When the poet Robert Frost famously came to a fork in the road, he ended up choosing the one less traveled, which — from most reports — seems to have worked out pretty well for him. Looking at Long Island, we see a place that is very much at its own crossroads. The decisions that residents and their elected leaders are making in communities across the Island today will play a significant role in how competitive and sustainable it will remain into the future.
As Long Island stands at this fork, it must decide whether to continue to follow the familiar path of auto-dependent, lower-density development for its limited amount of remaining open space; or, will it forge ahead on largely unfamiliar ground that embraces higher-density and mixed-use development centered on its robust, regional transit network? Looking at some recent decisions on the Island results are mixed, but getting hopeful.
First — and with a sigh — the bad news. Since issuing its Second Regional Plan in the 1960's, RPA has been positively bullish on the prospects for development in what is known as the Nassau Hub. This area — located at the heart of Nassau County — has long been thought of as a potential regional center. With built land available for growth, surrounded by resources such as universities, businesses, downtowns, roadways and transit, all the ingredients exist for a higher density, mixed-use center. Over the years, various studies corroborated RPA's recommendations and in 2007 the County chose a development team to redevelop 77 acres around Nassau Coliseum in the heart of the Hub.
The developer's mixed-use vision dared to dream big for Long Island: 30+ story towers; 2,300+ housing units; and retail, entertainment and tourism opportunities to attract younger generations. With some more thought given to connections to nearby transit, the proposal had the makings for the long-awaited regional center. But when faced with the choice of changing zoning to accommodate it, the Town — which, after all, has the land use authority — chose the more familiar road, unveiling zoning for the property with significant limits to height and density. The justification for scaling back was not based on economic calculations or population forecasts, but instead on the generalization of "preserving the suburban character" of the area.
The truth is that maintaining Long Island's suburban character will require developing the small handful of places on Long Island that have the ability to accommodate a substantial portion of the housing and businesses needed to maintain the Island's vitality and prosperity. Without a few dense nodes of housing and businesses, the Island's continued economic growth will be at risk. And if the Nassau Hub's recent rezoning prevails, the Hub will not be one of those nodes - not in the foreseeable future anyway.
While hopes for the large-scale Hub growth area are fading, one doesn't have to look far for signs of optimism. Perhaps because of differences in the scale of economics and complexity of the politics, greater progress is being made with plans for redevelopment in existing downtowns. Places like Patchogue and Mineola can already show some of the successes of smart downtown redevelopment, and a new generation of Long Island downtowns and station areas are being planned, following what has certainly been the less traveled road in the last 60 years.
In Nassau County, the Village of Freeport is on the verge of adopting a master plan for its struggling station area and aging North Main Street commercial corridor. The plan — prepared by RPA in association with Moule & Polyzoides and Sustainable Long Island — envisions the transformation of 86 acres of parking fields and underutilized buildings around the train station into a more dense, vibrant, mixed-use downtown community. Infrastructure improvements and a road diet are slated to convert the speedy and barren North Main Street into a walkable, livable community street.
Looking eastward, two Town Supervisors, Steve Bellone of Babylon and Mark Lesko of Brookhaven, also have the future of the Island in mind. Babylon recently completed a master plan for the Hamlet of Wyandanch, where they intend to use the train station as a catalyst for TOD and community building. Concurrently, the Town is advocating for bus rapid transit on the nearby Route 110 Corridor — Long Island's premiere business district — where they also are encouraging the MTA to re-open the LIRR station at Republic Airport as a catalyst for growth.
In Brookhaven, the Town is looking to the LIRR station at Ronkonkoma - the busiest on the Island - as the center of a new transit hub village. Working through a community-driven process, the Town is on a path toward redevelopment of the area around the station — now largely parking lots and underutilized buildings — into a vibrant, live-work community. If developed properly, this transit community could serve as a new hub for eastern Long Island, particularly as East Side Access shifts the commuter-shed further east.
These are only three examples of progress being made on the Island; there are a number of other communities and leaders blazing new trails, eager to capture the benefits of downtown redevelopment around transit. Others, like Huntington Station, are currently standing at the fork and weighing their options. As these communities inevitably approach these points of divergence where the important decisions are made, we are hopeful that they take the less familiar path - one that creates a network of transit-oriented centers that preserves Long Island's suburban character while restoring its legacy as a region of opportunity and prosperity.