Reenvisioning Downtown Riverhead

Lack of things for youth to do and the perception that downtown Riverhead is not safe topped concerns of residents asked Monday evening to envision the future of downtown Riverhead, at the first of three community input sessions on how to spend $10 million in downtown revitalization grant funds.

The grants, awarded in February by New York State, will fund mostly large-scale projects that have community support and are ready to begin within the next couple years, said planner Jeannette Rausch, of the New York State Department of State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI) program, who gave an overview at the session of the criteria of projects the grant can support.

Riverhead officials have said in the past that projects like the Town Square underway between the riverfront and the Suffolk Theater, along with the Long Island Science Center, which is building a new headquarters adjacent to the Town Square, and the transit-oriented redevelopment proposal alongside the town’s Long Island Rail Road station, would be likely candidates for the grant funding.

Ms. Rausch said there are four types of project the state usually funds through the DRI grants — new development or rehabilitation of downtown buildings (often in a public/private partnership); public improvement projects like parks, plazas and streets designed for all users; branding and marketing for the community; and revolving funds that can be administered locally for such things as public art projects and Main Street façade improvements.

She said the public outreach process, which will continue with meetings on May 23 at the Suffolk Theater and on July 1 at either Grangebel Park or the Town Square site, is designed to be completed quickly, within five or six months, resulting in a strategic investment plan and building on work already done by the town in envisioning its future.

“We’re not looking for a wish list of ideas. We need to identify viable projects with a partner who can enter into a contract with the state,” she said, adding that, except for the revolving fund, projects should be of a scale greater than $100,000. 

The town and state will be guided in the selection process by planning consultants Perkins-Eastman and a team of other experts, with a Local Planning Committee chaired by Riverhead Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar and former Greenport Mayor David Kapell, who now serves as Long Island’s representative on the New York State Regional Economic Development Council.

Cassandra Charles and Eric Fang of Perkins-Eastman helped gather community feedback at the March 21 engagement session. 

Mr. Fang said the downtown area eligible for grants is bounded on the south by the Peconic River, on the north by the Long Island Rail Road tracks, on the west by Osborn Avenue and on the east by Howell Avenue. 

“We really feel like it’s got great bones — all the assets that any downtown needs to take off,” said Mr. Fang. “We want to make sure we can connect all these dots so state funding goes to the right combination of projects.”

Community members jotted down their thoughts on notecards about different aspects of Riverhead’s downtown — a place with great restaurants, historic buildings, not enough pedestrian traffic, and a place where they made many of their memories of growing up. Many said there needs to be more for young people to do there, and that more work needs to be done so people feel safe walking downtown.

Some reminisced about the open mic at the former East Enders coffee house and poetry readings at the Blue Duck Bakery, both now closed, and about the now-defunct Riverhead Blues Festival.

“No more multistory housing — we are not Queens,” was an encapsulation of a sentiment occasionally raised. 

“It’s a destination at the end of the LIE, where many people take a break before going to the South Fork,” said one person, while another suggested Riverhead model some redevelopment after The Lawn on D — an outdoor event space in Boston’s Waterfront District. Others recommended a planetarium, which is likely to be a part of the Long Island Science Center’s proposal. 

Others said they didn’t want Riverhead to emulate other towns like Greenport, Patchogue or Port Jefferson, too closely.

“Why do the cars get the water view?” asked one community member in response to a question about what is missing from downtown, referring to a large parking lot adjacent to the river.

“In Ithaca (in upstate New York), there are no cars in the center of town. Traffic is diverted outside,” said one commenter.

Others suggested a boat ramp, kayak access and support for crew teams, as well as a “floating symphony.”

Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O said the latest National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration figures say our region can expect 10 to 12 inches of sea level rise within the next 30 years.

“We’ve seen the extent of flooding associated with the surge coming up that river, but we’re not paying attention to coastal inundation and sunny day flooding, which is only going to get worse over time,” he said, recommending the town mitigate the impacts of rising waters with rain gardens and other greenscaping to counteract the flooding in the parking lot adjacent to the river.

Riverhead Community Development Agency Director Dawn Thomas said the town is working with the Army Corps of Engineers on a Floodplain Management Study of the area, and said they’ve recommended that the town work to protect buildings directly “rather than building a wall along the waterfront, and make what’s closer to the river flood-able, so it’s able to absorb water and drain out.”

James Foster, who, with his wife Miyoshi owns the Sweet Tart frozen yogurt café on Main Street, said he’s tired of hearing complaints about parking downtown.

“There’s plenty of parking. I’ve never seen the north and south parking lots full,” he said, adding that his kids play downtown and he thinks it is safe.

“It’s not 1990. It’s safe downtown. That’s a narrative that we’ve really got to work on,” he said. “That perception is 1994 and this is 2022. Every town has incidents, but overall it is safe. I trust my kids there and I would trust your kids there and your family. We need to work on the perception.”

As far as “We don’t wan’t to be Patchogue or Greenport? Yeah, we do. Those businesses can’t handle all the business coming their way,” he said, adding that it was his suggestion to look at the Lawn on D in Boston.

“We go there, me and my family. There are big lighted swings, picnic tables and a track where people roller skate,” he said. “There are young people on dates, older people people-watching, kids just hanging out. It’s complete community togetherness. We’re not going to copy it exactly, but it’s a great place to start.”

Ms. Aguiar pointed out that a recent parking study showed only 57 percent of parking spots downtown are occupied at any given time.

“You go to other waterfronts, you’re going to be walking a little ways,” she said. Ms. Thomas added that the town is considering limiting parking on Main Street to one hour so there will be greater turnover of cars in the most desirable parking areas.

Wading River resident Joe Baier, who serves on the Riverhead Planning Board, said he’s visited Sausalito, California, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, where the shops are on one side of the street and the waterfront is filled with parks and recreation activities overlooking San Francisco Bay, a design he envisioned working well in Riverhead. He added that he loves the idea of a planetarium.

Larry Oxman, who is on the board of the Riverhead Business Improvement District and the Long Island Science Center, said the Science Center is planning a 100-seat planetarium, which can also show 360-degree movies and lectures. He said he’s been to San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a large, hands-on science museum that has inspired the Long Island Science Center’s work. He added that the Science Center is actively pursuing DRI grant funding.

“The Science Center will offer a very unique experience,” he said. “When the Science Center was trying to choose a permanent location, we were being courted by quite a number of communities. Riverhead was always Number One on our list because of the aquarium. It’s quite a destination and it gets a tremendous number of people. We see ourselves complementing the Long Island Aquarium.”

Mr. Kappell, the former Greenport mayor who is co-chairing the Local Planning Committee for the grant funding, sat quietly through the two-hour-long discussion before adding his two cents.

“The only difference between Greenport and Riverhead is time,” he said. “When we started in Greenport, there was both the perception and the reality of safety issues. It was a very depressed place. At the time, everyone said ‘we can be just like Sag Harbor, or Mystic, Connecticut.’ But we wanted to be Greenport and that’s what Riverhead wants to do and I endorse it. It enjoys an unbelievably strategic place on Long Island — that’s why you have the success you have on Route 58. The challenge is to have that dynamism downtown.”

More information on the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, and on how to participate in the public engagement process, is online at www.riverheaddri.com.

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

One thought on “Reenvisioning Downtown Riverhead

  • April 6, 2022 at 9:07 am
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    To say that “In Ithaca (in upstate New York), there are no cars in the center of town…” Is a bit of an exaggeration. “The Commons” was created by closing a two-block length of one street. All in all, it’s less than three hundred yards long.

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