Thursday, May 22, 2008

Why Riverhead revitalization has stalled

It was deja vu all over again.

I sat down to write a column about revitalizing downtown Riverhead.

And then I realized: I wrote this one already. Probably four or five times.

I'm sick of it.

We all know what's got to happen downtown. The buildings on the south side of the street have to be reoriented to the river -- or razed and rebuilt. The big parking lot along the river has to be transformed into green space -- park, band shell, walking trails, outdoor dining -- to form a walkable, livable scenic space. A multilevel parking garage must be built in the parking lot between East Main and Second streets; it will make up the parking spaces lost to the green space on the south side. People need to reinhabit downtown. They need places to live there -- decent, affordable places. Restaurants and a movie theater will draw visitors, both during the day and after dark.

And the Suffolk Theatre must reopen as a performing arts center, a community theater.

But forget it. Ain't gonna happen -- though the renaissance of similarly distressed downtown areas in Suffolk County is already well under way, thanks to these kinds of redevelopment efforts, including the conversion of old movie palaces into community theaters and performing arts centers.

Why not Riverhead?

I'll tell you why: Riverhead lacks the guts, the political will, the backbone, the verve, the audacity. It's lacking in that quality often described -- though I can't quite figure why -- as a feature of the male anatomy synonymous with bravery.

The only way these things are going to happen downtown is if Riverhead uses every weapon at hand to get rid of the bloodsuckers who are profiting from the status quo -- the absentee commercial landlords, the slumlords, the drug dealers, and, yes, the pimps.

And you don't do that by sitting in the Town Hall meeting room wringing your hands and worrying about getting sued.

The town had a real player on the hook with Apollo. (I'm using the past tense here for a reason. I think they've checked out, moved on, given it up. Just a hunch.) But the town didn't have the chutzpah to do something about the one obstacle to revitalization: Riverhead Enterprises, aka Shelly Gordon. The "Shelly Obstacle" could have been handily dispensed with. The town could have -- should have -- exercised its right of eminent domain in the name of urban renewal and condemned the properties Apollo wanted to buy on the south side of East Main Street. Such action was contemplated by the town and Apollo as a likely necessity in the "master developer" agreement signed in 2006. In anticipating moving ahead with condemnation, the town even had appraisals of Gordon's buildings made last August.

It's not a complicated process, really. The town brings the eminent domain action, gets title to the building and flips it to Apollo. Meanwhile, the court sets, by appraisal, the value of the property taken by the town. Apollo pays the town and the town pays the former owner. And he goes home to Nassau County.

Downtown's "weakest link" is gone. Goodbye.

But that would take boldness. Bravery. And b---s. Aw, never mind.

This town doesn't even have the guts to refurbish an old movie theater, much less an entire downtown.

And it shows.

So we'll sit around wringing our hands and whining about the state of downtown for who-knows-how-many years to come.

On the bright side, we've got to have something to take our minds off whining about EPCAL, right?

And maybe, just maybe, in the end, downtown doesn't matter, anyway. Does it? A colleague posed that question to me last week. Maybe revitalizing downtown really doesn't matter. What if we just let it be? Who cares? Route 58 is thriving. Why isn't that good enough?

Here's why: Route 58 is Anywhere, USA. It's the crass, soulless byproduct of global corporate commercialism. Route 58 is the same as Nesconset. Or Fredericksburg, Va. And the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. Downtown Riverhead is one-of-a-kind, warts and all. It's got character. It's got a sense of place. It's real. It's us. It, unlike the Route 58s of this world, has a soul. And wrapped up in that soul is our identity as a community. Downtown can be, should be, the very model of "smart growth" planners have nowadays grown fond of, having seen how the sprawling suburban malls have scarred the nation's landscape and robbed its soul.

That's why downtown matters. That's why it will always matter. And as long as downtown is hurting, we as a community hurt, too.

Copyright 2008, Times/Review Newspapers Corp.


Anonymous said...

I can't believe it's already Monday, and no one has commented on Denise Civiletti's editorial from last Thursday. Denise isn't the only one who's sick of the empty promises for downtown Riverhead. Recently an old Suffolk Times article from August 4, 1994, came across my desk. The article describes what was then the latest and greatest plan for downtown Riverhead. The writer stated that "driving through downtown Riverhead is likely to be an unfamiliar experience for everyone from first-time tourists to those who've lived here all their lives." That's right - the article written fourteen years ago sounds as though it might have been written yesterday. Denise, you've hit the nail on the head. Until the Town Supervisor and Board take the bull by the horns to do what has to be done (condemn all the vacant real estate owned by absentee landlords), the downtown area will not only show no progress, but it will continue to deteriorate as more small businesses throw in the towel. It's time for the people of Riverhead to take back Main Street.

Ceil said...

Hi Denise...I've always been or try to be an optimistic gal...I hold on to that last thread of hope until my fingers burn...however, I've kinda let it go. Why? Because when the most outspoken gal with the wherewithal to impact the community with your editorials has said: "It ain't gonna happen in Riverhead"...It ain't gonna happen...

How sad is this? I've seen RedBank in New Jersey turn from a ghost town to a beautiful waterfront up and coming community...We have Greenport a few miles away. I've heard that the mayor did a lot to revitalize that town...and why not Riverhead...Staten Island made Snug Harbor with its decaying buildings a cultural center.

Denise is right the town does not have the guts to to move forward because it requires a clan sweep from the buildings to the administration..
Maybe someone will come up with a platform that promises to revitalize downtown we have any gutsy folks ready to take it on?

Taylor Hoge said...

Denise Im a high school senior at the Ross School in East Hampton and I had an idea of my own to help reopen the theater in Riverhead because im very passionate of urban planning. I have even submitted a proposal for my senior project in April of this year and I was pleasantly surprised when I came across your blog where you express the same ideas. I have a few ideas of how to approach it and I would love to have your input because I plan to do this for my senior project at Ross. Im not ready to give up and Im planning to follow through with my ideas.I would like to be able to talk to you please email me at