Saturday, February 17, 2007

Smart growth

I spent this week in Reston, Virginia, attending an American Press Institute seminar called "Leading the 24/7 Newsroom." The hotel where the 50 or so seminar attendees stayed was located in Reston Town Center. While we didn't have a lot of free time to explore (API seminars are pretty intense) I was struck by how Reston Town Center was laid out. It seemed to me to be a very well planned, modern, suburban "downtown." There is a central plaza, with an ice skating rink and fountains, surrounded by a rich mix of residential and commercial uses — the Hyatt Regency (where we stayed), street level retail shops and restaurants, a 13-screen multiplex movie theater, with offices, apartments and condominiums rising above these ground level uses. There's also a multi-level parking garage (but no huge paved parking lot to serve the stores and hotel).

It occurred to me that I was staying in a built-out planned development district that exemplifies what we talk about here on the East End — a very walkable, pedestrian-friendly, well-planned mixed-use suburban "downtown." We talk about this sort of thing an awful lot around here lately. But nobody's even come close to attempting to build such a thing. And whether anyone will ever succeed in doing so (on a smaller scale, with multi-level buildings that are not so tall, of course) remainst to be seen.

Curious about where I'd just spent the past week, I did a little searching on the Web this morning and found some interesting stuff about Reston.

Turns out, Reston was the first post-war planned community in the U.S. It was founded by Robert E. Simon, who bought some 7,000 acres of land outside of Washington, D.C. in the 1960s, between the capital district and a planned airport (now Dulles International). The town is named for Simon; its name is his initials (RES) plus -ton, the English suffix for "town." He was interested in planned communities and had "an aversion to the automobile," so he wanted to establish a community that would be very walkable. Interesting note: He'd lived on Long Island, in a house on a five-acre lot, and felt that the sprawling suburban landscape was isolating for his family.
The Reston Association has a history of the community on its Web site. And I also came across a podcast of an interview with Bob Simon, at age 92, in which he speaks about what motivated him to establish the community and what his goals were. (The podcast interview was done by Planetizen, a planning and development network whose Web site looks pretty interesting, too.)

One key quote from the Simon interview: "Zoning ordinances all over the country made mixed use virtually impossible." Why? Zoning codes establish separate districts for residential, shopping, office and other commercial uses. How true. And the familiar sprawling suburban landscape we live in is the result.

The notion of "mixed use" is relatively new, Simon being a pioneer in the field and Reston being the result. Simon also employed lots of other principles that other communities, like ours, are just starting to implement in pursuit of open space and energy conservation, such as clustered development and zero lot line homes. In addition to housing, retail, commercial and high-tech industrial uses (businesses that employ more than 30,000 people), Reston has 1,300 acres of open space forever preserved, plus miles of walking, jogging and bike trails, parks, 14 community pools, tennis courts, golf courses, and, as mentioned, an ice rink. The residential uses are mixed as well, from typical suburban single-family homes on substantial lots, to high rise and garden apartments, townhouses and condos, with the denser development concentrated around the downtown, much like the "halo" zones currently under consideration for hamlet areas in Southold Town.

I'd be interested to know how these concepts work with re-development plans such as what Riverhead is aiming for with its downtown "master developer" idea, and whether other communities have successfully used them to do what Riverhead is hoping to accomplish downtown. Anybody out there know of such a place or places? Maybe the Planetizen site has more info.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Asking help for Bryan

Those of us lucky enough not to know what it's like, well, we really have no idea.

We can only imagine, if we can even let our minds wander there. I don't know about you, but I can't do it. The thought of one of my children being stricken by a serious, potentially fatal, illness is too much. When I try to imagine what that might be like, my chest tightens, my body shivers and my mind just won't go there. I guess that what the saying means: I can't wrap my mind around it.

The only reason I've tried to imagine it is, like most of the other lucky parents, I sometimes try to put myself in the shoes of those who've found themselves confronted with a child's illness or even death. The unthinkable. The unspeakable.

"I don't know how you deal with this," I said once to an acquaintance of mine, Mary Lou Tressler. A former owner of Jet Set Printing in Riverhead, our children were in nursery school together.

"I don't have any choice," she answered. "What else can I do?"

Her words stay with me. What else can she do, indeed?

Her son, Bryan, was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare, generally fatal, childhood cancer, when he was just 5 years old. Doctors told his parents, Mary Lou and her husband, Bob, that there was no hope. But Bob and Mary Lou refused to give up. They searched high and low until they found doctors willing to treat Bryan with new, cutting-edge therapies that were then still in development. Thanks to such aggressive treatment — some of it classified as experimental — Bryan has survived. He's now going on 14. But it hasn't been easy, and the future, even after all he's been through, is still bleak.

Bryan is a brave young man. He was brave before he understood the meaning of the word "courage." He's instinctively fought a battle he didn't even know he was engaged in at first — he was too young to understand. Maybe that worked to his advantage. He wasn't mentally or emotionally dragged down by the horrible disease trying to steal his life away because he was too young to understand his affliction. So he lived a kid's life, typical of so many little boys. He played baseball. He went sailing with his dad on the family boat. He scraped his knees, collected bugs, played video games.

Now he's old enough to understand the concept of courage. He's also old enough to understand his illness, old enough to ask "Why?" Old enough to be mad as hell at the unfairness of it all.

But he's still brave. Maybe more so, because now he understands. And he still fights.

A few years back, at the Riverhead Relay for Life, Bryan told the crowd how important it is to fight, to soldier on. "We'll find a cure one day," he said. He was maybe 10 or 11. Everyone marveled at his strength, including me. I wrote a column about it, in fact.

Bryan's battle continues. His cancer has come back with a vengeance, yet again. Bryan is a fighter and endures the physical pain of both the disease and its treatments. His parents and siblings are coping. But the cancer and the treatments are now taking a major financial toll on the family and they are in need of help.

The Tresslers moved upstate a few years back. Bryan's father, Bob, sold his printing business, and the family relocated to a rural area, where there would be less pressure and where Mary Lou and Bob would be able to spend less time working and more time with Bryan and his siblings, Robert and Jennifer.

Bryan now has to make a 180-mile round-trip journey for treatment four to six times each month from his home in Granville, N.Y., to Children's Specialty Center in Burlington, Vt. He also has to travel to Albany five times each week for transfusions, radiation and blood tests.

Mary Lou wrote to me last week asking for help, seeking gas card donations to help them pay for travel to and from treatments. Asking for help certainly wasn't easy for her to do, but it's nothing compared with the reality she has to deal with every day.

I know many people in Riverhead knew Bryan and his family before they moved, and many folks would want to know if they are in need of assistance now. If you can help, with either a check or a gas card, mail it to Friends of Bryan Tressler, P.O. Box 92, Granville, NY 12832.

I would love to organize a fundraiser for Bryan. If you have any ideas for how we might raise some money, or want to help with the effort, please e-mail me at

Ms. Civiletti invites you to join a discussion of this topic at Her e-mail address is

Monday, February 12, 2007

When we get it wrong

Nobody said it was going to be easy.

That's true. Nobody said this was an easy job. In fact, it's pretty tough sometimes.

Reporting, writing, editing and publishing a community newspaper — they all present many challenges, each step of the way.

I don't mind people carrying on and calling me names for expressing my opinion in an editorial or in a column on the op-ed page. I expect it. Especially when I write about a subject as sensitive as the war. I've developed thick skin over the years. I can take it.

Sometimes, reporters make mistakes. Hey, we're only human. But when reporters for community newspapers make errors, it affects our neighbors — or people we do business with, or acquaintances, or friends. No matter what, it's tough. Unlike reporters at a huge daily, working out of some distant office, we live and work in the community we write about.

When we err, we print corrections. We print them on the inside front cover, page 2. But they're never enough to satisfy the person who was affected by something we got wrong. I realize that, but there's not much else I can do.

I'm dwelling on this tonight because we made a mistake in this week's police report in the Suffolk Times. The reporter got her "vehicle 1" and "vehicle 2" mixed up as she wrote up the report of an accident involving a school bus on Route 48 last week. We reported that the bus struck the other vehicle. In fact, acccording to the police report, it was the other way around. The other vehicle struck the bus, the report said.

That may make it seem that the driver of the school bus was at fault, and that's how she took it. To say she was unhappy when she showed up at our office Thursday morning would be an understatement along the lines of saying The Beatles were "popular." She tore me a new one, and there was no placating her.

The driver's dispatcher called me, too — at about 8 am Thursday morning. In an email subsequent to our conversation, she said that the people of Southold view The Suffolk Times "as law." That got me thinking even harder about the awesome responsibility we have. We take our responsibility seriously, all the time. There is a certain amount of power in what we do. We know we must never abuse it, or abuse the trust of the people who rely on our papers each week to understand what's going on in their communities.

Everyone at all of our publications works really hard and cares very deeply about what we do and the communities we cover. Accuracy and fairness are our top priorities. But, yes, sometimes we make mistakes. And when we do, it hurts — and we're sorry. This is one of those times.