Extreme Makeover: Long Island Edition

Long Island really has it all. Safe neighborhoods with beautiful homes, great schools and universities, a beautiful coastline, and a high-quality rail network that links it to one of the economic and cultural capitals of the world.

Then again, Long Island also has congested roads, unaffordable homes, diminishing open space, limited employment opportunities and a shrinking population of young people.

Which is the true portrait of Long Island?

Truth is, both are. And so, as any makeover expert will tell you, if Long Island really wants to put its best face forward and remain a competitive and attractive place in the region, it should focus on enhancing its best qualities and improve on its weaknesses.

RPA was recently involved in two projects on Long Island, the results of which offer a kind of guide to making the most of the Island's assets. If willing to consider a new way forward, Long Island could just be transformed into the Island it was born to be.

The first project, the NYMTC-funded Long Island 2035 Visioning Initiative, was a collaborative effort between RPA, Vision Long Island, Sustainable Long Island and University Transportation Research Center, and it was guided by an Executive Committee managed by the Long Island Regional Planning Council. The purpose of the project was, in effect, to hold a very large mirror up to the Island. (And it was one of those high-magnification mirrors with lights that really show all the bumps and wrinkles.) By looking ahead to the year 2035 — when NYMTC projections show that the Island could be gaining 461,000 new residents and 280,000 new jobs if the capacity is available — the report outlines what challenges the Island will confront if it continues to develop as it has so far. But the report isn't all bad news.

More than 150 of Long Island's municipal leaders and stakeholders participated in an interactive, visioning workshop to identify strategies to accommodate the economic growth projected by NYMTC without sacrificing Long Island's greatest assets. Poring over a very large map of Long Island with small chips, each representing a certain number of new residents or new jobs, participants were asked to place these chips in appropriate locations throughout the Island.

It was immediately clear that current sprawl development patterns could not accommodate the growth projected by NYMTC - there simply is not enough land left. And so, participants developed three alternative scenarios that do accommodate the projected growth and preserve the natural landscapes that are Long Island's best feature.

One scenario was called "Distributed Growth," and it closely resembled the Island's current sprawl development pattern, but in a more controlled and thoughtful manner, with some more growth accommodated in existing downtowns, and some valuable open spaces preserved.

Another alternative, "Transit Communities," would capitalize on the extensive LIRR rail network by focusing much of the growth in the Island's over 100 downtowns and station areas, where existing infrastructure can easily accommodate more development.

A third alternative, "Growth Centers," also looks to downtowns, but emphasizes building intense mixed-use communities in large underutilized spaces, including former industrial sites and airfields. These last two alternatives would take development pressure off Long Island's remaining open space, which could then be permanently protected with aggressive open space preservation measures.

None of these scenarios would do away with the Long Island we all know and love. The Island would continue to be predominantly made up of single-family neighborhoods. The only difference is that most new housing development would be in multi-family neighborhoods, mostly in downtowns and on land that is currently underdeveloped. This is a dramatically different approach than Long Island is taking today.

But just how much developable land is available within downtowns and around rail stations on Long Island? How many homes could be accommodated?

Those were the central questions of a second recent RPA research project, this time for the 2010 Long Island Index. The new "Places to Grow" report shows that there are roughly 8,300 acres of unbuilt land in over 150 village downtowns and rail station areas. The Long Island Index Interactive Map website shows parcel after parcel of parking fields, vacant lots and otherwise unbuilt land, right in the heart of downtowns all across Long Island. Developing only half of the 8,300 acres with a mix of townhouses, garden apartments and apartment buildings could yield 90,000 residential units. By contrast, 90,000 single family homes would consume the rest of the Island's remaining unprotected open space.

The "Places to Grow" report helps to shine a light on those downtowns with the greatest development potential. The good news is, there are a number of municipal leaders and elected officials on Long Island who understand these opportunities and are working to re-make their communities into 21st century editions. As they set the example, there is hope that Long Island can use these coming years to unlock the great potential within.