One thing certain about downtown business districts on the North Shore is that major changes are coming – whether or not village governments and the Town of North Hempstead take action.
The question is what those changes will look like and what the villages and the town will do to make those changes good or bad.
The Mineola village board set an example of what to do last week when they voted for zoning changes along Jericho Turnpike and the downtown district to allow for mixed-used buildings that include retail on the bottom floor and apartments above.
This is an approach widely accepted by planners and developers across Long Island with the housing units providing additional store traffic for the businesses on the ground floor along with much-needed affordable housing.
This is simply a matter of facing reality.
“The motivation for me, as someone who grew up here, I remember seeing outside village hall a hardware store, liquor store, clothing stores,” Mineola Mayor Paul Pereira correctly said. “Those other businesses are not coming back and what we have is empty storefronts.”
Mineola is not the only downtown district on the North Shore to have seen stores shuttered by the growth of shopping malls and online shopping. In fact, most downtown districts on the North Shore face the same problem.
But at the moment Mineola is one of the only villages on the North Shore to develop a plan to address it.
Unlike areas in the northern part of North Hempstead, Mineola can speak for itself with a single government.
In contrast, areas like Great Neck – which is comprised of nine villages – lack a unified voice, to put it kindly, with each governed by its own board with its own views on redevelopment.
Mineola has already spent years working on a plan for redevelopment, which has resulted in the construction of four upscale transit-oriented residential projects near the Mineola LIRR station.
The key to this approach, seen in successful redevelopment efforts across Long Island, is bringing all groups together to develop a strong community consensus.
Other villages have not done this.
Great Neck’s nine villages recently began to respond to years of shuttered stores in its once vibrant downtown along Middle Neck Road by at least trying to work together.
The Great Neck Village Officials Association, which consists of all nine mayors, held a meeting that featured a presentation from Destination: Great Neck, a grassroots organization whose mission is to aid Great Neck’s business district.
Destination: Great Neck co-founder and local attorney Janet Nina Esagoff discussed ways to transform Middle Neck Road and the entire business district starting with establishing an “anchor” business.
Esagoff said her organization would like to utilize the Squire Cinemas building, which was permanently closed in September 2020. The Great Neck theater is one of five to close in recent years, leaving just a location in Manhasset
While the former Squires Cinemas building is privately owned, she said the intent is to potentially utilize the space to provide live entertainment to Great Neck residents and outsiders.
This is a good idea that has been discussed since the theater closed, but so far no concrete plan has been developed.
And even if approved, much more is needed along a stretch of road pocked by empty storefronts that runs through five villages and town property.
The mayors in attendance offered pieces of what might become a plan—and reasons why that might not happen.
Almost all were the same heard in response to projects across North Hempstead, including Manhasset, Roslyn and Port Washington.
“There are people that want nothing built and don’t want any change,” said William Warner, the mayor of Great Neck Estates and the president of the association. “They want it to go back to the 1940s, but we’ve gone past that.”
Village of Great Neck Mayor Pedram Bral correctly pointed out that developers often need tax incentives to build. But he said many residents in his villages oppose approving needed tax incentives.
Other mayors cited the usual concerns about increased traffic and the cost to school districts of additional students.
School district officials have opposed projects large and small in recent years—even as many see enrollment decline.
One wonders how school boards in the past managed rapid growth in enrollment but current districts cannot.
Traffic is a problem in Nassau County both on its highways and local roads, especially the roads running north and south in North Hempstead.
It seems inconceivable that Lakeville Road, the primary street connecting New Hyde Park and Great Neck, turns into a one-lane road from the LIE service road to Northern Boulevard, guaranteeing traffic jams on a daily basis.
Too many people also commute to work in New York City by car, clogging highways running through Nassau County. This is a good reason for Nassau officials to support the proposal for congestion pricing in Manhattan.
But are local developments causing traffic problems? In the overwhelming majority of cases, no. Especially projects built near LIRR stations.
Also unexplained is how traffic was handled before malls and the internet helped shutter businesses in local districts.
Unmentioned at the Great Neck meeting was the needless red tape and sometimes business unfriendly attitudes of village officials that greet developers and people trying to open a business—or to keep a business operating.
Villages can do much to become more business-friendly by backing the kind of zoning changes approved by Mineola, which let developers know what can be built without going through the costly and time-consuming process of getting exceptions to existing zoning.
Developers can and do look to work elsewhere because of the uncertainty created by village zoning laws.
Village officials do face an unsaid objection to mixed-used developments from residents that is one of its benefits – an increase in housing.
The shortage of housing in Nassau hurts young people seeking to rent, seniors hoping to downsize, young couples wanting to buy a home by driving up the cost of renting and owning an apartment. It also accounts for the difficulty faced by some local businesses in finding staff and increases the cost of hiring.
But for people already living in Nassau the housing shortage increases the value of their homes. And those already living here are the ones who currently have the votes in local elections.
This problem is not limited to Nassau County.
In fact, the veto of local residents to new housing is one of the primary reasons for a national housing shortage.
This has resulted in states across the country looking for ways to reduce the influence of local zoning laws either through legislation or incentives.
Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed legislation in February to require municipalities to allow a minimum of one accessory dwelling unit on all owner-occupied residential zoned lots in an effort to increase housing on Long Island.
This drew a firestorm of opposition from Democrats and Republicans, who said it would be the end of suburban living as we now know it. Hochul, who was running for re-election, quickly withdrew the plan.
This should confirm a message to village officials seeking to spur redevelopment.
Downtowns have been at the center of villages for many decades, offering convenience and a sense of community to its residents.
But be prepared to take the time to build a consensus in developing a plan to restore these business districts. It will take a village and more to fix what is now broken.