A new year, a new vision for Long Island

A new year, a new vision for Long Island

The announcement that Long Island has received $101 million in state grants to invest in “transformative projects” is really welcome news. It acknowledges that Long Island, which gave the world Suburbia, can no longer survive as a bedroom community for commuters to the Big City.

The fact that 40 percent of Nassau County’s revenue comes from sales tax tells the story of why our system, based on consumerism rather than production, is unsustainable.

Consuming and not producing is why our property taxes go ever higher. But Long Island is fundamentally adverse to anything that increases density, traffic or business activity, and in the calculation that is done, “production” is equated with more intensive land use.

That, obviously, was not always the case. Long Island used to have thriving aeronautics and defense industries. We used to have scores of engineers and scientists, who made very good livings and could afford magnificent houses and excellent schools. Now we have nail salons and big box stores.

Long Island high schools consistently produce the highest numbers of Intel and Siemens science winners, we have phenomenal universities and research institutions. You would think that Nassau and Suffolk would do a better job of tapping that resource, incubating it, and turning it into actual production facilities.

Instead, our kids graduate high school, go off to really fine colleges, and then take jobs in other places – Silicon Valley, Boston’s Route 128 corridor and other regions looking to be the “next” Silicon Valley. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has a vision that the “next” Silicon Valley will be on Roosevelt Island, where Cornell and Technicon are developing a $2 billion, 2-million-square-foot applied science and engineering campus as part of the Applied Sciences New York City initiative.

Long Island should be in that mix and frankly, I think it absurd to hear that high energy costs and high taxes are what is in the way.

Long Island may be late to the party, but we still have a lot to offer. It is more a matter of marshalling it.

Indeed, there is an incubator system now on Long Island (did you know that?): three at Stony Brook, and a SUNY Farmingdale), as well as small business centers at some of the universities, where entrepreneurs can find mentors and even contacts to “angel” financing.

But that is where it ends. There is no next step to make the big leap to an actual enterprise that produces whatever the entrepreneur has created.

Thankfully, there is now a new aggressive orientation and a newfound collaborative spirit among academia, government, quasi-government (LIPA) and the business community. Without such collaboration, Long Island would not have gotten such a big chunk of New York State money, through Cuomo’s “Race to the Top”-style competition. Long Island had to compete for a portion of $1 billion in available funding – $800 million through various agencies, and $200 million for “transformative projects” (40 proposals for “transformative projects” were submitted).

Long Island actually did very well in the competition, winning $101.6 million to support 66 priority projects. Long Island was awarded among the most funds in the whole state. Some of the innovative projects include:

$5 million will support the Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Lab for the Smarter Electric Grid 3 project, which will bring lower power costs, improved research capacity, and training for high-tech students.

$6 million will support Wyandanch Rising, which is part of a broader Nassau / Suffolk regional transportation plan connecting Wyandanch to the Route 110 Corridor.

$5 million will fund the Village of Hempstead mixed-use project involving 3,400 new housing units and 700,000 square feet of commercial, entertainment, and retail space around the county’s busiest multimodal transit center.

$2.5 million will go to the Heartland Town Square in Islip to transform an abandoned, blighted property into a self-contained suburban city.

What about Great Neck? What would a revisioning of our suburban model look like? Great Neck is not truly “suburban” – we are not exclusively a bedroom community – we have a substantial amount of business, especially in Great Neck Plaza, which is probably the densest, most urbanized village in the state.

From a jobs/technology point of view, our lifeline is North Shore University Hospital System. Have you noticed that the Feinstein Institute, a major research institution, is located right at our doorstep?

We used to have Sperry (Unisys). Now North Shore Hospital system is a $6.5 billion enterprise, employing 43,000 people – the largest employer in this region. North Shore invests $100 million a year in biomedical research and development, alone.

Frankly, I don’t understand why we are not a hub for the millions that were supposed to be invested in stem-cell research, and in other biomedical technologies.

And what about our land use? Is the Great Neck peninsula on an unsustainable path (just a few years ago, there was concern of salt intrusion into the water supply) either environmentally or economically?

Frankly, of the nine villages and unincorporated areas that collectively make up greater Great Neck, the Plaza alone has embraced “smart growth” and “sustainable development” principles, doing everything possible to maintain a vibrant commercial district, a village that is walkable (though not quite bikeable), that is a place people can live and work and if necessary hop on mass transit without driving a car, and a destination with vibrant cultural and recreational components.

Most of our villages follow the “suburban” model of bedroom community laid out as a sprawl of single-family homes.

This is a model in which property taxes are on an ever-upward spiral because there is no way to counterbalance costs with other streams of revenue.

And so the rest of Great Neck needs to embrace smart growth principles, or else suffer under the fury and frustration over property taxes.

How does this translate for Great Neck?

For literally generations, we have been hearing of the need for affordable housing. We hear seniors bemoaning the high school taxes they pay when they no longer have children in the schools, yet occupy the homes built for families from which they sent their own children to school. We hear that our volunteer firefighters cannot afford to stay, that people who work for village government have to be imported from further and further away, that our children cannot afford to come back when they want to start their own families. Yet every effort to actually create affordable housing is beaten back with NIMBYism.

We need a senior-empowerment zone so that seniors can actually stay in the community, but move to much lower-cost condominium-style, where they have an exemption for virtually all school taxes (they should pay a nominal amount, especially since our school district provides programs for all ages). Here in Great Neck, we can build such mixed-use structures in the Old Village, where the decrepit looking single-story stores are presently located at Baker and Middle Neck, and in the track where the Associated supermarket is. I am sure no one will bemoan the loss of these architectural gems.

Similarly, units could also be set work-force housing for young couples until they are ready to buy a house.

How would they get around? This fits neatly into the second need, which addresses also a second major problem: we constantly hear grumbling about traffic and parking problems and we should be grumbling – but rarely do – about how all of this pollutes our air and is our own contribution to global warming (yes, we play a role).

We need a cutesy-pie trolley-style bus that does nothing but go up/down Middle Neck Road the full length of the Great Neck peninsula, from southernmost to northernmost point, for commuters and shoppers. It should be supported by merchants, employers, the chamber of commerce, the villages, the town, and the county, and perhaps with state and federal grants, and could have advertising support, as well, coupons to hand out to shoppers and diners.

Other places have it: Louisville, Kentucky, for example (it’s even free). Even Port Washington has a trolley-style bus. This would likely be a public-private partnership, and the trolley could be available for hire for private functions, as well.

Such a service will become even more important when the Long Island Railroad opens its East Side service to Grand Central Station; otherwise, the volume of traffic around the railroad station will only intensify.

Apart from that, there should be new rules that require any major real estate development over a certain size and distance to provide some kind of jitney service (as the Atria senior housing provides its residents).

Remember the East Shore Road development that former Great Neck Village Mayor Stephen H. Falk proposed, how it would have taken back the industrial uses of the waterfront for residential and recreational purposes? It was largely crushed by Thomaston and Kensington’s fear of more traffic going passed their villages, but would have been a model for what we need to be doing now.

The traffic problem these villages raised would have been easily solved by requiring a jitney service to the railroad station at peak hours (at a minimum). I find it ironic that by defeating this plan what we got instead on East Shore Road is the massive BMW service center and the U.S. Postal Service distribution center, which do nothing but create traffic, while destroying any hope of reclaiming the waterfront.

Another sign of a progressive community is one which recognizes that people want pedestrian and biking friendly. Even New York City has made enormous strides in taking back streets. The thing about communities where you can walk and bike is that they are more pleasant to be in, tend to be more “neighborly,” less frenetic and angry.

Great Neck needs a bike lane, but at this stage, the best we could hope for would be along Bayview and East Shore Road. Middle Neck Road at this point is too dangerous for cars, let alone bikers, and that is the big problem. The villages along Middle Neck Road should collaborate together on a plan that was floated years ago, to rebuild Middle Neck Road. Instead of two, too-narrow lanes, there should be one wider lane and a bike lane. This would not just calm traffic, but actually improve the flow, and make for a much, much nicer downtown.

Indeed, New York City is a model of a high-traffic, intensely dense area that taking back streets for pedestrians and bikers is a solution to calm traffic.

We’ve seen such strategies to change the downtown streetscape in Sarasota, Florida and Portland, Oregon, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Some years ago, the town of North Hempstead took an important step to change its building codes to require new structures to be energy efficient. But that does little to promote greater efficiencies in existing structures.

We need more initiatives, incentives and also educational programs to help residents and commercial property owners to better conserve energy and to add solar and alternative energy sources to our homes – workshops, and lists of suppliers and tax incentives or financing options. Did you know that under a partnership with LIPA, you can elect to purchase electricity generated by wind power?

Maybe alternative energy doesn’t pay for itself in actual cash immediately, but it will over time. And by the way, have you noticed the cost of home heating oil is $1 more a gallon than last year, the highest ever, says New York Power Authority’s Richard Kessel. Energy costs are a huge part of a family budget – it cuts deeply into the funds – yet no one seems to complain about these run-away costs as they do property taxes.

In fact, more of “smart growth” and sustainable development is actually happening here on Long Island, often despite regressive government officials and NIMBY-resisting residents.

Of course, not all growth is “smart,” even if proponents would attach the label to make it more palatable. That was the case in the ridiculously flawed Nassau Coliseum plan put forward by Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano; true “smart growth” or “sustainable development” has so far eluded that plan. So far, though, it is about the only idea Mangano has.

Casino gambling – embraced now by Gov. Cuomo who wants to legalize it everywhere as well as Mangano – is also packaged as “economic development,” but is emphatically not a “smart growth” strategy because of the social costs.

Mangano told the Vision Long Island summit last fall, “You have to do it, you have to get started, build something, you have to create jobs and opportunities. I want to do it as thoughtfully as possible. I will continue to work with Vision Long Island and all of you. Whether we agree or disagree, my office committed….

“Let’s move forward, in next attempt – let’s not just criticize… [To the naysayers} I challenge them: what is their idea? What is their solution? You cannot afford another ‘no,’ another non-development, another missed opportunity. We will be here two, three years from now, and instead of saying we have 50 empty acres but it generates $200 million, we will be saying, now we generate nothing, now we have an empty building, 77 empty acres, and we’ve lost yet another opportunity. To avoid that, we need to act now … “

That is truly scary talk by someone who is the antithesis of a “visionary.”

Over the course of several columns, we will examine various aspects of the Vision for Long Island and Smart Growth for Long Island ideas for economic development, transportation, housing, energy – as well as the impediments to such re-visioning, in greater detail.


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