03.02.2015 New York Times | In a Long Island Hamlet, a Downtown Is Being Built From Scratch
By C. J. Hughes
WYANDANCH, N.Y. — For years, this Long Island hamlet has been caught in the grip of poverty, blight and crime while the nearby Hamptons and other New York City suburbs in Suffolk County prospered.
Even a McDonald’s restaurant failed and was torn down.
But community leaders are betting they can help cure entrenched social problems by creating a vibrant city-style, high-density downtown where none existed before.
“This is going to be a major improvement in our quality of life,” said Kimberly Jean-Pierre, the director of the Wyandanch Community Resource Center, a job-placement agency.
Called Wyandanch Village, the 40-acre, $500 million development project, which is being paid for with public and private funds, calls for adding a mix of stores, offices and apartments in the middle of low-slung strip malls and auto-repair shops. Ground was broken on the 12-acre first phase last year.
As opposed to Long Island development plans from the last century, which created driveway-and-garage suburbs like Levittown, the project is not trumpeting its car-friendliness.
Ground was broken last year for the first phase of Wyandanch Village on Long Island. Credit Yana Paskova for The New York Times
In fact, in a regional trend, it is by a train station, with the expectation that residents — including those for whom cars are too expensive — will prefer to commute by rail.
New businesses will provide jobs, advocates say, and with huge investments in sidewalks and streetlights, as well as a park with an ice-skating rink, Wyandanch Village will provide the hamlet with a needed new-and-improved look.
“All these pieces will go hand in hand to help revitalize the place,” said Russell C. Albanese, chairman of the Albanese Organization, a Long Island-based firm that is the project’s developer.
Conceived more than a decade ago, the project in Wyandanch (pronounced WHY-an-danch) has been slow to coalesce, frustrating some residents. It took years to buy up or use eminent domain to take the nearly 70 properties in the project’s path, and upgrade and install infrastructure like sewers.
Next, the hamlet, which is part of the town of Babylon and about 40 miles from Midtown Manhattan, will gain a new, larger train station. A parking garage for commuters, to replace acres of surface parking lots, is also going up.
In addition, the Long Island Rail Road is at work on a continuing project to bolster train service to the area, which will result in a second track in Wyandanch.
In all, $93 million in public funds, from federal, state and local sources, has been spent on those stage-setting improvements or set aside for future ones.
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The privately funded portion of the project, though, is likely to be the most visible part. It is focused on a pair of five-story mixed-use buildings, with apartments in the upper stories and retail space below, that will tower over the landscape. The development cost of these two buildings, currently under construction on leased land, is $76 million, paid for in part with federal tax credits. The first will be completed in January; the second will open in a year.
If the spirit of Wyandanch Village echoes urban-renewal efforts, the results will hardly resemble the monolithic brick complexes from such projects in the 1950s and ’60s.
The facades on the two initial buildings will be varied, using materials like stucco and clapboard, and roofs will be designed in Italianate and mansard styles. Together, they will contain 177 apartments, from studios to three-bedrooms. As a condition of receiving public money, 123 are reserved for lower income levels; 1,000 applications for them were received this summer. The cheapest one-bedrooms will cost less than $1,000 a month, Mr. Albanese said. The market-rate units, which will start at around $1,500 for a unit of the same size, will be leased this fall.
The ground-floor commercial spaces will be no larger than 5,000 square feet each to discourage big-box stores, which, town officials say, put Long Island’s mom-and-pop retailers out of business. As of this week, four out of 15 of them were close to being leased, at about $30 a square foot, to a bank, Asian restaurant, shoe store and men’s salon, Mr. Albanese said.
The town is offering retailers 15-year tax abatements to ensure those stores are filled, officials say, since darkened windows would undermine the project’s goal of creating a lively streetscape. Building codes, revamped because of the project, are also strict about signs, with neon banned, for instance.
Wyandanch Village will include a public park between the two residential buildings. Ground will be broken in a few weeks for that one-acre space, which will host concerts in the summer and an ice rink in winter. Next year, the downtown-from-scratch is set to gain a three-story, 90,000-square-foot office building, projected to cost about $40 million, whose 25,000-square-foot ground-level berth is being eyed for a grocery store, officials say.
Later phases for the rest of the 40-acre site, today a checkerboard of weedy lots and boarded-up buildings, call for additional stores and multifamily housing, and a youth center, though the overall project is unlikely to be completed for a decade.
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Whether Wyandanch Village will fulfill its social mission is unclear. Its low-cost apartments are not reserved for those living in the hamlet, where 11 percent of people ages 18 to 64 live below the poverty line, versus 6 percent in Suffolk County as a whole, according to census records from Queens College, part of the City University of New York.
In fact, an ancillary goal of the project is to provide rental housing to the broader population, in an area underserved by apartments in general. Only 20 percent of Long Islanders live in rental housing, according to the census, compared with more than 35 percent in suburban New Jersey.
But Wyandanch Village could bring needed jobs for the community. Already this year, about 10 percent of the 100-member construction crew has been made up of local residents, town officials said, adding that it is hoped that the new stores will hire residents as well. Improved train service is expected to open up job markets, they add.
Encouraging residents to walk to stations for their commutes is a reversal from the period after World War II, when subdivisions in Wyandanch advertised “wide paved streets” and proximity to the Southern State Parkway to lure those who went to work by car, according to documents provided by Mary Cascone, Babylon’s town historian.
Those ads were aimed at African-American families, often barred from segregated subdivisions like Levittown. Places like Carver Park in Wyandanch, named for George Washington Carver, attracted black residents then, and today about 70 percent of Wyandanch’s population is black, according to census data.
The Wyandanch project comes at a time when other Long Island communities are trying to revive their downtowns with dense, transit-oriented developments. They include Patchogue, which has added hundreds of apartments in multistory buildings, many of them providing affordable housing, over objections about their drawing undesirable welfare recipients. The village, which has a train station, has also welcomed many restaurants in recent years, creating a bustling night life.
With master-planned communities of this type, “there’s a bit of a contradiction in that they’re big developments based on the concept that small is good,” said Grant R. Saff, a geography professor at Hofstra University.
If residents do need to get in their cars for errands, as has happened recently in downtown New Brunswick, N.J., after the closing of a major supermarket, he said, revitalization plans can suffer. But to resuscitate these areas, Mr. Saff said, “one of the best ways to do it is to take advantage of the fact that they are transportation hubs."
In an area as hard-hit as Wyandanch, any investment seems beneficial, said Ms. Jean-Pierre, whose office is on a lot that contained that defunct McDonald’s.
“People were skeptical at first that this would ever happen,” she said. “But every day something different and beautiful is happening there."