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Uptown

Port Jeff Army Navy on Main Street uptown will close at the end of August. Photo by Alex Petroski

Boarding the wrong train in 1939 might have put a damper on Joseph Sabatino’s day, but if he knew the series of events that would play out over the eight decades that followed, what he likely viewed as a
mistake would be more accurately depicted as destiny.

As his daughter Barbara Sabatino told it, her father was a pharmacist who saw a newspaper advertisement that a location of the Whelan’s Drug Store chain was for sale in Port Washington. She joked that her father must have confused his presidents, ending up on a train to Port Jefferson instead.

Barbara and Peter Sabatino, owners of Port Jeff Army Navy. Photo by Alex Petroski

It was his lucky day, because a storefront in the same building that currently houses Port Jeff Army Navy also
happened to have a Whelan’s location up for sale. He started his pharmacy at the site, eventually buying the building in 1958 with his brother Samuel. His children, Barbara and Peter, have owned the location since his death in 1977, operating as Port Jeff Army Navy since 1999, though the store underwent several transformations over its 80-year lifespan in the Sabatino family. Later this year, the location will embark on another transition, as Sabatino’s son and daughter plan to retire and close up shop. Barbara Sabatino, a Port Jeff Village resident, joked she and her brother, who lives in Port Jeff Station, are getting old and are ready for some relaxation and travel time.

“I always used to say, ‘We’re Madonna,’” she said. “You know how Madonna always used to reinvent herself? Well we’re just like Madonna, reinventing ourselves.”

Her father’s 1939 mistake had a lasting impact not only on his business, but also his personal life. Sabatino said her parents met when her mother Frances went on a trip to her family’s property in Coram, and before heading home on the train, as fate would have it, stopped for a soda at Whelan’s.

“If he didn’t come to Port Jefferson by accident, and if my grandfather didn’t own property out in Coram, [my parents] never would have met and we never would have been here,” Sabatino said. “This was a happy mistake.”

“You know how Madonna always used to reinvent herself? Well we’re just like Madonna, reinventing ourselves.”

— Barbara Sabatino

The Sabatino children were faced with a decision in 1999, though it was far from the first time, having transformed the pharmacy into a stationary store in prior years, and even adjusting the spelling of the name in decades past. Whelan’s Drug Store had to change to “Weylan’s” in the 1960s when the company decided to
require franchise owners to license the name for $100 a month, according to Sabatino. Her dad decided instead to flip the “h” in the sign over to a “y” and tweaked the order of the letters, allowing them to keep their vibrant neon signage and avoid the fee.

The opening of a couple of office supply stores nearby decimated the business, and Sabatino said she and her brother settled on becoming an Army Navy store because of a hole left in the market — Mac Snyder’s was a long-standing Army Navy store in downtown Port Jeff that closed a few years earlier. At their store, veterans and military aficionados could purchase ribbons and Army-Navy accessories, recover lost medals, buy uniforms and other items like firearms and camping gear.

“It was a natural draw with Peter being in the Navy for 11 years,” Barbara Sabatino said, adding that she used to shop at Mac Snyder’s and always found it a cool place to be. “Out of all of our incarnations, this was my favorite. It’s fun, and the customers are lovely.”

Both Sabatinos noted how special it was to be able to assist active and former military personnel in getting what they needed in the store, which also allowed them to interact with some of the country’s most upstanding and honorable citizens.

“After Barbara suggested the idea of an Army Navy store it brought back a lot of memories, and I said to her, ‘That’s a good idea, that’ll work,’” he said. “There’s a lot of people from Vietnam that are trying to replace all of the stuff they have, and we’re able to get the items in for them.”

Whelan’s Drug Store became Weylan’s drug store in the 60s when then-owner Joseph Sabatino decided to flip the ‘h’ in the name over rather than pay a licensing fee or remove the store’s iconic neon sign. Photo from Barbara Sabatino

At the public village board meeting in June — Barbara Sabatino is a regular fixture at these meetings — a village resident mentioned the pair’s impending retirement, currently slated for the end of August.

“If Barbara is happy, I’m happy,” Village Mayor Margot Garant said upon hearing the news, adding that she
wished her well.

Their impact on the community will be a lasting one. Sabatino said the store owners not only prospered in business during their time uptown, but also gave back to help those around them by helping neighborhood kids with homework, advocating successfully for a new park on Texaco Avenue in recent years and even supplying transportation to village events for uptown kids who wouldn’t have otherwise had a means to get there.

Sabatino shared a card a longtime customer sent to her and her brother when they heard the news.

“At first I was very upset to hear that you were closing because we’re not only losing the best store around, but also the friendliest and most helpful people out there,” the card said. “Port Jeff Army Navy’s goods, services and friendship will absolutely be missed. I am happy that you are retiring. You deserve to rest and be happy and enjoy your family and friends.”

This post was updated June 13.

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.

The second phase of construction is underway at the Texaco Avenue apartments. Photo by Elana Glowatz

If you build it, they will come.

Port Jefferson developer Rail Realty LLC proved that old adage when Rob Gitto, from its parent company The Gitto Group, confirmed its uptown apartment project is already at full rental capacity — a month before it is even slated to open.

Gitto said the 38 units in the first completed apartment building has been completely pre-leased and there is a waiting list for the second building, which will add another approximately 36 units when completed next year.

Most of those future tenants are affiliated with Stony Brook University in some way, Gitto said, whether they are graduate students, medical residents, professors, nurses, doctors or other staff. There are also a few people from John T. Mather Memorial Hospital’s new residency program.

The first phase of the Texaco Avenue apartments is complete. Photo by Elana Glowatz
The first phase of the Texaco Avenue apartments is complete. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Officials broke ground on the much-anticipated project, dubbed The Hills at Port Jefferson, in May 2015, expressing hope that the first new development in upper Port would spur revitalization efforts in the troubled area.

Village leaders have been trying to enhance the uptown’s Main Street corridor, between North Country/Sheep Pasture Road and the Long Island Rail Road tracks, with the goal of improving quality of life, making it more pedestrian-friendly and attracting developers and visitors.

At the groundbreaking last year, Mayor Margot Garant said the 74 Texaco Avenue apartments would be “so important” to the revitalization.

Gitto thinks it’s already propelled other improvements. He said Monday that he has seen one nearby business making improvements to an existing establishment and two others sign leases to bring in new ones.

“We wanted to see the area revitalized and we’re seeing it,” he said, adding about the rest of the uptown area, “We definitely hope they follow suit.”

There are other community benefits attached: Under the conditions of the project’s approval, Rail Realty has to make improvements to a pocket park on the west side of Texaco that currently has a jungle gym, swings and a basketball hoop, and improve traffic flow in the area by redesigning the intersection of Main Street and Sheep Pasture Road.

Construction has gone in phases. Last year, Rail Realty knocked down vacant homes and buildings along the east side of Texaco Avenue between Sheep Pasture Road and Linden Place to make way for the two three-story buildings — which will have a mix of studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments — and began working on the northern building. That was completed recently, with the new apartments visible from some angles on Main Street, a block over. The developer got started right on the foundation of the second building, to the south.

The first phase of the Texaco Avenue apartments is complete. Photo by Elana Glowatz
The first phase of the Texaco Avenue apartments is complete. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Garant announced the milestone at a village board of trustees meeting on June 6, saying people would start moving into the first apartment building in mid-July.

Resident parking is underground, a noteworthy element for a small village in which having more cars than parking spaces has long been an issue. And toward the end of the second ongoing apartment construction phase, the developers will bring down a building on the south side of the Texaco Avenue and Linden Place intersection, the Stony Brook Electric Inc. building, to make room for additional above-ground parking.

That’s also when the park improvements will take place, Gitto said. Plans are still developing, but they might include landscaping, such as flowers and necessary irrigation, and taking down an unused shed there.

For The Gitto Group — which has built up other parts of Port Jefferson, including an office building, the CVS and the Barnum House apartments on Main Street — things are falling into place faster than anticipated. Rob Gitto said the project was done in phases because the developers weren’t sure how well the first set of apartments would be received and how quickly they would be leased.

“We knew it would be successful but we didn’t know it would sell that quickly.”

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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