy process of planning, reviews and approvals.  

However, the project’s scale and location also require that it receive particular scrutiny. For these reasons, the project should meet higher aspirations in three areas:

Affordable Housing, Segregation and Opportunity: 
Long Island, Suffolk County and the Town of Islip have great potential to thrive in the 21st century, but there are deep challenges to address.  Leading the list of challenges is a desperate need for housing that is affordable to Long Islanders of all incomes.

  • Over the last 25 years, Long Island has lost more of its younger residents – 16% - than anywhere else in the New York region in great part because they cannot afford to live here. Even though incomes are higher here than in many other suburban areas, incomes are largely consumed by housing costs, which are $9,500/year higher than a comparable area in New Jersey’s Passaic county. More than half of Long Islanders are housing cost burdened. And a third are severely housing cost burdened, paying more than half their income in rent. These housing costs have a huge effect on the ability of Long Island’s younger population to start careers and families. In 2013, an RPA study for the Long Island Community Foundation found that two-thirds of Long Islanders in their 20s, and a quarter in their 30s, live with parents, grandparents, or other older relatives.
  • But retaining its young people is not the only problem. Long Island has dauntingly high levels of housing segregation that limit the potential of its residents and island overall. The Town of Islip itself is severely segregated, with many lower income residents and people of color living in isolated areas, despite working throughout the town.

To solve these challenges, Long Island needs to build the kind of housing that makes sense: multifamily, mixed-income housing close to transit and amenities. Available land for single-family development is scarce, with only 38,000 single-family units built on Long Island since 2000 – compare that with 233,000 single-family homes built in the 40s and 50s. Most of Long Island’s future housing growth will be in multi-family homes, primarily in downtowns and near transit. An RPA study for the Long Island Index found 8,300 acres of potential land with ½ mile of downtown areas that could support 90,000 new multifamily homes. Even this amount, which will be challenging to achieve, will not meet all of Long Island’s future needs. Long Island has made progress in recent years in creation of multifamily housing near transit, but demand continues to grow. According to the  Long Island Index, only 17% of Long Islanders currently live in multifamily housing, while fully 30% expect to live in multifamily housing in five years.

And second, we need to make sure this housing is available for everyone. This can be accomplished by building housing that meets the needs of low, moderate and middle-income households, and ensuring fair housing regulations are strongly enforced. Thus, RPA recommends the Heartland plan reserve more units at deeper levels of affordability, in order to promote a mixed-income, diverse community.

Improving Transit Accessibility and Reducing Vehicle Miles Traveled:

The Heartland Project would be more than 2 miles from the nearest Long Island Rail Road station in Deer Park. While two bus routes currently serve the area, current service levels would not meet the needs of a project of this size, and Suffolk Transit service continues to be cut. The shuttle bus service to the Deer Park Long Island Railroad station should be part of existing Suffolk Transit service and must be frequent and reliable enough provide a viable commuting option for town residents. There are many features to consider in the provision of more reliable service, including dedicated bus lanes, signal preference, seamless boarding procedures and comfortable amenities, including bus shelters. There should also be a guarantee for shuttle bus service in the long term, so service is not cut or eliminated after a few years.  Safe biking and walking routes to the station should also be considered. In an effort to reduce for the number of car trips that are needed, we recommend allowing the applicant to further reduce parking space requirements by devoting spots to shared-car services.

The urban design proposals in the proposed conceptual master plan are exciting. The location of amenities near each other, tree-plantings and more will go far in promoting healthier living my town residents and visitors. RPA recommends priority be placed in tenanting grocery stores and other amenities earlier on in the phasing, in order to incentivize more people to stay within the town center and walk to their daily errands

Serving as Stewards of Our Environment, and the Water Table:

RPA recommends making Heartland a state of the art example of green infrastructure and permeability, and continue to monitor the water quality as the project is built.

To close, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. The project proposal has evolved in a positive direction over the last 15 years, and we are urge the applicant to continue in the direction of using this catalytic investment to foster a diverse, mixed-income community with a high quality of life and access to the great opportunities that Long Island has to offer. Thank you for your attention.