Sunday, July 20, 2008

Blues on the riverfront

The 10th Annual Riverhead Blues Festival seems to be a smash success. Great day yesterday. Fantastic lineup of talent. The closing band last night was just awesome. Tonight will rock again, with fireworks after the show.

Stop by the Times/Review tent on the riverfront side of the venue (right next to the LI Blues Society tent). We've got a guitar hero contest going on and (FREE) raffles for a $150 Stop & Shop gift card and 4 tickets to a LI Ducks baseball game. We're also giving away caps, pens, pads and SUNSCREEN.

Bluesfest is a fantastic riverfront party. There should be at least one more riverfront party like this every summer. It proves that if you give people a REASON to come to downtown Riverhead, they will flock there in droves.

Pavilion could be misstep

I honestly don't relish the role of contrarian. Really. Especially when it means contradicting opinions expressed on our own editorial page. As co-publisher and executive editor, you'd think I'd fully support every point of view that appears under the "editorial" banner on page 8. But there's room for disagreement on our editorial board. And there's always room for reconsideration.

Though The News-Review has given its "tentative support" to the BID's riverfront pavilion concept, it was, in my personal opinion, premature to do so.

And I'm not simply expressing reservations about either the initial design offered by BID architect Martin Sendlewski or the revised rendering unveiled at a Town Board work session two weeks later.

I'm not sure that a pavilion is needed on the riverfront and I'd hate to see the town get locked into something that may prove to be more of an impediment to riverfront development than an asset. I can appreciate the frustration of downtown merchants, which makes them susceptible to a "something, anything" kind of desperation. But feelings of desperation don't make for good long-term planning.

I'm not opposed to the riverfront as a concert venue. It's a perfect concert venue. Easily accessed by both forks and eastern Brookhaven, it has plenty of space and is surrounded by ample (free) public parking. I've personally been directly involved in planning and producing numerous concerts on the riverfront, dating back to my days with the East End Arts Council -- everything from Dizzie Gillespie to the American Wind Symphony Orchestra, which sailed into town on a huge concert barge for a riverfront concert, complete with fireworks, a decade ago.

The arts attract people. And there's no disagreement that people are what downtown Riverhead needs most.

Check out what's going to happen downtown this very weekend. The 10th annual Riverhead Blues Festival will be staged on the riverfront, and downtown will be transformed.

So it's really rather a no-brainer (even in my beloved adopted "no-brainer" town) that a riverfront concert venue makes eminent good sense.

But does a pavilion provide the right kind of venue infrastructure? Not exactly. A 6,000-square-foot pavilion is not a great concert venue, except for relatively small concerts. Pavilions, though they provide shelter from raindrops, can actually make staging concerts difficult. With the band set up on a stage under a pavilion, viewing from outside the shelter is limited. The town's showmobile could no longer be used. It couldn't fit inside the pavilion, and couldn't be positioned outside the structure and still be viewable by people within the pavilion. That means a portable stage would have to be set up for each concert -- increasing production costs. The interior capacity of the pavilion is likewise limited.

The fact is, concerts are better staged at bandshells than under pavilions. In addition to providing unobstructed sight lines, bandshells provide great acoustic support -- which pavilions lack. Many years ago, there was a plan afoot to site a bandshell on the riverfront -- also a "no brainer," I thought. But Riverhead wasn't smart enough to do it. The town got bogged down in an argument over location. And the bandshell idea died.

That experience makes me hesitate to voice my concerns about the pavilion. I, too, have a sense that "this is better than nothing -- just do it, do something -- anything -- already!"

But honestly, pavilions are better structures for picnics than for concerts. Not that I have anything against picnics. But the economic development impact of a picnic just isn't the same.

And then there's the potential of this sheltered area becoming a magnet for loiterers -- or worse. Zero-tolerance or no, downtown still offers more than its fair share of unsavory characters who might see alternative uses for our nice pavilion. Enough said?

Riverhead needs to take the time to think this through and get it right. Especially since it's considering plopping this down smack in the middle of the riverfront. Which brings me to another troubling aspect of this proposal.

Is it part of a larger redevelopment plan? Getting the riverfront right means dealing with it as a whole, not doing things hodgepodge and willy-nilly. A few years back, then-Councilman Ed Densieski offered a plan to transform the riverfront with green space, eliminating the riverfront roadway, creating picnic areas, an ice rink in winter and other recreational amenities where now only asphalt exists. He had the right idea, both in terms of the overall plan and the approach.

A couple of months of "big picture" thinking and planning isn't too much to ask for a project that will shape the identity and usability of the riverfront for generation to come.

Copyright 2008 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.