The long-blighted community of Riverside, just across the Peconic River from downtown Riverhead, has never been a particularly welcoming place, but in recent years, many of the few struggling businesses there have been shuttered, leaving the community with little incentive for change.
Riverside, which is in Southampton Town, could have some help in upcoming months, after the town agreed last week to enter into an agreement with the private Plainview real estate development firm Renaissance Downtowns to come up with a plan of action to lift Riverside’s blight.
Three of the principals of Renaissance Downtowns explained their plans to the Southampton Town Board at a work session Dec. 5.
“We’re both excited and proud to be part of what we feel will be a wonderful experience for all of us,” said Renaissance Downtowns’ CEO Don Monti.
Renaissance Downtowns plans to start their work by opening up an information office in Riverside, where they will meet with store owners and residents who have ideas for how to restore the business community there.
They will also be using a concept known as “crowdsource placemaking,” a social media platform where people who have a stake in Riverside’s future can share ideas.
The firm’s Vice President of Planning and Development, Sean McLean, lives in Flanders, and he said he has a real stake in the success of the project, which will also include some of the Flanders Road corridor east of Riverside.
In their other half-dozen projects in places like Huntington Station, Hempstead and Bristol, Conn., Renaissance Downtowns works, at their own expense, to build relationships with business owners and help them develop ideas for what they want to see built there, before building their own projects in the midst of the community that’s already there, said Mr. McLean and Mr. Monti.
“We don’t ask for eminent domain. We don’t take over peoples’ property or engage in counterintuitive bidding. We engage with property owners there,” said Mr. McLean. “There is a lack of profitable businesses there. We interact with property owners and get to understand their business plans. A lot of property is for sale. We partner with them to create development when the area is institutionally ready for development.”
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst asked if the plans would include determining whether the neighborhood wanted a Trader Joe’s supermarket or a library or an age-restricted community.
The developers said it would be far more likely that they would try to find a local grocer, say, who was interested in selling fresh produce, or someone who wants to open a bookstore whom they could help expand their business plan by adding a coffee shop or performing arts space. He said four property owners have already contacted him since the town’s partnership was announced two weeks ago.
“We don’t make any profit off of this part, but it causes economic development,” said Mr. McLean.
“Ultimately, when things get built, that’s when we make our money,” said Mr. Monti, who added that Renaissance Downtowns, in conjunction with business owners in the community, will lobby state, federal and county government for money to get the project done. Until that plan is in place, he said, his firm will do all the work at their own expense.
“At some point, we need to be married, so to speak,” said Mr. Monti. “We have not been asked to leave in one municipality yet. But this is your call and remains your call until such time as everything is in place, including SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act review), and the community has bought in to what we do. At that point, we say, now we are formally partners. Until that time, we remain vulnerable. We want you to want us.”
Ms. Throne-Holst and other board members asked several pointed questions about why the firm was willing to take on so much risk.
“Your model is an unusual one. That is counterintuitive,” she said. “It needs to be clear to everyone.”
“The land there isn’t worth a lot of money, but we don’t want to take anybody’s underlying land,” said Mr. Monti. “If it’s part of an overall development worth $20 million, their land is worth a lot more. We earn our money by building that $20 million apartment building.”
“We encourage them to stay on as partners,” added Mr. McLean. “Part of our equity in the building becomes sweat equity. We show them how their $50,000 building could now be worth millions.”
“People say why do you do this? Why do you insist this be done that way?” said Mr. Monti. “We’re not infill developers…. What we’ve seen is failure upon failure when people come in and try to do one building. That one building will not change a downtown or an area, and when that fails it scares everyone out. But rising tides lift all boats. What we want is rising tides in an area to lift the entire area. We need to have everybody working on the same page in a collaborative manner to make sure it’s not another infill approach.”
Mr. McLean said crime also has to be addressed in the early stages of the project.
“There’s a perception of Flanders. People say to me, ‘How can you live there? Are you afraid for your wife or your kids?'” he said. “We have to deal with that. Everyone who lives in the area has to deal with that perception. The perception is worse than the reality, but the reality is not great. If this was an easy thing to develop, it would have been developed already.”