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Upper Port

Detectives are looking for Alejandro Vargas-Diaz, 36, who also goes by Alejandro deVargas-Diaz and Robin Vargas, who police have identified as a suspect in a July shooting in Port Jeff. Photos from SCPD
Detectives are looking for Alejandro Vargas-Diaz, 36, who police have identified as a suspect in a July shooting in Port Jeff. Photos from SCPD

A suspect has been identified in connection with the deadly shooting at a Port Jefferson billiards hall in July, and the police is looking for help from the public.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers and Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad detectives are looking for Alejandro Vargas-Diaz, 36, who also goes by Alejandro deVargas-Diaz and Robin Vargas. He is the alleged shooter in a July 22 incident in which Albert Luis Rodriguez Lopez, 27 of Selden, was shot and killed at about 8:30 p.m. inside Billiards DBM, located at 1604 Main Street in upper Port Jeff Village, according to police. He has ties to Brooklyn, Queens, Paramus, New Jersey, Patterson, New Jersey and Hartford, Connecticut, police said.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Anyone with information about these incidents can contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers to submit an anonymous tip by calling 1-800-220-TIPS, texting “SCPD” and your message to “CRIMES” (274637) or by email at www.tipsubmit.com. All calls, text messages and emails will be kept confidential.

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

With a master plan in place to breathe new life into the area, Port Jefferson Village is pushing for millions in state funds to give some long overdue Uptown Funk to residents.

The village, in an effort to get moving on much discussed upper Port Jefferson revitalization, has recently applied for a combined state grant of $9.46 million through the Consolidated Funding Application — $7.06 million from Local Waterfront Revitalization Program and $2.4 million from Empire State Development.

Initially hoping to secure up to $10.5 million through New York State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative, Port Jeff lost out on that grant last week when Hicksville officials received the funds to renovate and revitalized their own downtown area.

However, Port Jefferson village officials applied for funding through the state’s Consolidated Funding Application so they could still get agency funding individually by project for several desired initiatives in the area surrounding the Long Island Rail Road station in what’s commonly called upper Port.

If awarded, the funds will contribute to the village’s face-lifts along the intersection of Perry Street and Main Street and about a block north of the train station.

The multiphased project known as Uptown Funk 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, especially for younger residents, according to Village Mayor Margot Garant.

At the beginning of 2017, the village secured $500,000 from Empire State Development through Restore New York Communities Initiative to help demolish a blighted building, and a grant of $250,000 from Suffolk County as part of its Jumpstart program for transit-based improvements around the train station.

Garant said the latest ask for millions of dollars is for good reason. The pending grant is considerably more money than the village has received in the past, though the mayor said she feels it is necessary due to a drastic change in Port Jefferson’s marketplace.

“[Rail] Realty built 76 brand new apartment units last year that got rented out in lickity split time — housing is desperately needed,” Garant said in a phone interview. “We only put in for $500,000 last year because we weren’t ready. Now we are.”

The mayor said among those who will benefit from the project are Stony Brook University students, who are just a train ride away.

“Those people need housing, those students need a place to be, they need a sense of community,” she said. “We’re ready with shovel in the ground projects and I’m hoping we get a piece of the pie. I need the state to recognize that these projects are ready to go.”

On the long list of projects in the upper Port master plan, Garant said, are new gateways, parking lot renovations, major streetscape improvements, blight studies and the implementation of new sidewalks and streetlights. Many of these are currently underway using the previously awarded funds.

“Whatever they give me, I’m going to put to work,” Garant said. “One of the reasons I decided to run again for my fifth term was I wanted to see the planning we’ve done, the money we’ve spent and the effort the community has put into planning this come to fruition. We’re right on the cusp of that.”

The village’s grant writing manager Nicole Christian, of HB Solutions LLC, said all the village’s projects aligned with the requirement set by the region, and she said she believes the village stands a good chance of at least getting partial funding.

“I think Uptown Funk is going to skyrocket this village through its stratosphere,” Christian said. “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.”

She said the application is currently under agency review and they should have an answer by November.

The Shipyard apartments on West Broadway in Port Jeff is one of three new complexes in town, joining The Hills at Port Jefferson uptown and a third planned for West Broadway. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

Construction projects in Port Jefferson village and upper Port have raised concerns from some residents and merchants, but according to a study conducted by a Stony Brook University professor of economics and population, the juice will be worth the squeeze once the apartments are occupied.

Port Jefferson resident John Rizzo, who earned a Ph.D. in economics from Brown University and now teaches at Stony Brook University, presented at a meeting Feb. 22 the findings of a study done to analyze the economic impact of the partially opened The Hills at Port Jefferson and the under-construction The Shipyard, two new apartment complexes in Port Jeff.

“The economic impacts of these projects are substantial,” the summary of Rizzo’s report reads in part. “Apartment space is scarce on Long Island. The average vacancy rate was just 3.4 percent as of October 2016. Increasing apartment space is important, not only for stimulating economic growth, but for attracting and retaining younger workers on Long Island.”

The study concluded the additional living spaces in Port Jefferson will spur an additional $4 million approximately in increased discretionary spending for the area on an annual basis. The two projects also are expected to create 757 jobs, though not all are expected to exist in perpetuity. They are also projected to increase economic output, or the total value of all goods and services produced in an economy, by more than $122 million, according to Rizzo’s analysis.

“Increasing apartment space is important, not only for stimulating economic growth, but for attracting and retaining younger workers on Long Island.”

—John Rizzo

The estimates are based on multipliers produced by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which are used to quantify effects of a project on any U.S. county. The cost of construction projects, boosts in sales for suppliers involved in the projects, jobs created, and even spending in the area by workers on the project are all factored into an input-output model to assess a construction project’s potential economic impact, according to the study.

The results are drawn largely from expenditure data provided by Rail Realty, the developer of the two-phase, 38-unit and 36-unit complex located on Texaco Avenue in upper Port, and TRITEC Real Estate Company, the developer responsible for the 112-unit The Shipyard project near Port Jefferson Harbor. Because of this, the results of the study should be considered estimates, according to Rizzo.

Village Mayor Margot Garant, who has taken on elimination of blighted properties and overall beautification of Port Jefferson village and upper Port as a major aspect of her tenure in office, called the projects in an email exactly the kind of economic
injection the village needs to bolster property values, on top of the positives of cleaning up properties in need of attention.

“The introduction of more people living in the village within walking distance to shops and restaurants combined with the redeveloped properties that will have significant increase to our tax roll over the next decade, will support the businesses not only in the off-season when things are quiet, but year-round as well,” she said. “We need to stop the crawling blight and revitalize the west end of the village in addition to uptown.”

Village trustee Bruce D’Abramo echoed Garant’s vision.

“That was our goal. Some of those stores up there are not doing real well, but feet on the street will always improve that,” he said at the Feb. 22 meeting.

Rob Gitto, Port Jeff native and owner of the development company The Gitto Group, which owns Rail Realty, said in an interview in December building The Hills in upper Port was about more than profit for the company.

“We’re a business and we’re looking to make a profit, but at the same time we’re hoping it jump-starts revitalization up there,” he said.

Though it was not factored into the study, construction of a third set of apartments is slated to begin in the spring, after demolition of the vacant Islander Boat Center building on West Broadway adjacent to The Shipyard was completed in February. Hauppauge-based building company the Northwind Group owns the site of the new project, which will be called Overbay apartments and will feature 52 more units.

Village trustee Bruce Miller has expressed frustration in the past, over the look and size of The Shipyard project and the overall look of Port Jefferson village as a result of the various, unaffiliated construction projects. Garant has said all of the new buildings comply with village code.

A new sidewalk runs along Highlands Boulevard in upper Port Jefferson. Photo by Elana Glowatz

They blazed the path and now they’re going to light the way.

With a new sidewalk already paved along Highlands Boulevard, keeping pedestrians out of the road, Port Jefferson officials are now working on installing streetlights on the route.

A new sidewalk runs along Highlands Boulevard in upper Port Jefferson. Photo by Elana Glowatz
A new sidewalk runs along Highlands Boulevard in upper Port Jefferson. Photo by Elana Glowatz

The village board of trustees on Monday approved spending $28,000 for Flushing-based Welsbach Electric Corp. to put in eight decorative streetlight poles and light fixtures along the winding sidewalk, between the entrance to the Highlands condominiums and Oakland Avenue in uptown Port Jefferson.

That dollar figure is higher than an original $17,000 cost approved in August. Mayor Margot Garant explained at Monday’s board meeting that the village needs more lighting than initially expected.

“We had originally contemplated putting three Dickens lanterns in,” she told the trustees, referring to the antique-style streetlights the village uses. But the “village lanterns are not known for their best illumination. So if we were to light [it] properly, it would need one Dickens lantern every 50 feet.”

However, the bumped-up expense, which will come out of the village’s surplus if the public works department budget cannot cover it, does not represent the entire lighting cost for the stretch of sidewalk. That price tag would have been “more than we have in the budget,” Trustee Larry LaPointe said.

Instead the village will put in the eight streetlights, 150 feet apart, according to Garant. “Just to give it some light at this point in time, and then we can fill in as we continue to go.”

The streetlights will use LED bulbs.

The new roughly 0.2-mile sidewalk on Highlands Boulevard has been in the works for a while, with the idea first coming up a few years ago, when residents coordinated an effort to petition the government to preserve the village-owned grassy area along the road. It was discussed as a safety issue because pedestrians had to walk in the street to get from the condos to the uptown business district.

Board members approved a parkland designation for the 6-acre grassy parcel earlier this year, a move that limits the land’s future use or development. Village officials have discussed the possibility of adding benches or walking paths there, but have expressed a desire to keep the park’s use passive.

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Study could help officials push along revitalization

One blighted uptown property, the old diner on Main Street, was demolished earlier this year. File photo by Elana Glowatz

An upcoming study of blight along Main Street in uptown Port Jefferson could help the village revitalize the area, according to the officials who set it into motion.

The board of trustees approved the study at a recent meeting, in part to identify properties that potentially could be seized through a process called eminent domain, in which a municipality takes control of land to perform a public benefit and compensates the owner. Although eminent domain is classically used for public works projects like building new roadways or widening existing ones, Village Attorney Brian Egan explained that the Port Jefferson government could use the coming analysis of blight uptown as ammunition to make a case for applying eminent domain to less common purposes.

Seizing blighted properties along Main Street in the village’s troubled uptown area could help officials push along their revitalization efforts there.

Although cleaning up upper Port and creating a more pedestrian-friendly district with both business and residential space has been a priority for some years, progress has been slow. Residents and some local business owners have been calling for improvements as well, citing safety concerns stemming from a roaming homeless population and drug-related crime. One of the more recent and most visible changes to Main Street occurred when the decrepit, crumbling diner — previously known as the Station Diner and the Old Port Diner — was demolished in January, after months of discussion between officials and the property owner. However, a new building has still not been erected in its place.

East Coast-based engineering firm VHB is conducting the blight study. That firm is no stranger to Port Jefferson: In addition to various work around the village, the engineers have completed other projects specifically for the uptown area in the past, including a traffic study that was included in the upper Port revitalization section of the village’s new comprehensive plan.

When the trustees approved the new study on Nov. 2, they specified that it should not take more than 12 weeks to complete.

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Trustee Bruce Miller says despite a vote in favor of the document on Monday, he opposes the village’s comprehensive plan. Photo by Elana Glowatz

After years of work and arguments, Port Jefferson’s controversial village development plan has become final.

The board of trustees unanimously adopted the comprehensive plan at a meeting on Monday, but Trustee Bruce Miller said in an interview the following morning that he plans to retroactively change his vote at the next board meeting.

Miller said he got “bogged down” during the board’s discussion about its agenda items, and didn’t mean to vote in favor of adopting the plan.

The comprehensive plan is a guideline for future development in Port Jefferson Village, largely focusing on the waterfront commercial area downtown and the short but troubled uptown corridor that runs between North Country Road and the Long Island Rail Road tracks. It aims, for instance, to revitalize upper Port by making it more pedestrian-friendly and bringing in more apartments. Downtown, the plan includes adding recreational and green space near the water and widening Main Street.

Residents and former members of the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee, with the support of Miller, have long sparred with the administration over the plan, citing fears that it would add too much density to what they want to be a quaint village, snarl traffic even further on busy roads and bring in more cars than there is space to park them.

Miller echoed those concerns on Tuesday, and said he also opposes adopting the plan for procedural reasons — he said he hasn’t yet seen a findings statement, which is a document certifying that the village met the requirements of the State Environmental Quality Review Act in its study of the plan’s environmental impact.

The village board approved that findings statement at Monday’s meeting.

Still, there have been voices of support for the plan, including from the other four board members and from other residents. And recent approval from the Suffolk County Planning Commission was the final stamp the village needed before adopting it.

While the commission issued a list of recommendations relating to the plan’s impact on traffic, density, taxes and parking, the village sent a response letter in which it disagreed that more study was required on most of those items. To the Planning Commission’s suggestion, for example, that the village conduct “an analysis of the impacts of increased rental housing” in Port Jefferson, the village responded in May that “it is unclear how the type of ownership status of housing units alone would impact community character, and the suggestion that because a property is a rental property that it would then have a negative impact on the community is unfounded.”

The village’s response also noted that the apartments would likely serve single adults and couples without children, which is “the same demographic that … Long Island is seeking to retain, as the young contribute to our workforce and the [retirement-aged residents] continue to enjoy recreation and spend using their discretionary income.”

Suffolk County Planning Director Sarah Lansdale wrote in an email later last month that the village gave the issues “proper procedural review” and took “a hard look at the issues raised by the commission.”

Officials broke ground Monday morning on a housing complex many hope will spur redevelopment in uptown Port Jefferson.

After four years of plans and approvals, developer Rail Realty LLC can get started on demolishing homes and buildings along Texaco Avenue to make way for 74 rental apartments, a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom. The Hills at Port Jefferson apartments will be constructed as two three-story buildings on several parcels along that street: One building will take the place of two vacant houses and the former Port Jeff Auto Spa car wash on the north half of Texaco, close to Sheep Pasture Road; while the other will be built in what is now a grassy field at the intersection with Linden Place. Resident parking will be underground, with a final parcel on the south side of Texaco and Linden, currently holding Stony Brook Electric Inc., to be used for additional parking.

Ryan Gitto arrives at a groundbreaking ceremony in upper Port Jefferson prepared to work. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Ryan Gitto arrives at a groundbreaking ceremony in upper Port Jefferson prepared to work. Photo by Elana Glowatz

“This is the beginning of a renaissance and a jumpstart to upper Port Jefferson,” Rail Realty principal Tony Gitto said at the groundbreaking ceremony, after digging into the earth at the grassy field.

The shovel work was followed up on the car wash property next door, where Mayor Margot Garant climbed into an excavator and took the first crack at taking apart the building there. Concrete crunched as she closed the vehicle’s claws over a corner of roof and ripped it away from the rest of the building.

“I can get used to this,” she shouted from the operator seat.

Garant said that the apartment project will be “so important” to upper Port revitalization efforts.

The village has been working to enhance that troubled area around Main Street between North Country Road/Sheep Pasture Road and the Long Island Rail Road tracks. An entire section of the village’s draft comprehensive plan is devoted to upper Port, with recommendations geared toward improving quality of life, making it more pedestrian-friendly and attracting developers and visitors.

Rail Realty got final village approval on its project last year. Under the conditions of that approval, the developer will make improvements to a pocket park near the apartments and improve traffic flow in the area by redesigning the intersection of Main Street and Sheep Pasture Road.

Tony Gitto breaks ground at the site of his upcoming apartment complex. Photo by Elana Glowatz
Tony Gitto breaks ground at the site of his upcoming apartment complex. Photo by Elana Glowatz

The housing complex will be constructed in phases, with the first phase being the northern apartment building, the second being the other building, and the third being the parking area across Linden Place.

The Town of Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency gave financial assistance to Rail Realty on the project, including sales tax exemptions on construction items, a mortgage tax exemption and a 10-year property tax abatement through which the owner will pay taxes on roughly the current value of the site, as opposed to the increased value of the property once work is complete.

The IDA aims to boost the economy within Brookhaven Town by assisting businesses in locating or expanding in the area.

IDA Chairman Fred Braun said Monday, “Cleaning up a semi-blighted area is the first step,” and Long Island needs rentals both in the area of Stony Brook University and elsewhere.

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