Big Changes for Downtown Riverhead

Pictured Above: The Swezey’s Home Furnishings building in downtown Riverhead, which could be demolished.

The face of downtown Riverhead, long blighted by empty storefronts, could change dramatically in the coming years, after both Riverhead Town and the Long Island Science Center received grants from the Empire State Development Corporation in December of 2019 to begin a major redevelopment of properties at the heart of East Main Street.

Riverhead Town has received an $800,000 grant, seed money to create a town square alongside the waterfront, with plans to purchase and demolish a blighted building just east of the former Swezey’s Department Store to provide access to Main Street, while the Long Island Science Center has received a $775,000 grant to redevelop the adjacent Swezey’s property as a new as a state-of-the-art science education center.

The state grants were awarded through the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council.

The back door at Swezey’s

Swezey’s closed its doors in 2003, in the midst of a wave of store closures that left downtown Riverhead a ghost town. The area has since struggled to regain a foothold of core businesses, mostly focused on food, recreation and entertainment.

The property the town is eyeing, at 117 East Main Street, had at one point been the Swezey’s furniture annex, and had housed the indoor winter Riverhead Farmers Market for a few years beginning in 2014, but had received several citations for violations from the town in 2019. The owner of the property, Riverhead Enterprises, had filed a demolition permit with the town in June of last year. It sits directly across the street from the landmark art deco Suffolk Theater, which was recently restored.

Just west of the former furniture annex, builder Wayne Steck has new plans to tear down the former West Marine building and build a four-story building with retail on the ground floor and apartments above, while just to the east, on the far side of East End Arts’ historic campus, the massive 116-unit Riverview Lofts apartment complex, on the site of the former Sears department store, is nearing completion.

Riverhead Town plans to use its grant to begin work on a town square consisting of “a public gathering space, pedestrian connectivity and open vistas from Main Street to the riverfront,” according to the town’s announcement of the project.

A rendering of the proposed Town Square.

Their stated goal for this project is “to reorient the pedestrian focus from the traditional Main Street to the Peconic Riverwalk…repurposing some existing town-owned riverfront parking as public gathering spaces, with performance spaces, splash fountains and permeable brick/stone pathways interspersed with rain gardens.…These rain/river friendly areas will provide amenities for community members, while also helping capture the occasional flooding experienced near the Peconic River.”

The site, which is currently about six dozen much-needed parking spaces and an often-locked municipal restroom adjacent to East End Arts’ Carriage House, is also expected to include interactive environmental learning stations. 

The Suffolk Theater as seen through an alley between the former Swezey’s Home Furnishings and Twin Forks Bicycles

The new, 24,000-square-foot Long Island Science Center is expected to include 6,000 square feet of exhibition space, a new dedicated MakerSpace, and four classrooms. 

The Long Island Science Center is currently in a temporary location in the ground floor of the Summerwind building, after its original building, on West Main Street, was significantly damaged in Superstorm Sandy in 2012 and was torn down to make way for the Peconic Crossing workforce housing building. The Long Island Science Center had initially been planning to rebuild at the West Marine site, but has since changed their plan to rebuild at the Swezey’s site next door.

“We are going to continue to offer many of the most popular interactive exhibits we currently have including Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, 3D Art and Printing, and Engineering Zone,” said Long Island Science Center Executive Director Cailin Kaller. “We are excited to expand to include new interactive spaces including coding and robotics, a citizen science space, electric circuitry, a special space for pre-school exploration, and a large exhibit area dedicated to the important and historic innovation and technology that was created here on Long Island.” 

The buildings as seen from East Main Street, with the former Swezey’s Home Furnishings on the left and the former West Marine building on the right.

“Long Island’s high-tech industry is continuing to grow with new businesses, development projects, and investments supporting innovative ideas, research, and advanced technology,” said Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in a mid-February press release announcing the grant. “As chair of the statewide Regional Economic Development Councils, we want to make sure that students are trained for jobs now and in the future in the STEM fields to help ensure they have the skills they need to secure good jobs and meet businesses’ needs. Funding for the these projects will continue to advance the revitalization of Riverhead’s downtown and allow the Long Island Science Center to accommodate more students — enhancing the educational and visitor experience.” 

“The Long Island Science Center could have elected to relocate elsewhere in region, however, they made a distinct decision to expand in the heart of Main Street, next to Riverhead Town Square, I want to thank New York State for funding both of these important projects,” said Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar, who took office after the grants were awarded. “My office, along with our CDA Director Dawn Thomas, look forward to this collaborative effort.…Unequivocally, having other government entities as funding partners will be vital to ensuring that both projects’ full economic development potential comes to fruition.”

Under former Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, Riverhead Town had applied for consolidated state funding for the project totaling $4.6 million, with the town matching the funds to the tune of $1.45 million, in July of 2019.

Riverview Lofts, a 115-unit apartment building under construction just east of East End Arts.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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