It’s not your parents’ Levittown: smart growth gains momentum in Long Island

Artist Renderings of the $2b Village of Hempstead Revitalization: Courtesy Renaissance Downtowns

Posted by & filed under Case Studies, Our Blog Posts, Regional.

(December 29, 2011), David Hogenkamp, ESF

In 1947, 4,000 acres of potato fields were transformed into 17,400 homes for 82,000 people. Courtesy: New York Times

In 1947, a new type of planned development was built in Hempstead, Long Island, redefining how we build and how our country- from the Deep South to the western deserts- would develop for the next half century.  Levittown, New York, the first truly mass-produced suburb, was the first of four planned Levittown communities (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Puerto Rico). Though Nassau and Suffolk Counties have many picturesque, rail-served towns and village centers, pristine beaches and open space, the 1950’s car-dependent Levittown is still, to this day, in the eyes of many, emblematic of Long Island.

Today, it is time to start putting the old Levittown image to rest.  Under the stewardship of Empire State Future’s allies, Vision Long Island and Sustainable Long Island, citizens and developers have changed their tune, focusing on the need for sustainability and the revival of main streets and town centers.  This movement is not new.  In fact, for the tenth year in a row Vision Long Island has brought together some of the island’s most influential political, business and community leaders to talk smart growth in a yearly daylong summit.  The November summit attracted over 1,000 participants and 50 elected officials!

Vision Long Island’s 2011 Smart Growth Summit: Over 100 presenters and 1000 regional business & community leaders convene to advance placemaking & economic development on Long Island

Regional Economic Development Council (REDC) Top Plan Awardee

When Bruce Katz of The Brookings Institute, Joan McDonald, Commissioner of NYS Department of Transportation and Cesar Perales, Secretary of State, sat down as part of the statewide selection committee for the Regional Economic Development Councils, to listen to the presentations by each of the ten councils, what they heard from Long Island was a vision deeply invested in reviving the region’s existing town centers and urbanized areas.  The smart growth enthusiasm in the presentation was also matched in Long Island’s Strategic Plan, which asserts that the time of the “one-size fits all” suburb is over and that the historic model was deeply tied to some of the region’s endemic issues such as youth flight and racial segregation.   In fact, Long Island’s presenters even mentioned Smart Growth several times in their opening statements.   Moreover, Long Island was not the only region to prominently identify the peril of suburban sprawl and the need for wise land use and downtown revitalization.  “Top Plan Awardees”- selected by the Committee to receive an extra $40 million to implement their vision – Western New York and Central New York – also featured regionally appropriate smart growth.

What is smart growth in Long Island?  

Regionally appropriate growth in Long Island is growth dependent on walkable downtowns and the Long Island Railroad (LIRR).  With an average weekday ridership of 282,358—a figure greater than the total population of New York’s second biggest city Buffalo (261,310)- the LIRR was appropriately identified as a beacon for future transit-oriented-development (TOD); residential, work, or mixed-use space that is built to utilize transit connections.  TOD can be designed to accommodate households of different size, income-level and both owners and renters, creating attractive environments for youth, older singles and empty-nesters.   As household size and the number of children per family (90% of new households formed by 2030 will have no children- ACS) continue to decrease, communities need to create housing and workspace that is attractive and compatible with the changing market. Placemaking that offers  “nearer”, “smaller” and more walkable environments, will be the route to economic success.

REDC Awards

In total sixty-six LI projects were awarded $101.6 million in funding from the REDC process.  The Long Island plan incorporates over a quarter of the funding to specific examples of smart growth, with much of the remaining funding focused towards worthy goals such as affordable housing, workforce development and business retention.  Just as important as the strong TOD investments, the plan predominantly stays clear of the proposals that perpetuate the “one size fits all” suburban model. Some of the best projects specifically interesting to smart growth advocates include:

Wyandanch Rising: Courtesy Town of Babylon

Wyandanch Rising ($6 million):  In the works for almost a decade, Wyandanch Rising is adjacent to the LIRR station, an hour from New York’s Penn Station, in an economically depressed section of the town of Babylon.  The project is part of a Brownfield Opportunity Area- an area wide brownfield planning effort.  The site has been divided into development phases, with the first 40-acre phase calling for 750-1,050 dwellings as well as commercial space and civic amenities.  Twenty percent of the units are required to be affordable.  In 2010, the project received $14.66 million in low-interest financing for sewer infrastructure needed to support TOD development.

While Empire State Future generally opposes the use of public funds to extend sewer or water infrastructure into greenfields, the Wyandanch project and many of the other TOD projects on the island clearly align with smart growth criteria as they revitalize existing population center while promoting development organized around public transportation, serving as a model for the twenty-first century economy.

Ronkonkoma Hub: Courtesy Town of Brookhaven

Ronkonkoma Hub ($4 million): This project involves the redevelopment of 50 acres just north of the Ronkonkoma LIRR Station in the Town of Brookhaven.  The Ronkonkoma Station is the busiest on the Island.  As detailed in a September 25, 2011 New York Times article, this new live-work-play development would replace stretches of blight.

The funds will be used to develop a regional sewage treatment plant that is necessary to handle future demand expected from the TOD project as well as the proposed expansion of nearby MacArthur Airport.  Such use or reuse of existing infrastructure are investments that support smart growth goals.

Village of Hempstead Revitalization ($5 million): (See “Featured Photo”)  The newly awarded $5 million will assist in financing the necessary sewer improvements needed to spur growth in the Village of Hempstead, which has stated its intention to develop smarter. The community has selected a master developer in Renaissance Downtowns and Urban America, who will work from a bottom-up perspective to build a strong transit-oriented development.

Heartland Town Square Road Improvements ($2.5 million):  The very dense, though auto-dependent, Heartland Town Square development utilizes the decommissioned Pilgrim State Psychiatric Facility campus in the town of Islip.   The proposal includes over 9,000 residential units, 3 million square feet of office space, and 1 million square feet of retail.  The development touts walkability and bikability and plans to reuse many of the existing buildings as affordable artist space as well as for other amenities.  See the developer’s video, recently showcased at the Vision Long Island Conference, here.   The funds secured through the regional council process will be used for road improvements to facilitate the future construction of Heartland Town Square.

Other Notable Long Island REDC Awards:

  • $3 million for a program to promote high-tech business to relocate to downtown Hicksville;
  • $2.6 million to construct 36 affordable rental units in New Cassel;
  • $1.3 million for Concern for Independent Living’s Concern Amityville project to build 61 units of affordable housing for homeless people;
  • $885,000 to build or rehabilitate 25 affordable homes for Habitat for Humanity of Suffolk;
  • $500,000 to revitalize over 30 buildings and make streetscape improvements in downtown Oyster Bay;
  • $100,000 to complete the Port Jefferson Village Harborwalk project for pedestrian access to the waterfront.

At Vision Long Island’s recent Summit, concerned citizens, businesses and local leaders came together to share their desire on how to better their communities.   Paired with the state’s Regional Council effort, which in the first round provided some effective examples on how to tie infrastructure investment to smart and regionally appropriate growth, the Island may be poised for a new level of economic success.  While indeed there still exists a strong-willed opposition to smart growth solutions, when the region came together to identify the strategy for the next five years, two things became very clear; smart growth will continue to be a key part of the answer and Long Islanders hope to lead the way.

One Response to “It’s not your parents’ Levittown: smart growth gains momentum in Long Island”