As journalists, we share the frustrations of many residents in our communities who see the large number of empty storefronts — many left vacant for several years — while new developments seem to erupt out of the ground just a few feet away from derelict properties.
Imagine the grief felt by Huntington residents two years ago when Great Neck-based developer Villadom Corp. proposed construction of a 486,380-square-foot mall with retail and office space on the 50-acre property known as Elwood Orchard. Many residents feared overwhelming congestion on Route 25 and water quality issues. Meanwhile, empty buildings stood just to the east and west of the site.
Imagine the relief when the developer withdrew the application. Then think of the relief that Hauppauge residents felt last year when they saw a sign reading Relish restaurant, of Kings Park, was opening an additional location in the old Pizza Hut on Route 111. The blighted building had been vacant for decades.
Rows of vacant buildings spoil Port Jeff’s uptown vibe. The abandoned businesses along Lake Avenue in St. James and Main Street in Smithtown also point to serious problems. In Setauket, a former King Kullen still sits empty years after the chain closed those doors, and a decrepit building sits on the corner of Gnarled Hollow Road. Suffolk County was willing to buy the latter property with the Town of Brookhaven looking to maintain it as passive parkland. Some of these situations are examples of property owners holding out for more money. In which case, the only real victim is the community as a whole.
Elected officials need to ensure that these empty storefronts are filled to create vibrant shopping areas. It’s an important, even essential step to take to create stronger, cleaner and healthier communities. It also protects groundwater and can minimize roadway congestion.
Preserve that open space and fill the locations that are already set up for commerce first.
Local officials may be limited in how much they can dictate to developers but there are options. Take for example Decatur, Illinois, where the city recently hired a retail consultant to fill the vacant storefronts. Consultants or even town employees can be tasked in recruiting companies interested in entering the market. Businesses can be sold on the benefits of reconfiguration and renovation, rather than new construction.
Business owners can take responsibility, too, to maintain the quality of life in their neighborhoods where they do business. Recently, former Yankees star baseball player Mariano Rivera received an OK on a zoning change from the Town of Brookhaven to create a car dealership in Port Jefferson Station in an already developed space. While he plans to create one new additional building on site, he will expand on an existing one. The local civic and town board complimented him on his willingness to work with the local community.
Many big businesses may come into an area focused on their branding, concerned with how their building needs to look, and insist on building from scratch in what they feel is an ideal location. We encourage elected officials to welcome businesses into structures that already exist. Quality of life should be considered first and foremost in our communities.