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Uptown Funk

Deal looks to make headway on Station Street

The current Texaco Parking lot was phase three of the Uptown Funk project. Phase three is to be Station Street, built when the Conifer project is finalized. Photo by David Luces

A small parcel on Oakland Avenue in Upper Port Jefferson is part of a planned sale between the Port Jefferson Fire District and Port Jefferson village in order to make room for Station Street, the last part of the eponymous Uptown Funk project.

Mayor Margot Garant said the village has purchased the property for $25,000 as part of a handshake deal with the fire department as an element of creating Station Street. That project has been on hold until final design plans come forward from the Conifer project, which would create mixed-use apartments and retail space in the footprint of the old Bada Bing parcel.

Though the property sale is only one bump toward getting the new street built, it does cross over a small piece of old time village history.

The property, a sand lot of only around 20 or so feet, was once home to one of the district’s siren towers. At its infancy, it was just a simple bell rung by hand to alert neighbors there was a fire.

Fire District Manager Doug Savage said that those towers were used by the district in the mid-20th century, though they were phased out with the advent of modern communication technology. At one point the district contained three of these sirens, with one near the elementary school still being around. The one on top of the firehouse is the only one still used. 

“That’s all they had to alert people of a fire call,” he said. 

The pole that contained the bell had rotted out, cracked and fell down likely over 20 years ago, Savage said.

Garant said it is a good deal for the fire department, who hasn’t found a use for the property in years.

“They could use the coin in the bank,” she said.

Tom Totton, the fire district commissioners chairman of the board, said the property is not big enough for anyone to build upon. 

In a legal notice published by The Port Times Record, it notes the real property is valued at more than $20,000 and less than $100,000. The notice said it has also deemed the property surplus to the fire district.

“The village wants that piece of property, so we have a deal to sell them the property,” he said.

Village Mayor Margot Garant, left, and John Jay LaValle, right. File photos

As signs for both candidates are loudly displayed across the village in preparation for the June 18 vote, mayoral challenger John Jay LaValle and incumbent Mayor Margot Garant stepped into the TBR News Media offices June 10 to share real policy about the ongoing issues in Port Jeff.

Staff issues

LaValle has made clear his issues with some village employees. Specifically, he referenced Parking and Mobility Administrator Kevin Wood. He has compared it to Patchogue, where two parking meter officers are each paid just under $65,000 annually to write tickets and manage the meters. 

Wood is paid a similar salary to the two officers, though Garant said he is in charge of repairs and IT work involving the way the meters send information to the code enforcement in regard to timed meters. She added Wood has been involved in other village programs, such as the Jitney and cameras around the village.

“He runs around the village in addition to what he oversees in our parking,” she said.

LaValle called that a false equivalency between Patchogue and Port Jeff’s parking administrations. He called Wood “your [public relations] guy” — there’s not a moment I don’t see him following you around with a camera.”

Garant said in addition to his duties as village employee, he creates video for the village with his company FPS Inc. at $12,000 a year.

“He never does that when he’s on the clock, he’s always off the clock.” Garant said.

LaValle said he does not believe Wood was qualified for the position.

Crime

LaValle said the uptown area has become intense in its illicit activity and said there has not been enough done to rectify it. He cites prostitution, drug dealing and a murder that occurred in July of last year just outside the Port Jefferson Billiards BDM.

He said in speaking to law enforcement that numerous buildings are fronts for drugs and prostitution, and they are currently collecting data.

“We literally have a slum right in front of us,” he said. “It’s literally a ghetto, and that’s the kind of thing that occurs there.”

The mayor said she talked consistently with the Suffolk County Police Department about illicit activity in Upper Port. She called her current relationship with the SCPD “the best it has been,” and added the security cameras having been hooked up to the county’s Real Time Crime Center is making strides in enforcing a police presence.

Garant said code enforcement is up at the station for every train and has helped bring in MTA police into the station, but she added they have no powers of arrest and can only create a presence and deal with immediate situations while waiting for police.

LaValle said the major issue with why crime has become so bad in Upper Port is due to the lethargic rate of the area’s revitalization.

Upper Port Jeff revitalization

Garant said part of the issue in redeveloping Upper Port comes down to the developers and owners of the uptown properties to manage their buildings. She said they had assisted in getting certain property owners government grants to demolish a particular property, but the negotiations with other developers stalled that progress and the grant funds were timed out, adding the problem is owners need to amass enough property in order to start real construction.

“We’re doing everything we can between revising the code, getting state grant money and partner to make applications to state agencies,” she said. 

As a last resort, she said the village would have to use eminent domain on these particular properties.

The mayoral challenger said in speaking with developers they are upset with the village, mostly in terms of getting permits for their properties. He said the planning staff have been restrictive in getting their applications through, except for specific developers.

“It shouldn’t take 10 years to take what is clearly an eyesore and turn it into a thriving uptown,” he said. “We need to bring the project to a finish, give the individuals their permits.”

The mayor said none of the developers are currently in the application process for permits. 

“The fact that people keep throwing the planning department under the rails … if he doesn’t have an application in,” she said.

She added the village is waiting for the Conifer Realty property, located in the old Bada Bing parcel, before putting in Station Street as part of her administration’s Uptown Funk project.

“You have to be careful with the density you give them, we’re only talking about four small blocks here,” Garant said.

The mayoral challenger said he does not support the Conifer development, citing an experience with them in Brookhaven Town and a need for “workforce housing, not affordable housing,” saying that affordable will eventually become Section 8 housing. He said village code should be changed to mandate affordable units in any new apartment complexes.

How the village will resist floods

With the potential for future storm surges and the threat of rising tides, Garant said the village is currently bringing a presentation to the Long Island Economic Development Council to request grant funding in terms of flood mitigation and stormwater runoff. 

She added that her administration is spending money to scope out the village’s drainage system, and the village is looking to find ways to absorb the water so it does not flood onto the village’s hardscape. 

“We’re in a bowl … these are low-lying marshland areas, it’s a great challenge,” she said. “There’s no magic bullet.”

LaValle said the village needs to look globally when it comes to flood mitigation.

“You got to bring in the best of the best, and I don’t know if we’re doing that,” he said.

Port Jefferson residents can vote on mayor and trustee candidates Tuesday, June 18, at the Village Center from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.

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Site projections for Conifer Realty LLC apartment building. Photo provided by Port Jeff planning department

The eponymous Uptown Funk project in the upper portion of Port Jefferson village may soon be coming to a head.

Plans are under review at the Port Jefferson planning department for a new affordable apartment complex in the property known locally as Bada Bing for the now decrepit cafe that once occupied the site. 

“This is 100 percent attainable housing,” said Port Jeff Mayor Margot Garant.

Site details include it as a four-story project with 60 one-bedroom apartments. The site will also include 4,500 square feet of retail located directly adjacent to the Long Island Rail Road train station. Project notes said the site will be located in the Comsewogue School District.

Photo provided by Port Jeff planning department

The $4 million property development is being led by Upper Port Jefferson Village LLC, owned by Parviz Farahzad of East Setauket-based Little Rock Construction, which was in charge of building the retail complex across from the train station in Stony Brook. The developer is partnered with Conifer Realty LLC, a real estate development firm with projects across New York State and south into Maryland. Recently Conifer was at the head of the Peconic Crossing development in Riverhead, a development of 45 apartments giving preference to artists.

“We think Conifer is such a well-known name — they’ve done so many projects on Long Island and New York State that they’re a real credible partner at the table,” Garant said.

This project also includes plans for an underground parking garage incorporating 60 spaces, and the developer will need to pay a Payment in Lieu of Parking fee for all the spaces that would be required for retail, according to Port Jeff planning department documents.

Alison LaPointe, the special village attorney for building and planning, said Conifer has already submitted a formal site plan application for the development, and the planning board awaits amended plans from the applicant before continuing the environmental review process and to schedule public hearings.

All future plans for uptown port now depend on when the developers starts to put shovels in the ground. Uptown Funk was meant to be completed in three stages: the first being the Texaco Avenue parking lot, the next being the Metropolitan Transportation Authority parking lot, and the last being the creation of Station Street running just north of that train station lot.

This year the MTA has finished construction of the new parking lot at the Port Jefferson train station as part of a growing effort to modernize the more than century-old terminal.

In an update to its website, the MTA said the parking lot has been repaved and was officially open for use as of Jan. 9. The new parking lot includes new repainted lines that Port Jefferson village officials said were widened from before. Garant had said those old lines were too narrow for some vehicles. The end product means there are less spaces than there were previously.

“This is 100 percent attainable housing.”

— Margot Garant

This work was all part of the ongoing Uptown Funk project aiming to revitalize the upper port area. In 2017 the 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. Texaco Avenue parking lot, at 85 spaces, was planned to cost $850,000 when it started in May 2018. The village needed to wait until construction was finished on the LIRR parking lot, phase two of the project, before working on Station Street. The village has to wait until Conifer demolishes the Bada Bing site before starting construction on that new road.

The site construction includes a 10-foot setback on the property for the village to come in and develop Station Street, which will pass by the LIRR parking lot on the north end and connect to Oakland Avenue. 

Conifer is currently seeking approval for attainable housing partnership funding from New York State, according to Garant. She added the process for getting uptown revitalized has been long, from getting the state grant funding to finding developers willing to craft new spaces acceptable to the vision village officials have for the uptown area.

“I really have good feelings about what’s going to start happening up there, but it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill,” the villagemayor said.

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.

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

Port Jefferson Village’s vision for upper Port revitalization became a little clearer this week. The village was awarded a $500,000 grant 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.

The money will be used for infrastructure and demolition needs on five adjacent parcels near the intersection of Perry Street and Main Street, about a block north of the Port Jefferson Long Island Rail Road station. This comes on the heels of the village receiving a $250,000 grant from Suffolk County earlier in January as part of its Jumpstart program for transit-based improvements around the train station. The village is calling the multiphase project Uptown Funk.

“I think the momentum is picking up behind us.”

— Margot Garant

“Now being recognized by New York state regional economic development dollars, that’s the exclamation point at the end of the sentence,” Village Mayor Margot Garant said in a phone interview. “I think the momentum is picking up behind us.”

The ultimate plan is to transform the area into a mixed-use, housing and retail area.

“This combined New York state and Suffolk County funding will be the turn-key to bring Uptown Funk alive, attracting young professionals, families and visitors to the area, spurring regional economic growth,” the village’s grant writer Nicole Christian said in a statement.

In an interview after receiving the Jumpstart money from the county, Garant stressed the importance of inter-municipal cooperation in trying to reach her goal of turning upper Port into a suitable gateway for the harborfront village.

“We’re working with all of these different agencies — largely state agencies — but to have the county executive and the county behind us giving us this kind of money, they’re investing in what we’re doing here,” she said. “They see the big picture, and I think that’s one of the things that made Steve [Bellone] a little unique in his role as county executive. He’s done this before in other areas and he knows what needs to be done.”

Village Grants for upper Port Revitalization

–$500,000 from New York State Empire State Development to address blighted/vacant buildings

–$250,000 from Suffolk County Jumpstart program for parking improvements at LIRR station

–$50,000 in state funds to finalize Urban Renewal Plan

The village took the step to commission a blight study in May 2016 in order to qualify for an urban renewal plan, which is required by New York state general municipal law. Because the study concluded the cluster of parcels was indeed a blighted area, the village will have the option 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 revitalization plans, according to Garant. The Mayor has said throughout the process she does not foresee the need for eminent domain to be used, but it is a “tool in the toolbox” should the village find it necessary. She added that she has spoken to property owners in upper Port who are excited to get the process started.

At a public hearing to discuss the urban renewal plan earlier in January, some people in the community were concerned about a lack of affordable housing in the area.

Barbara Sabatino, a Port Jefferson resident who owns Port Jeff Army Navy, a retail store in the blighted area, said she is in favor of revitalization, but acknowledged that redevelopment could push out hardworking families who can’t afford an increase in rent.

“Other than the people who rent a room out of their house — and there’s an awful lot of those in Port Jeff Station — I don’t see any safety net for those people,” she said. “If you want to clean up the area and make it more attractive, we need to change the mixture of tenants.”

Garant responded to Sabatino’s concerns.

“I think it’s a careful balance between wanting to keep young families and senior citizens and people who want to afford to live in the village as a family unit or individually, and other situations where you have people who bring other people in to help them pay the rent,” she said.

Other members of the village board have voiced their support for the project and desire to improve upper Port.

“I’m really happy to see the village moving forward on this particular issue,” trustee Bruce D’Abramo said during a board meeting in September. “It has been a clear goal of mine since I became a trustee to do something about upper Port, and this is one of the mechanisms that I’m happy we can embrace.”

The village has put out requests for qualifications to begin the process of selecting a private developer or developers, and they expect to begin the project sometime in the spring.

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