Viewpoint: Reimagining Great Neck the Greater

Viewpoint: Reimagining Great Neck the Greater
Karen Rubin, Columnist

I can remember when Great Neck was regarded as the Long Island destination. People came from all over for our trendy shopping, dining.  It was when the famous actor-comedian Alan King lived in the Kings Point mansion once owned by Oscar Hammerstein II and when the sense of community was so strong (there used to be a United Community Fund), that he would lend his name to the annual UCF tennis fund-raiser, even hand out the trophies.

Ah, the good ol’ days. Nostalgia is a warm and fuzzy thing.

Destination Great Neck, a grassroots nonprofit organization formed in 2021 to promote the revitalization of Great Neck, wants us to reimagine Great Neck. Our peninsula of nine villages and unincorporated areas needs a new lease on life.  But a reimagined Great Neck should not and cannot be the Great Neck of old.

The group held its second major forum event to create a dialogue of ideas – starting with experts from Elisa Kyle of Vision Long Island; Frank Camarano of the Nassau County Chambers of Commerce; Victor Dadras, an architect and urban designer intimately aware of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative projects; and local merchant Marni Ives of Kron Chocolate.

Kyle, the placemaking director for Vision Long Island, provided numerous photo examples of what revitalization – of storefronts, streetscapes, architecture, landscaping, lighting, events and activities – look like.  She also showed how drab, dead downtowns can be transformed, not just visually and aesthetically, but creating happier, more healthful environments, imbued with vitality and community spirit. “Placemaking” is about creating a sense of place and a place where people want to come, be, gather.

What Great Neck used to have going for it, and other small villages from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to Grass Valley and Nevada City, Calif., that I have visited have gone through  magnificent transformations. They are filled with small (unique) boutiques and shops, restaurants, cafes and bakeries, candy makers, delis, ethical and cultural that offer ambiance and experience. As for offices: why not capitalize on the twin trends of remote work and entrepreneurism and the state’s incentives and offer We Work-style office co-ops and business incubators, tutoring-style services, crafts (like the music store)?

They can compete with the higher rents in Manhattan and the too-large spaces of malls, with the sheer convenience of being nearby for local shoppers and attract people from farther away – provided they also provide the welcoming ambiance and the raison d’etre.

In fact, villages can capitalize on their unique advantage of offering mixed-use development (malls can’t, online shopping can’t), which makes for a sustainably profitable business model because of the synergy of the uses.

Other Long island villages, towns and cities have done it – several getting their act together enough to take advantage of the state’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grants (you don’t even need to have a finished plan – funds go toward the planning process). Ten are awarded each year.

A visionary village leadership might see their way to introduce funding for a Middle Neck Road trolley that would let the Old Village, Kensington and Great Neck Estates benefit from proximity to the LIRR; it could improve Middle Neck Road to promote safe travel for pedestrians and cyclists, it could seek partnerships for mixed-use and affordable housing rather than the contentious projects the board has pushed through that residents and neighboring villages resent, and even repurpose some of those vacant (obsolete) retail storefronts into new service businesses.

Such a trolley would also go far to unifying the Peninsula into a real community – something that has really been lost over the years. Instead of a United Community, there are tiny fiefdoms which make the absurd claim that they don’t want to “lose” their individual character (autonomy).

And instead of fighting Gov. Kathy Hochul’s NY Housing Compact plan – mandating a 3% increase in housing units over three years (arguably a village like Great Neck Plaza that has already been adding density would get credit) we should be embracing it and the resources that come with it to overcome inevitable opposition to any development proposal.

Indeed, development is universally attacked as exacerbating traffic,  but that can and should be overcome by requiring every multi-family project, instead of providing parking for two cars per unit, to operate or cooperate on a shuttle van. As for the other complaint about “overcrowding schools” – Great Neck should worry about the opposite: too few students if families can’t afford to live her.

Great Neck Mayor Pedram Bral has been pushing for new residential development as the only way his village residents can avoid crippling increases in property taxes and address the woebegone condition of his “downtown.” But he has done it horribly wrong, ramming through spot-zoning without a cohesive (appealing) plan, and not engaging residents and stakeholders in a meaningful, productive fashion. As a result, his concept of “development” has been suspect and unlikely to achieve the ultimate goal of a beautiful downtown people want to visit, work and live.

The advantage of a revitalized Great Neck – and I mean Great Neck the Greater – is that it brings in people from outside who provide the cash infusion into businesses (after all, the peninsula has only 45,000 residents, not 200,000 like Huntington). This achieves the goal of expanding the tax base and lowering each property-owner’s taxes (by expanding the tax pie).

Towards this end:

Employ Complete Streets strategies to beautify and make Great Neck Peninsula more pedestrian, bike friendly.

Work with the Great Neck Historical Society to create interesting historical markers that keep pedestrians interested, pay attention, linger, and show the importance (the Plaza has created a historic walking tour of the village). Create an online walking/biking tour (the Historical Society has much of this already.)

Restore the Stepping Stones lighthouse (Town of North Hempstead) and the Saddle Rock Grist Mill (Village of Saddle Rock) two significant historic sites that would draw visitors to the Peninsula and also give our Great Neck the Greater a sense of pride and purpose.

Create a Great Neck the Greater website.

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