As drivers hurtle down Route 25A from either direction into the hamlet of Rocky Point they are met by a crossroads. If they keep straight, they will link up with North Country Road and head into the Rocky Point business district lined with shops, restaurants and services. If drivers take a right and continue along Route 25A, they circle around North Country Road, bypassing all those businesses.
It’s been the story since the bypass was constructed in the late 1990s, but it’s just one of the challenges facing business owners in Rocky Point’s commercial district as they wait to see much discussed revitalization.
“The bypass really put downtown on life support,” Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) said. “You can’t just put a bubble around Rocky Point — you can’t just freeze it in time — but I say you have to have a healthy respect for the history of it and plan your development sensitively.”
Revitalization has been planned for years and small steps taken, but much is left to be desired by those yearning for a vibrant downtown along North Country Road and Broadway, hoping to return back to the prosperity of the mid-20th century, when Rocky Point’s population experienced a boom and new businesses flourished. While new restaurants like the Broadway Market have created a sensation, the memory of stores that have closed down also looms, such as when in April 2017 McCarrick’s Dairy, an utter staple in the community that had been open for 71 years, closed its doors.
While Rocky Point is the only hamlet between Riverhead and Port Jefferson that has a semblance of a real downtown, its small size and limited space have led to unique revitalization issues. As also arises whenever the term revitalization gets thrown around, retaining the historical aspect of the downtown while growing it with a mind toward the future is a delicate balance.
In 2007 the Town of Brookhaven paid Vision Long Island, a nonprofit that advocates for transportation-oriented development, for a charrette about Rocky Point revitalization that was released in 2008. The plan called for a combination of retail, business and residential all in one place, much like what has been attempted in Patchogue, Farmingdale and dozens of other pockets of Long Island. That plan was rejected by the community, which felt it would destroy the small town feel of the area.
“[The Vision plan] was much too aggressive in pro-business and development,” president of the Rocky Point Civic Association Charles Bevington said. “I’m in favor of slow-growth opportunities for small businesses and restaurants. You know you can’t come in and dictate development. We have too many problems with water. We have too many problems with nitrogen in our systems.”
Eric Alexander, the director of Vision Long Island, said his organization’s plans hinged upon sewers, which the community rejected.
“They wanted goods, services and restaurants, something walkable and quaint but that was as far as they wanted it,” Alexander said. “That’s fine, but the numbers didn’t work without the sewers. Revitalization has gone in a few different directions since we left them.”
Some residents said sewers would only be a hindrance to the community’s growth.
“You can’t get the density on Broadway to support the cost of sewers,” said Linda Albo, the owner of Albo Real Estate on North Country Road. “Downtown is just not the right place for sewers.”
In 2012 and 2013 Bonner and Brookhaven secured a $1.2 million grant for road and traffic light improvements along North Country Road. It included setting up new light fixtures and fixing the curb cut along the main road’s intersection with Broadway. Yet real revitalization that would bring business flooding downtown is still a dream, even as some think its advent is just on the horizon.
Mark Baisch, the owner of development company Landmark Properties Ltd., is the latest to attempt to reinvigorate downtown Rocky Point. Its On the Common project promises 40 one-bedroom apartments for seniors inside 10 buildings located along Prince Road and King Road, just north of North Country Road. Also included are plans for a large green space along Prince Road set up for community activities such as the Sunday Rocky Point Farmers Market and a new VFW Memorial Museum right in front of the Brookhaven municipal parking lot. A quarter of the apartments will be reserved for veterans, Baisch said.
The apartments hold a distinction from other residential projects meant to stimulate downtowns. While projects in Patchogue and Ronkonkoma have tried to get young people living in space that is part residential and retail, Baisch said he hopes to do the same with the 55-and-older community.
“There is a huge need for it,” Baisch said. “There’s so many 90- to 100-year-old people living up in the hills of Rocky Point, and nobody even knows they exist. They sit in their house with the rooms closed up not knowing if they’re going to have a way to get out of the next snowstorm. It’s not a great way to live out your twilight years.”
Some residents are looking forward to the On the Common project with the possibility of leaving home ownership behind.
“I think it is a great idea,” Rocky Point resident Claire Manno said. “I am a senior citizen and have lived in Rocky Point for 20 years. I will have to sell my house eventually because we can’t afford it for much longer. I’d like to stay in the area if possible.”
Other community members questioned why there will only be one-bedroom apartments available.
“I became disabled two years ago,” Rocky Point resident Christine Cohn Balint said. “I have a three-story home and I cannot manage stairs. So we will be selling. But this ‘community’ will not be built for me — they won’t be ready. One bedroom only? They should offer two bedrooms also, if so I’d consider it.”
Baisch said he hopes to start construction around October.
There is hope in the community that good things are coming. The Broadway Market, which opened in March, has made a big splash. Some also looking point to plans in 2019 to start construction on the Rails to Trails project, which will create a biking and hiking path along the old rights-of-way and train rails that run parallel to the North Shore. That path will run north of North Country Road and give people walking and bike access directly into the heart of the commercial district.
“The Rails to Trails is going to have the biggest positive impact,” Bevington said. “It’s going to be along the line of walking and bicycling, and we have two bicycle shops in town that can be aided by the project. That’s really something.”
Alexander said he believes while there wasn’t community support for his organization’s plans, these upcoming projects could result in something good for the area.
“The community has to trust the change, any change that occurs,” Alexander said. “There are a lot of good people over there working in good faith — people who care deeply about the community — that’s what’s most important.”