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Uptown Funk

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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