Port Jefferson’s Uptown could soon be losing one of its premier restaurants, though one won’t have to look far for that seafood dinner experience.
The PJ Lobster House is moving from its spot on the corner of Main Street and North Country Road and will be moving downtown into the location that used to be Ocean 88, a Japanese restaurant, just east of the Mill Creek Road parking lot across from Rocketship Park.
In its place, local developer The Gitto Group is planning to add another apartment complex to a growing slate of living spaces both uptown and downtown.
Discussions on the new property have been going on for about a year. James Luciano, owner of the PJ Lobster House, said he had originally proposed to landlords for the property about purchasing it, but was rebuffed. As time went on, he inquired with The Gitto Group about potentially moving into a location in one of the company’s new spots downtown, and was told that the local developer was buying the uptown property. He said he wasn’t given the option to purchase the land, and that the decision was made before his lease was up.
“I have all my money invested into this place, everything was paid here, and now I have to start over,” Luciano said.
The developer already owns The Hills at Port Jefferson Village across from Port Jefferson train station and The Barnum House at the corner of Barnum Avenue and Main Street. The Gitto Group is also in the middle of creating The Brookport, an apartment complex going up where the old Cappy’s Carpets building once stood.
Both Rob Gitto, vice president of The Gitto Group, and Luciano are members and officers of the Port Jefferson Business Improvement District board. Gitto said in a phone interview that he has tried being “upfront and transparent” with Luciano since the property was purchased. Though he attempted to find a way to fit him into the upcoming Brookport site, the space simply wouldn’t work for him.
“It ended up working out, and its great to have him downtown,” he said.
Though Luciano said Gitto had been considerate in helping him find a new space, the move has been financially and physically costly to both him and his business, as he has to pick up everything that isn’t nailed down and transport it downtown. Work has already started at the Ocean 88 site, where he has to do some major renovations, including replacing the wood on the outside porch and the tiling on the inside, also removing the entire Japanese hibachi area.
“I had to take all kinds of loans out to do this,” Luciano said. “I would have never done that during this situation [with the pandemic], but it’s either that or close up shop — it was move or you’re done.”
Things are not all bad. Overall the PJ Lobster House owner said he is optimistic for the future, especially as the number of seats goes from 90 at the uptown location to around 140. He is keeping the current fish market at the front of the house in his new space, and now has plans for a bar to add a liquor selection to the current slate of beer and wine. There may be an opportunity in the future for an oyster bar.
The move downtown will likely bring his current regulars into the downtown portion of the village.
“I think with our following, we’ll do just fine,” he said.
Gitto said the new uptown building will likely be slightly smaller than the 46-unit Brookport site, and plans have the new space at three stories. Like other local apartment developments, parking is planned to be on-site with a retail component on the ground floor.
Gitto considers the corner of North Country onto Main “one of the entrances into the village,” adding they are working to make sure it fits into that space without being an impediment.
The new development would be located on the Port Jefferson side of the school district line with Comsewogue. In terms of adding children to the school district, the Port Jeff developer said so far none of theirs or other projects have added more than one family each with school-aged children. It’s likely this one won’t make a dent in local enrollment either.
“I think it’s going to make our community stronger,” The Gitto Group vice president said. “The schools as well as the village are going to need to lean on new projects to help out with the loss of the [Port Jefferson power plant tax revenue] to help keep our uptown vibrant.”
Plans are still early, and Gitto said they are waiting to submit their formal application within the next few months.
Luciano added that while it’s a shame to see the loss of retail uptown, he still thinks The Gitto Group will do a good job.
“They do good work, this building is going to be beautiful,” he said. “They maintain all their properties really well, and it’s going to be a good look for the corner.”