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.