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Upper Port Jefferson

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Blighted buildings and empty storefronts in upper Port Jefferson could soon be addressed through various grants. File photo by Kevin Redding

“Time for a bulldozer.” “What happened to this community?” “Something needs to be done up there.”

As eyebrow-raising stories in upper Port Jefferson — the area on and around Main Street between North Country Road and the train tracks — and Port Jefferson Station keep coming, so too does reaction, available in abundance at community meetings and on social media pages geared toward the Port Jeff area. If these reactions were a person’s only window into the state of an increasingly crime, addiction and poverty-stricken area, an element could surely be lost: the human element.

“You keep putting Band-Aids on bullet holes,” said Darryl Wood, 60, a Mastic Beach resident and employee at Echo Arms Adult Home, a residential facility on Route 112 south of the train tracks that houses adults with disabilities and provides shelter for low-income individuals, within the area designated for revitalization by Town of Brookhaven.

Wood was referring metaphorically and broadly to government’s approach to improving communities showing many of the symptoms characteristic of Echo Arms’ backyard, though his analogy had a tinge of reality. On July 22, a 27-year-old man from Selden was shot to death inside a billiards hall in upper Port. About a week prior, a man was stabbed at a bar just north of the tracks following an altercation. Wood hadn’t heard of the revitalization plans presented by the town July 24.

“They need help — they need someone who cares.”

— Darryl Wood

“They need help — they need someone who cares,” Wood said July 27 on a hot afternoon as he enjoyed his lunch break on a bench near the Port Jeff Station entrance to the Greenway Trail. He shared that he had been homeless previously, addicted to crack and panhandling to survive in Manhattan.

“I thought I would die a crackhead,” he said, adding he has been clean for 12 years, and working at Echo Arms for three. “I owe, because I’ve taken so much.”

Perception has become reality for those who don’t spend much time in upper Port, though personal interactions can serve as a reminder — people live in this community characterized at times only as a hot spot for drug use and violence.

“There’s always a lot going on in Port Jeff Station,” said a woman, who looked to be in her 60s, named Anna Maria, sitting on a bench adjacent to the train station July 27 while she waited for the S60 Suffolk County bus to arrive when asked if she’d heard about some of the recent events in her community.

She pushed a walker to help her reach the bench, coming north from around Maple Avenue and carrying a reusable shopping bag. A brief conversation revealed she spent time teaching American culture in Beijing, China, about 30 years ago, and carried a printed photo with her to prove it. She concluded the conversation saying, “God bless you,” as she boarded her bus.

“You’re doing better than me, I’m shot, the heat and humidity is killing me,” another man likely in his 50s waiting on the same bench for a bus downtown responded to the simple conversation starter “How ya doin’?”

He counted the change in his pocket as he spoke, wearing a gray baseball hat, dirty white T-shirt and gray sweatpants.

“Can you tell which bus is coming, I don’t have my glasses today,” he asked peering south down Route 112. “Be careful kid,” were his departing words.

Later a man who appeared to be homeless with a messy, full head of gray hair and out-of-season clothing sits down on the bench. He wandered over from the direction of Pax Christi Hospitality Center, a homeless shelter on Oakland Avenue. He stayed on the bench for about 20 minutes, halfway between seated and hunched, with his hand on his head and covering his face. Eventually, he stood up slowly, gathering a garbage bag in one hand and what appeared to be a bundled towel or blanket under the other arm. Without checking traffic, he hobbled across Main Street, stopping cars in both directions and turned the corner, disappearing from view.

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E.H. Rogers Feed and Grain, circa 1910. Photo from Ken Brady Collection

Revitalization plans between the train tracks and Route 347 in Port Jefferson Station have an eye toward the future, but those who have dedicated their lives to the community’s history have a message: not so fast.

Five buildings with historical roots in Port Jefferson Station that fall squarely within the bounds of Town of Brookhaven’s territory slated for redevelopment, as indicated during its planning board’s July 24 presentation during a Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association meeting, could be at risk of being demolished. Two of the buildings, 101 and 105 Main St., adjacent to the south side of the train tracks, could be in more imminent danger, according to Jack Smith, president of Cumsewogue Historical Society, based on a phone call he said he had in March with Charlie Lefkowitz, a real estate developer who owns many of the buildings in the area personally or in part with business associates.

The present day Costigan building, which operates as a law office. Photo by Jack Smith

The buildings, dating from the early 1900s, one of which housed E.H. Rogers Feed Mill, serve as links back to the area’s agricultural roots, according to Smith.

“We worked with the community and town for several years,” Lefkowitz said in a phone interview about the proposed redevelopment as a whole, though he declined to comment specifically on the historical buildings other than to confirm he spoke with Smith in March. “We will continue to work with the community and the town to create the best product and vision for Port Jefferson Station.”

In 2014, the findings of the Port Jefferson Station Commercial Hub Study commissioned by the town to compile community feedback and detailed analysis from professionals to determine what redevelopment of the area might entail were released to the public. Though the study has no legal bindings, it contains recommendations from Port Jefferson-based architects and consultants for the study, Campani and Schwarting Architects founders Frances Campani and Michael Schwarting, as well as longtime Suffolk County planner Lee Koppelman, calling for the preservation and incorporation of the five buildings into future redevelopment plans.

Smith said Lefkowitz told him the two buildings nearest the train tracks specifically are in a state of disrepair and cannot be preserved, despite the fact that they are occupied by businesses currently. Smith said the developer was willing to preserve relics from the historical structures and even establish a museum to memorialize the history, which Smith called “nonsense” and “insulting.” Schwarting said he disagreed with Lefkowitz’s assertion, relayed to him by Smith during a joint interview July 20.

“They’ve got good bones,” the architect said of the buildings.

Schwarting’s partner Campani said she understood the dilemma developers like Lefkowitz face in situations like these, though she agreed she does not see a case for needing to knock the buildings down rather than refurbishing them and incorporating them into revitalization plans.

“These buildings should be celebrated not simply demolished.”

— Nick Acampora

“Part of the problem, which is one of the things we tried to address in the study, is that it’s not a very pedestrian-friendly area right now, and you sort of have to slow down to a pedestrian pace to start to appreciate these things,” Campani said. “If you’re flying by at 40 miles per hour, you’re not going to.”

Sarah Kautz, preservation director of Preservation Long Island, a nonprofit that advocates for the protection and stewardship of historic sites, said the buildings’ location on a state road and proximity to a Long Island Rail Road station would trigger review by New York State as part of the State Environmental Quality Review Act prior to demolition, though getting the sites listed on state or national historic registries would go a long way toward securing their protection.

“It doesn’t prevent [demolition], but it does put it on a longer path, and it can bring private owners to the table in a serious way and kind of leverage a little bit of a negotiation,” she said, adding that public support and collaboration between the two historical sites would ultimately serve as strong deterrents against the approval of any plans ultimately necessary from the town’s planning board when a site plan is eventually weighed. Kautz said the organization would support a push to preserve the buildings. “They’re important buildings. The local community will benefit more from a rehab than it would by a total blitz.”

Nick Acampora, president of the Historical Society of Greater Port Jefferson, pledged to support Smith in his efforts, even if it comes to “laying down in front of a bulldozer.”

“These buildings should be celebrated not simply demolished,” Acampora said.

Joe Rezvani plans to close 8 Futons after nearly three decades in the community. Photo by Alex Petroski

The furniture store on the corner of Sheep Pasture Road and Main Street in upper Port Jefferson turned its owner’s American Dream into reality, but after 26 years in business, 8 Futons is preparing to close its doors.

Joseph Rezvani, a Port Jeff resident who immigrated to the United States from Iran in the 1960s when he was 18 got his start in the futon business in 1989, back then operating out of the garage of his home, before opening his store in Port Jeff in 1992. He owns the building that houses 8 Futons and said he’s not sure yet if he’ll rent it to a new tenant or if his wife would move her nail salon to the location. He attributed his decision to close to a number of factors — a desire to spend more time with his grandchildren, a decline in business precipitated by more online and chain store options and an ever-growing number of empty storefronts in 8 Futons’ direct vicinity.

“Doing business with Joe is like doing business with your best friend. He’s interested in what I need and what I want.”

— Donna Karol

The store was known for carrying unusual, unique items like furniture and decorative pieces in specific styles, in addition to futon mattresses and frames. The business was also known for Rezvani’s willingness to find and order specific items if they weren’t in the store, helping customers replace damaged items, assisting with assembling pieces and adding a hands-on, personal sales touch from him and his staff. He told TBR News Media in a 2006 interview he always had an interest in design and started making his own frames for the futons before opening the store and offering a wider array of furniture and other home furnishing accessories.

“I have a bond with my customers — I don’t mind spending the time with them,” Rezvani said, adding that interacting regularly with his loyal customers is easily what he will miss most about his business.

Donna Karol, a Port Jeff resident shopping for a new shelfing unit on the afternoon of June 29, said she’d moved around the area several times over the years, and each time she paid Rezvani a visit to help furnish her new home.

“Doing business with Joe is like doing business with your best friend,” Karol said. “He’s interested in what I need and what I want.”

She said she first bought furniture from Rezvani 25 years ago and has even sent furniture with her kids when they went away to college over the years.

“When I saw the sign go up, I was devastated,” she said of her reaction to hearing 8 Futons was closing. “It’s the service, him personally.”

“I have a bond with my customers — I don’t mind spending the time with them.”

— Joe Rezvani

Rezvani said at times during his years uptown he felt neglected by Port Jefferson Village, though he added he appreciates the hard work Mayor Margot Garant and her team do in trying to foster a beneficial environment for businesses. The village is in the process of implementing long-planned revitalization efforts for the uptown business district, expected to get underway in the coming months.

“I understand the mayor is doing a hell of a job, but there is a little bit more that can be done,” he said. “I’ve been struggling for the last two years to stay in business. I just didn’t want to be another statistic, another empty store.”

He said he would like to see some more incentives for landlords to be able to reduce rents imposed on tenants. Rezvani said he is thinking about continuing his business without occupying the physical space on Main Street, offering customers the opportunity to buy inventory online, but only making shipping available locally in an effort to maintain his community-oriented feel.

As an immigrant, Rezvani said he’s sometimes troubled by the political rhetoric surrounding the immigration discussion.

“There’s a lot of people — the majority — that are just looking for a better opportunity, and that makes the country better,” he said. He added that he feels his desire to seek his American Dream paid off.

Rob Gitto of The Gitto Group, representative from the Long Island Rail Road Ryan Attard, grant writer Nicole Christian, Tony Gitto of The Gitto Group, Leg. Kara Hahn, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, village Mayor Margot Garant, village Trustee Larry LaPointe, Trustee Bruce Miller, and Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright during a groundbreaking for an upper Port Jefferson revitalization project May 9. Photo by Kyle Barr

After years of planning upper Port’s redevelopment to deal with blighted buildings, traffic and a lack of parking space, Port Jefferson Village officials are finally ready to say, “Don’t believe me, just watch.”

As part of the village’s revitalization efforts — a project dubbed “Uptown Funk” — village, Suffolk County and Brookhaven Town officials held a groundbreaking ceremony May 9 for a new parking lot in the space at the corner of Texaco Avenue and Linden Place. The lot should allow for another 74 parking spaces, largely for Long Island Rail Road commuters using the Port Jefferson train station.

“The village is thrilled to partner with the county, Empire State Development and the Long Island Rail Road on improvements in upper Port to enhance pedestrian connectivity and safety, revitalize blighted commercial properties, and promote safe living and economic growth,” Mayor Margot Garant said.

The revitalization of upper Port is part of the Connect LI project of Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D). The plan behind the initiative is to use both existing and new public transportation options to connect people to commercial centers and main streets as in Port Jefferson.

“This is a model of what we need to be doing around the region,” Bellone said. “My administration is committed to providing funding to assist our towns and villages with these revitalization projects. The project we broke ground on today is a major step in continuing our efforts to make Suffolk County a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

Phase one of the project will cost $850,000 to be funded by grants from the county’s Jumpstart program and other financial contributions. Along with the parking lot the first phase of the project will improve sidewalks that lead to the train station from The Hills at Port Jefferson apartment complex.

Phase two of the project will include a renovation of the north, east and south LIRR parking lots with new pavement, lighting and plaza entryway.

Phase three will create “Station Street,” a new one-way road that will provide access to the new renovated parking lots. Garant said the road should also reduce congestion on Main Street and allow for smoother access into the train station parking lots.

Part of the hope for the project is that students coming from Stony Brook University and other commuters will help create interest in the area, which in turn should incentivize businesses to invest in upper Port and remedy the blighted property seen on Main Street, according to Garant.

“We want feet on the street,” Garant said.

Last year Nicole Christian, a consultant at law firm HB Solutions and grant writer for the village, helped apply for several grants for the Uptown Funk project. Last year Port Jefferson Village was awarded $250,000 in Jumpstart money to start plans on the project and the village also applied for a grant from the Empire State Development Corporation, a state entity, for $500,000.

“Empire State Development is excited to support this roadway realignment that will foster this transit-oriented development and revitalize this community to create a true linkage from upper Port Jefferson to the waterfront,” Howard Zemsky, ESD president, said in an email.

Part of the purpose of the new parking lot is also to help facilitate foot traffic from The Hills at Port Jefferson to the train station across the street. “All of the apartments in two separate buildings, which were completed in 2016, have already been rented out and there is already a long wait list to get in,” said Tony Gitto of The Gitto Group, the real estate development company behind development of the apartment complex, during the event.

The Town of Brookhaven and Port Jefferson Village worked with Gitto and his company to create the two-building complex. To incentivize the creation of the apartment complex, Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency, an arm of municipalities dedicated to funding projects to stimulate job creation and economic growth, gave Gitto and his company sales tax exemptions on construction items, a mortgage tax exemption and a 10-year property tax abatement.

Gitto said that they provided money toward the funding of the new parking lot.

“They hired the contractors and we made a financial contribution,” Gitto said.

This post was updated May 15.

Nicole Christian, grant writer for PJV, helps fund projects by finding hidden dollars. Photo from HB Solutions website

Though the hills might not be saturated with valuable nuggets like the gold rush days of old, hidden money exists for municipalities in the form of state and federal grants for countless types of projects.

For the last eight years, Nicole Christian, a grant writer for HB Solutions consulting services, has been finding hidden dollars for Port Jefferson Village and, as a result, has helped to progress projects that might otherwise not have gone forward. Since 2014, Christian, a 2015 “Forty Under 40” honoree by Long Island Business News, has found more than $3 million to put toward a wide range of projects that have or will positively affect the lives of members of the community.

Her work has been instrumental to advancing the village’s upper Port Jeff revitalization plan. Dubbed “Uptown Funk,” the multiphased project has been building momentum since 2014 and aims to transform blighted properties, better connect residents to work, make the streets more walkable and vibrant, and provide an overall better place to live in the area of the village on Main Street between North Country Road and the Long Island Rail Road train tracks, according to Village Mayor Margot Garant,

At the beginning of 2017, Christian secured $500,000 from Empire State Development through its Restore New York Communities Initiative, and a grant of $250,000 from Suffolk County as part of its Jumpstart program, for transit-based improvements around the Long Island Rail Road Port Jeff train station. In December, the village learned it had received another $350,000 Restore New York grant from the state to go towards the upper Port plan, bringing the total Uptown Funk grant money up to $850,000.

“I think Uptown Funk is going to skyrocket this village through its stratosphere,” Christian said in a previous interview. “It’s a destination for young people, families, tourists. I think it’s a fantastic investment for the community, and I think the state knows that too.”

Garant said Christian has been an asset for Port Jeff Village because she is highly personable and understands the community and its needs.

“When it comes to trying to find money, you’ve got to squeeze every ounce of water out and turn over every stone, and that’s what Nicole does,” Garant said. “When you don’t have it in your budget it’s so important to have that lifeline to have someone help you find the money.”

Christian’s impact on the village in 2017 was certainly not limited to development projects. The village closed the iconic Rocketship Park for renovations and began a months-long refurbishment, partly funded by a $265,000 grant from New York State’s parks department. Garant said the village applied for the money multiple times, and prior to the third trip to present their qualifications for the grant, the mayor admitted her hopes were not high.

“We went three times to get money for Rocketship Park and the third time I was like, ‘Guys, I’m not going, why would I go, they never gave us any money the first time,’” she said. “Nicole said, ‘No, you’ve got to go.’”

The village still didn’t get the award, but finished close enough that when the applicant who came in first returned the money, Port Jeff’s application had been next in line.

“I think when you’re a grant writer you have to be persistent,” Garant said.

This vacant parcel located at 1527 Main St. in Port Jefferson may soon be acquired by Port Jeff Village using eminent domain. Photo by Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant has repeatedly called the use of eminent domain “a tool in the village’s toolbox” in relation to its vision for upper Port Jeff revitalization, and as of last week, it appears the toolbox has been opened.

The village is set to acquire a parcel of land in upper Port using eminent domain, as it is looking to purchase vacant property at 1527 Main St. between Safe Harbor Title Agency and Tara Inn on the east side of Main Street, to then sell it to a developer. A diner used to occupy the space, though it has since been torn down. A public hearing was held on the matter Dec. 4, another requirement prior to proceeding with the acquisition of the land.

The parcel is currently owned by Jose Ramos, who purchased the premises for $260,000 in July 2013 with the hopes of building and operating a bakery, according to his attorney Steven Askinas of a Bay Shore-based law firm. Both men were present for the hearing before the village board. Askinas said Ramos was initially asked by the village to clear the property and start over, and he complied with the request. He was also asked for plans to include a second story with space for apartments, which he also complied with in his plans, so that the building would be adherent to the village’s greater revitalization plans.

In early 2016, Port Jefferson Village began taking tangible steps to improve the look and spur economic development of upper Port, the area of the village on Main Street between North Country Road and the Long Island Rail Road train tracks. A blight study was commissioned in May 2016, a requirement to qualify an area for an urban renewal plan by New York State general municipal law. Because the study concluded the cluster of parcels was indeed a blighted area, an urban renewal plan was adopted in October 2016, clearing the way for the village to impose eminent domain over property owners should an agreement not be reached for the village to purchase the property, or if owners do not comply with the village’s revitalization plans.

Askinas said his client has complied with everything the village asked, and still wants to build his bakery and remains willing to include apartments in his plans. During the hearing, trustee Bruce D’Abramo, who serves as the board’s liaison to the building and planning department, said Ramos never submitted a complete application regarding the property. Ramos has rejected offers to sell the property on the open market and from the village, following the commission of an appraisal of the property by the village, according to Village Attorney Brian Egan.

“The total amount to date that he has invested in this property is $380,000, approximately,” Askinas said. “He wants to put his bakery in. He’ll put apartments up top. If there’s a special design plan that is in keeping with the neighborhood or the neighborhood plan for development, he’s willing to do that. To take the property from somebody who’s willing to put into this area makes very little sense. I’m sure whatever the village is offering my client would not be fair recompense for what he has put in. It’s four years already he’s been trying to get this done. He has been doing whatever the village asked, and now to come back and say ‘see-yah,’ that’s not fair.”

Public comments can be submitted regarding the matter until Jan. 3, and the village concluded the hearing by asking Ramos to submit a completed application for the site within the 30-day period.

The village was awarded a $500,000 grant in February to be used on the area from Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm, as part of the Restore New York Communities Initiative, which was created to support municipalities in rehabilitating blighted commercial properties. Garant also announced the state selected Port Jeff Village as a recipient for another $350,000 in grant money earmarked for improving the southern gateway to the village near the train tracks. She added the village is in the process of selecting master developers to begin working on the area of upper Port, which she said she expects to begin in early 2018.

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The abandoned train cars on the railroad line along the west side of Main Street are covered in graffiti. Photo by Alex Petroski

In the midst of a massive beautification process in upper Port Jefferson, village officials and residents have voiced displeasure over two abandoned train cars sitting on the railroad line on the west side of Main Street between Linden Place and Wilson Street. The cars are no longer in use on the Port Jefferson Long Island Rail Road line and have sat near the train station since January, according to Mayor Margot Garant.

In an email, Garant called the abandoned cars a nuisance, a “complete and total eyesore,” and an “invitation to deface public property.” The cars are covered in graffiti, including some profanity, and Garant said she and the village board are concerned the area might be an attractive spot for homeless people or “individuals possibly involved with drug use.”

Port Jefferson resident and business owner Barbara Sabatino voiced concerns about the cars during a village board meeting April 3.

“There’s a lot of vulgarities on there, and when I walk back to my car I’m looking at the sign for Mr. Gitto’s property that says he’s taking applications for the apartments, and they’re looking directly at these cars that have a lot of ‘F’ words on them,” she said. The Gitto Group, a real estate development company, constructed The Hills at Port Jefferson, which are two apartment buildings in upper Port that opened in 2016 and overlook the train tracks.

Another resident, Marge McCuen, spoke out during the meeting about the cars.

“You’re getting the grant money to make all of these improvements, and then they come and dump that garbage here — it’s a disgrace,” she said.

In January, the village received a $250,000 grant from Suffolk County’s Jumpstart program to improve parking at the railroad station and other cleanup efforts. They also received $500,000 from New York State through Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm, as part of the Restore New York Communities Initiative, which was created to support municipalities in rehabilitating blighted commercial properties. That money will be used to beautify businesses near the train tracks. In addition, Garant said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has dedicated about $1.8 million in funds to contribute to the train station’s main parking lot.

Garant said representatives from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have told her the plan is to take the cars to a “scrap yard” in Yaphank.

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