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James Luciano

Digital payment and a lack of meters has sparked some criticism within the community. Photo by Raymond Janis

The managed parking system in the Village of Port Jefferson has undergone considerable changes this season, prompting debate among some within the community.

Beginning March 15, the village government has incorporated various technologies into its managed parking apparatus, such as automated license plate reading, which village officials say expedites and standardizes parking enforcement.

“We’re looking to make sure that enforcement is more equitable, that there’s less room for a mistake or discretion,” Mayor Margot Garant said in an exclusive interview. “The license plate reader is in at least one of the code vehicles, and when it drives through the parking lot, it scans everything very quickly.” She added, “I think it’s going to be a much more blanketed, equitable process and easier for all parties.”

Kevin Wood, the village’s parking administrator, outlined how the new tech would operate. He said pay-by-plate metering allows for more efficient enforcement of overtime parking and eliminates the need for double payment caused by temporarily leaving and losing a parking space, among other potential benefits.

Wood said digital payment also simplifies parking during future visits as the system remembers one’s plate number. “The next time you come back into town, your plate number is already filled in,” he said. “You can’t say that about a space number because you park in a different space every time.”

The village has also digitized its residential permitting process, supplanting the previous method which was performed by hand. So far, Wood said his office has received nearly 2,000 permits.

Responsiveness questions

The changes to parking procedure have met some opposition, particularly from the business community. James Luciano, owner of PJ Lobster House, has been among the opponents to the changes. 

In an interview, Luciano indicated that many of his older customers prefer the preexisting method of paying at a meter.

The new system “is a hassle for the older clientele,” he said, suggesting older customers often make multiple trips to and from their cars to pay for parking.

“I know it doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you have clientele that are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, it is a lot for them to do that,” he added.

He said he receives daily complaints over digital payment, estimating complications using the system “probably happen 25 times a day — it’s a big problem that people are complaining about.”

Luciano attributes much of the village’s parking adversity to a lack of responsiveness from the village government, suggesting his recommendations to the village have fallen on deaf ears.

“We’ve sat down in meetings, we’ve sent letters over the last two years,” he said. “They say, ‘Thank you for the input,’ and then they do what they want. They don’t want to take any recommendations from anybody.”

Wood suggested his office is actively coordinating with the business community and that no significant changes have been made to the system other than entering a plate number instead of a space number.

“There are no changes to navigate,” Wood said. “The parker himself only enters a plate number instead of a space number, and that’s self-evident. But that being said, my office is always available to answer questions on a one-by-one basis and/or my assistant, Rita.”

Garant said her administration remains committed to working with merchants over any concerns with the system. Nonetheless, she expressed confidence that the new system would prevail over time.

“There are some recommendations that they have and questions, and we’re answering them as we can,” the mayor said. “Obviously, with anything, you’re going to get mixed concerns. I think once everybody settles into this new system, they’ll find that it’s an easier system to use.”

‘The number one challenge is capacity. It accounts for just about everything we are challenged with.’ ­

— Kevin Wood

Capacity: an age-old problem

Parking is a decades-old quandary in Port Jeff, confounding generations of local officials who have struggled to solve the parking puzzle. 

Richard Murdocco, adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University, summarized the issue in a word.

“Capacity — hands down, capacity,” he said. “It’s what all the villages on Long Island struggle with. How do you shoehorn in more parking without compromising the very character that people are seeking out?”

Wood concurred with this assessment. “The number one challenge is capacity,” he said. “It accounts for just about everything we are challenged with.”

Former village trustee Bruce Miller regarded the capacity constraints as all-pervasive, compounding other problems, such as traffic congestion. “It creates a lot of traffic that’s needless,” he said. “People are circling and circling and circling to find a parking place.”

Former New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) commented on the generations of anguished parkers pressed to find a space. He regarded Port Jefferson as distinctive for its blend of bustling downtown activity and limited capacity.

“The oversubscription of use is inevitable for a place that is as attractive, and that faces the water, which is such a magnet for this whole sector of the Island,” he said. “You want to go to Port Jefferson because there are businesses, and a vibrant walk along the harbor is exciting.” 

But, he added, “It means you’re always going to have a traffic jam.”

Meanwhile, the Town of Brookhaven, which operates the marina parking lot near the ferry terminal, has set its 2023 parking rates at five times the rate of Port Jefferson’s managed lots. Wood said this could further strain the village’s already cramped lots.

“My common sense tells me that if something is $5 an hour, and they can get that same service for $1 an hour, that tells me they’re going to put more pressure on us,” he said.

Possible solutions

‘Policymakers should begin exploring some more modern, viable options.’ ­

— Richard Murdocco

Murdocco said a natural tension exists between preserving the historic character of an area and expanding parking capacity. He added, however, that the capacity issue would eventually cap the village’s growth potential for its residential and commercial districts.

“Policymakers should begin exploring some more modern, viable options,” the SBU adjunct professor said. The most obvious option, he indicated, would be to construct a parking garage. 

This proposal would come with its own set of challenges, according to Englebright. “I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this because even if you add a parking garage, I think it will be oversubscribed on the first day,” he said.

Wood noted that he gives “daily thought” to this idea, which is also proposed in the village’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan. However, given the natural topography and existing built environment, the municipality remains hamstrung in specific ways.

“Now is the time where I think we would have a serious look at building multidecks [above-ground parking garages], but it’s not so easy because of the landscape of Port Jeff, the depth of the water and things like that,” he said.

Asked whether he foresees the village accommodating a garage in the coming decades, the parking administrator responded affirmatively.

“I’d like to hope that we can come to the point where that possibility could happen,” he said, adding, “If it were in the best interest of the community and residents, I’d like to think we could come to an agreement on that.”

Miller advised the village government to explore underground parking, an option he said would boost capacity without disrupting the area’s historic character.

“A lot of the residents and public do not want an above-ground parking garage — we’re not rural here, but we just don’t see ourselves as urban,” he said. “The advantage of underground parking is that it doesn’t make your town look urban. You don’t have underground structures protruding from the ground.”

Another alternative the village is actively seeking is shared parking, that is, entering into agreements with nearby businesses to facilitate access to their lots during nonbusiness hours.

Wood said he and trustee Rebecca Kassay are working to enter into shared-use parking agreements, particularly with hospitals and medical offices in Upper Port.

“There’s not a lot of commercial activity happening uptown, but that will change,” Wood said, adding that shared parking would offer “immediate parking to people frequenting uptown.”

Kassay, who also serves as the village’s environmental commissioner, said the shared parking proposal would help minimize the need for building new parking lots uptown, as well as the clearings and heightened flooding characteristic of such construction.

Shared parking “would prevent more square footage uptown from being hardscaped, which is a contributor to the flooding because water is not being collected, recharged and filtered in the way it naturally would,” she said. 

The trustee added, “The issue of parking is very real, but the creative solutions, like shared parking, are a way that we as a village can solve parking issues, be environmentally conscious and save taxpayers money by not building and maintaining additional lots.”

Parking committee

Garant, who had coordinated with a parking committee composed of residents and merchants earlier in her tenure, recounted the history and role of that body.

“We had a committee for upward of eight or nine years,” she said. “I think that they brought great concerns, and we heard from them.”

Asked whether the village should reinstitute the parking committee, she responded, “I’m on my way out, so I’ll leave that to the next administration,” adding, “I think Kevin is doing a great job, so I’m going to let the next elected mayor make those decisions going forward.”

Wood emphasized that a committee would not resolve the core issue permeating all parking woes villagewide. “The one thing we all end up talking about is the lack of capacity,” the parking administrator said. “All the committees in the world won’t fix the immediate need for more capacity.”

He added, “We get feedback all the time. We take it under advisement. But again, it usually leads back, after everything is said and done, to lack of capacity.”

‘It would seem to me that some democratization would be logical.’

— Steve Englebright

Wood, instead, encouraged concerned parties to take their concerns to the village board. For him, public comments during village board meetings provide community members the proper forum to be heard. 

Public comment “is the best way to communicate what you are trying to say about any subject,” Wood said.

Luciano, on the other hand, advocated for the reinstatement of the parking committee as a means to properly filter concerns from the greater community. 

“The parking committee needs to exist, and the village needs to take the recommendations from the parking committee,” he said.

Detailing why he believed the committee had disbanded, Luciano again suggested a lack of responsiveness from the village. “They got rid of it because they didn’t want to hear input anymore and because they were going to do what they wanted to do.”

Ana Hozyainova, president of the Port Jefferson Civic Association, has joined the call for resurrecting the parking committee. In an email statement, she said a parking committee would reintroduce debate to the parking decision-making process.

“The Port Jeff Civic Association fully supports the reestablishment of a parking committee composed of representatives from all stakeholders,” she said. “Reinstituting the parking committee would provide a transparent forum for discussion and decision-making.”

The civic president added, “It would also help ensure that we face our parking challenges in a manner that addresses the needs and concerns of all our residents and still preserves the character and appearance of our beautiful village.” 

Englebright regarded the proposal for a parking committee as necessary for promoting public participation.

“If you live in the village, there has to be some sense of being able to participate,” he said. “There needs to be some reasonable balance between the commercialism that dominates parts of the downtown and the needs of the residents, which should not take second place.”

He added, “I don’t know how you do that without some sort of forum other than the regular meetings of the village board. It would seem to me that some democratization would be logical.”

Despite the chiseled blocks of ice stationed around the village, downtown Port Jefferson was red hot last weekend during the 4th annual Port Jefferson Ice Festival, hosted by the village’s Business Improvement District.

This two-day celebration took place on Jan. 28 and 29, bringing together several local institutions, dozens of small businesses and a whole lot of ice. Roger Rutherford, Port Jefferson BID president and general manager of Roger’s Frigate, summarized the boost the festival brought to storefronts.

“This is the slowest time of the year for the business community,” he said. “This is our fourth annual, and it has really taken off and turned into something spectacular.”

Making the festivities possible required significant organizational collaboration between the BID and its partners. The Greater Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce assisted by facilitating a mac ’n’ cheese crawl. 

With 12 participating restaurants, the crawl offered festivalgoers a chance to taste various cuisines from food establishments around the village. 

“This is the second year they asked us to be the administrators for the mac ’n’ cheese crawl,” said chamber executive director Barbara Ransome. “They go to 12 places. It’s four ounces of mac ’n’ cheese [per stop], so you’re talking three pounds [in all].” She added, “It’s a lot of mac ’n’ cheese.”

Thousands flocked to the village to partake in the fun, including trustee Stan Loucks who projected the weekend as one of the highest local turnouts on record.

“I have never seen so many people in our village,” he said. “The merchants were extremely happy with the crowd. They did very well this weekend, and I think it was terrific to see that many people walking around our village.”

James Luciano, owner of PJ Lobster House, reacted to the festival’s success in stimulating small businesses.

“This festival brings in a lot of business for us,” he said. “This time of year, you’re lucky to get a couple of tables for lunch and a couple of bar customers.” But, he added, “We’ve been full since we opened the door.”

Meltdown

‘The businesses were thriving, the restaurants were full.’

— Kathianne Snaden

The sizable show gave much-needed relief to storefront owners still recovering from the aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost three years ago, the world and nation were shocked by the outbreak of the pandemic, leaving downtowns such as Port Jeff’s in disarray.

Indu Kaur is the owner of the Curry Club at SāGhar in Port Jefferson, an establishment that opened in February 2020, just weeks before the lockdowns. 

“We took over the business and had no idea that we were going to be shut down,” Kaur said, describing the impact of the pandemic on her business as “a huge tragedy.”

In the face of hardship, Kaur and her staff continued operations by donating meals, then reopened in the fall of that year. With a historic turnout villagewide, Kaur regarded the resurgence of the downtown businesses with delight.

“It’s so exciting to see everyone walking around, enjoying our village, enjoying the new restaurants, the new shows and our ice sculptures,” she said.

Outside Kaur’s restaurant lay a decorative ice sculpture depicting Ganesha, a Hindu deity tying into the theme of local renaissance. “Lord Ganesha is the statue that we all have faith brings prosperity, happiness and peace,” she said.

Icebreaker

Ganesha was just one of a few dozen ice sculptures displayed throughout the village. Many visitors stood and posed with the ice, which was often interactive. Some sculptures depicted animals, others tied in with the businesses for which they were custom made. 

Rich Daly, president and owner of Ice Memories, has created sculptures during each of the festival’s four iterations. He discussed the considerable effort and material that made it all possible.

“We do live carvings and have about 90,000 pounds worth of ice set up throughout town,” supplied by Riverhead-based Long Island Ice, Daly said. “Every year, we add more ice and more activities for everybody to do.”

Daly got interested in ice sculpting during culinary school, where he first received an ice carving assignment. “Once they put a chainsaw in my hands, I just never let it go,” he said.

Given how a sculpture shapeshifts and reforms during the different melting stages, the temporality and mutability of the ice medium offer both challenge and opportunity for creative expression.

“It’s a temporary art form, which makes it unique,” Daly said. “Especially on a day like today or a weekend like this, Mother Nature just doesn’t want the ice to be around,” adding, “As it melts, it just kind of changes and transforms, and it’s pretty cool.”

Daly said the process is relatively straightforward for those interested in carving ice. Blocks of ice, he said, can be acquired at most ice plants on Long Island. “It doesn’t take a crazy amount of money to buy tools,” he said. “Just have at it. Start [carving] whatever inspires you.”

Tip of the iceberg

Spring-like temperatures and melting points played a prominent role throughout the festival, with some environmentalists ringing the alarm about the threat of climate change. 

Posted along Main, a small group of protesters lined the sidewalks with signs that read: “There is no planet ‘B’” and “Be nice, save the ice.” Holly Fils-Aime, president of the local environmental group EcoLeague, discussed how the melting sculptures signal a dangerous trend. 

“The fact that these sculptures didn’t last the day because it’s so warm out here in January is a great teaching device,” Fils-Aime said.

Picketing alongside Fils-Aime was village resident Myrna Gordon, who stressed the importance of local government in identifying environmental problems and implementing science-based solutions. 

“In my own village here in Port Jefferson, I think that a lot more has to be done with environmental issues,” she said. “Having an ice festival is wonderful — bringing people to the village, helping the businesses. But we also need to focus on very, very serious issues that are happening here.”

Frozen in time

Through the ice fest, scores of people interacted with the various facets of the community. While there wasn’t an ice sculpture outside the Bayles Boat Shop, boat builders continued their work on the Resolution whaleboat project. 

“We’re in the finalizing stages of lofting,” said John Janicek, treasurer of the boat shop. After that, the buildout of the keel and stem can commence.

As the whaleboat enters a pivotal moment in its buildout process, the village is undergoing a transition of its own, moving into the post-pandemic era. With downtown thriving once again, Deputy Mayor Kathianne Snaden gave her thoughts on these positive developments.

“It was incredible to see so many people enjoy the village this time of year,” she said. “The businesses were thriving, the restaurants were full. There were shoppers and diners, and it was great to see the comeback.”

John Keating, manager of economic development for PSEGLI, announces initiative to invest in downtown areas during a press conference on Monday. Photo from PSEGLI

On March 28, in honor of Tuesday’s National Mom and Pop Business Owners Day, representatives of PSEG Long Island met with public officials and business leaders at PJ Lobster House to announce an initiative to revitalize Long Island’s downtown areas.

Representing PSEGLI was John Keating, manager of economic development, and Michael Voltz, director of energy efficiency and renewables. According to Keating, small business districts are the engine behind Long Island’s regional economy.

“We’re celebrating this National Mom and Pop Business Day by announcing that we are adding $500,000 to our programs for small businesses for 2022,” Keating said. “To bring more people into your downtown, we offer a main street revitalization program which offers $25,000 grants for anyone who wants to renovate that property and make it more appealing for people.” 

In addition to these beautification investments, PSEGLI will also offer a vacant space program. According to Keating, investments in vacant spaces are a way to remove blemishes from local business districts.

“We’ve all been to downtowns and when you see a lot of vacant spaces it really doesn’t make you want to spend a lot of time in that downtown,” he said. “We created this vacant space revitalization program to occupy a space that was vacant for at least a year and we can give you a discount on your first year’s energy.”

Voltz discussed the various improvements made through these grants by James Luciano, owner of PJ Lobster House. According to Voltz, due to this investment the restaurant now operates with greater energy efficiency.

“You see the beautiful lamps and chandeliers — all LED lighting,” he said. “LED lighting is very efficient. We provided a rebate of about $1,200 for all of the various LED lamps in this building and that’s going to save James about $500 each and every year.” He added, “It’s good for small business, it’s good for his expenses and it helps PSEG Long Island by reducing the strain on our electric grid.”

Small businesses are what give a community a sense of place and a sense of identity.

— Jonathan Kornreich

Luciano, whose business relocated in June 2021, said PSEGLI had offered him the vacant space grant, enabling him to save money on energy. According to him, this had provided much-needed relief to his small business at a time when it was most needed.

“We had PSEG come down to our chamber [of commerce] and they introduced the programs they had and we were able to take advantage of the vacant space grant, which actually helped us out tremendously,” Luciano said. “We saved over $10,000 the first year on the energy that we used. We were also given during COVID the outdoor grants as well,” adding, “Starting out at a new location, that money definitely goes a long way, so PSEG is definitely a great partner to have in the community.”

Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D) thanked PSEGLI for supporting local businesses during their time of need. He welcomed the partnership between PSEGLI, local government and small businesses.

“Small businesses are what give a community a sense of place and a sense of identity for a lot of the families that live in those areas,” Kornreich said. “PSEG Long Island gets that and we appreciate you helping carry a lot of those businesses during the dark times of the pandemic.” He added, “Now that the pandemic is coming to an end, you’re helping to keep the lights on and we appreciate that.”

Mary Joy Pipe, owner of The East End Shirt Co. and president of Port Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, discussed the cooperation between the chamber and PSEGLI. She suggested that investments such as these require foresight and ingenuity to be successful. 

“A lot of foresight was given to how this could be an advantage for the small businesses in our community,” she said. “Thank you to PSEG for that foresight.”

To learn more about the grant programs offered by PSEGLI, visit the website www.psegliny.com/inthecommunity/revitalization.

Kenny Lee, PJ Lobster House’s new sushi chef, inside the restaurant. Photo by Julianne Mosher

It’s now the best of both worlds.

When Benten Fine Sushi and Japanese Cuisine in Miller Place permanently closed in October, members of the community were devastated.

A new opportunity came just this month for Kenny Lee, the former Benten owner, where he has found a new home inside Port Jefferson village’s PJ Lobster House. 

It began when the Lobster House’s owner, James Luciano, started getting tips and requests from mutual customers about Lee. 

“James had another sushi person before who left and the timing just worked out,” Lee said. “I thought it was a good opportunity.”

When the PJ Lobster House moved from Upper Port to Main Street last year, as part of the renovations came a full sushi bar that they didn’t have at their old spot. 

“It’s great to add sushi to the menu, especially with the summertime coming,” Luciano recently said. “There’s no sushi in Port Jeff.”

Luciano admitted that when the previous sushi chef was at the bar, people didn’t come to sit there and indulge. But then Lee came on board and the seats have been filled every night he’s there.

“We’re getting a lot of customers where people are asking for sushi, and then ask if Ken is working,” Luciano added.

Last March, TBR News Media reported that Benten was struggling to keep their doors open due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A GoFundMe was created to help support the sushi restaurant with hundreds of people showing their support.

Unfortunately, Lee said, the closure was inevitable.  

“It was hard finding people to work,” he said. 

Lee and his mother owned the building at 971 Route 25A in Miller Place for nearly two decades, previously owning a place in Mount Sinai for many years before that. 

Lee and his family decided it was best to close instead of dealing with the constant stress.

But the new opportunity at PJ Lobster House is special for Lee — he is a graduate of Port Jefferson high school and is happy to be back in the community.

And while it’s not a carbon copy of his menu at Benten, Lee is bringing a ton of favorites — customers who order the new PJ roll might remember it as Benten #2.

Luciano said that right now they will have sushi available Wednesday through Sunday and will offer lunch, dinner and plan to add seafood towers to the menu.

An inside look at the PJ Lobster House. Photo by Julianne Mosher

What turned out to be a stressful summer has ended up working out.

James Luciano spent half his life working at the PJ Lobster House in Port Jefferson. Originally located on the corner of Main Street and North Country Road in Upper Port, the business was forced to move into the former Ocean 88 space at 134 Main St. 

Luciano started working at the original location in March 2000. A friend at the time asked him to help in the kitchen. 

“I was in high school at the time,” he said. “I started working in a kitchen, and then I just slowly worked my way up.” 

At only 18, during his first year of college, Luciano began managing the restaurant. He said that at the time the Lobster House’s original owners — a lobsterman and his wife — didn’t have anyone who could do the day-to-day chores. That’s when he stepped up and the rest is history.

“I kind of took over at that point, and then slowly evolved it from being a fast-food fish market into a full-scale restaurant. I oversaw the whole operation,” he said. 

While being a student by day, he helped change the shape of the spot. He separated the fish market and the dining room into what its layout has been known for since. He got real plates, china and alcohol — not just beer and wine. He helped expand the menu from two pages to 10.

When Luciano finished school, he decided it was time to either move on or take full charge. That’s when he officially purchased the restaurant.

“The original landlord actually gave me the loan to buy the Lobster House from the previous owner because he wanted a long-term tenant,” he said. “He gave me a 14-year lease and the loan to buy them out. Then we just expanded over the time.”

According to Luciano, that lease was up last July. For more than a year before that, he started sending the landlord letters and making phone calls to find out what the next steps were in the terms of their agreement. 

Luciano said the landlord was short, and then eventually stopped answering his inquiries altogether. 

“I was getting kind of nervous,” he said. “What’s going to happen? What are we going to do?”

He said he met with developers from The Gitto Group. Then he found out that they were in talks to buy the property, where his location sat, for a new planned apartment complex. The group 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 group is also in the middle of creating The Brookport, an apartment complex going up where the old Cappy’s Carpets building once stood.

With the cost of the property being too much for Luciano to buy back on such short notice, he and his team began scrambling to find a new home for the Lobster House. As a member of the Port Jefferson Business Improvement District, he was able to talk to the owner of the mall on Main Street who gave the idea to move into the former hibachi space in the back. 

“We talked some numbers, we made a deal and it worked out very beneficial,” Luciano said. “And then we got hit with a pandemic, so then we were like, ‘Well now, what?’”

The cost to move was expensive and with capacity limits, indoor dining restrictions and PPP loan confusions, the COVID-19 crisis made the situation harder. 

“It was a rollercoaster ride, for sure,” he said.

But as usual, Luciano made the best of the situation. He began the buildout of the new location throughout the summer with a skeleton staff due to COVID restrictions. 

“That being said, I’ve been going 24/7 since the pandemic,” he said. “My last day off was March 23 last year, other than Christmas.”

With the help of the village, local fire department and the Town of Brookhaven, the new PJ Lobster House was able to open the first week of December 2020. 

“As soon as we unlocked the door, we’ve been busy ever since,” Luciano said. 

The move allowed the restaurant to have lunch specials and more dining space. He brought in a sushi chef and a big bar for quick bites and a drink. 

Luciano said that at first he was angry, stressed and betrayed. But six months later, it’s all water under the bridge. 

James Luciano. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“You know, like the old saying goes, you make lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “That’s pretty much what we did here, and I think having to be pushed to move was really beneficial because we really evolved into this animal.”

And while business is better than ever, new struggles ensued in light of the pandemic. Hiring a kitchen staff has become near to impossible and the state Liquor Authority often made threatening visits to Luciano’s business. Parking has been “a nightmare,” and even swayed him to purchase a parking kiosk from the village where older clientele can pay for parking without using the QR reader meters in the back lot. 

“We get a huge amount of people that complain on a daily basis about the parking and how to pay for the parking,” he said. 

The new kiosk, which personally costed him $2,500 to obtain, now helps visitors pay with a card rather than their phone.

But he continues to power through.

“Overall, I’m extremely happy with the location,” he said. “The clientele is much different, the relationships we’re developing with the people now is much different than what we had uptown.”

The fish market has now gained regular customers, who have started bringing their friends. 

“We’ve developed that hometown restaurant the village was kind of lacking where everybody’s going to,” he said. 

While Luciano spent his entire career, from teenage busboy to owner, in Port Jefferson, the Coram native and resident said he’d eventually want to settle down here, full time.

“I told the Gittos that I’m waiting for my penthouse on the top from the building that you took from me,” he joked. 

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The PJ Lobster House in Port Jefferson has a new location and a new look after a few months of furious work. Photo by Julianne Mosher

It was an intense few months of renovation, but PJ Lobster House has a new home Down Port. 

Formerly located on the corner of Main Street and North Country Road in Upper Port, owner James Luciano had to move when The Gitto Group purchased the property for a planned apartment complex. 

The new space, located at 134 Main St., in the former Ocean 88 restaurant location, needed to be completely redone, Luciano said. But the outcome is a good one. 

“It feels more like a restaurant now,” he said. 

Luciano has owned PJ Lobster House for 20 years, after taking over the space from its original owner. 

And he wanted to homage to him in the new location, according to local artist Linda Alfin. She, alongside fellow Port Jeff artist Jennifer Hannaford, were asked to paint a large mural inside the seating area. 

Luciano “asked me to paint a specific type of fishing boat the old owner used,” Alfin said. 

The detail on the scene is impeccable. Hannaford, known for her water imagery, detailed the waves where the boat floats. 

“We painted the numbers on the boat to symbolize when the restaurant first opened,” Hannaford said. 

Both artists were thrilled to help decorate the new space. 

“We’re not just local artists, we’re neighbors,” Hannaford said. “We’re so grateful to be a part of it. It’s nice when people in the village see and care about local art.”

Alfin agreed. “We both live in this town, so to help out in any way we can is great,” she said.

But the painting is just part of the renovation. Luciano said they had to gut the space, but in doing so added a bar — something they didn’t have at the former spot — and moved the beloved fish market to the front of the restaurant, detached from the dining areas. 

Overall, the restaurant can hold more than 50 more customers than the old location did, going from 90 people to about 140.

“The kitchen is doubled in size,” Luciano added. “Because of the pandemic, we were getting hit with a lot of takeout orders, so it will better equip us for that.”

The new PJ Lobster House is open every day from 12 until 9 p.m.

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PJ Lobster House is just one of several local businesses whose owners say inspectors have repeatedly shown up to the restaurant around dinner time in a small, two-week period. Photo by Kyle Barr

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. 

Rob Gitto of The Gitto Group. Photo from Gitto

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.

The Hills at Port Jefferson opened in upper Port in 2018. Other Uptown projects include the Port Jefferson Crossing and now a new project at the corner of North Country Road and Main Street. Photo from Rob Gitto

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.” 

With No Indication of a Reopening Date, Businesses Try to Survive

Stock photo

A federal program meant to help keep businesses afloat during the pandemic has caused more headaches than relief. Business owners are concerned they will be saddled with more debt and unclear guidelines have left them with more questions than answers. 

James Luciano, the owner of the Port Jeff Lobster House and the Port Jefferson BID secretary, has received PPP loan funds, but expressed concern of how the federal government will handle the forgiveness process. 

“It [the PPP restrictions] has been so loosely written, it’s like reading a different language,” he said. “They have also changed the applications for loans two or three times.”

“There are some things that the current guidance doesn’t answer.”

— Bernie Ryba

Luciano has begun to use the money for rent, other remaining bills, paying vendors and some payroll expenses. Though until he and other business owners receive the approval to fully reopen its businesses, he said he may struggle to comply with the forgiveness guidelines.  

For the loan to be forgiven, 75 percent of funds must be used for payroll, keeping staff to pre-pandemic levels for eight weeks after the money is disbursed. 

“The clock starts ticking once the money hits your account,” Luciano said. 

The Port Jeff Lobster House owner reiterated the difficulty of bringing all employees back without the doors being open. Another obstacle is that some employees may opt to continue on unemployment as they are receiving considerably more money than at the restaurant, according to Luciano.  

Bernie Ryba, director of the Stony Brook Small Business Development Center, said there has been a lack of clarity on the forgiveness guidelines. 

“Clients have expressed some concerns to us, we are looking to the [federal Small Business Administration] for guidance on the forgiveness provisions,” he said. “It has caused many questions from us, CPA firms and law firms. We are hoping this is cleared up as soon as possible.”

Ryba said the center advises hundreds of clients and has received dozens of calls and emails from business owners on this topic. 

“As a business center we try to do research and address their questions the best we can, but right now there is very little to refer to,” he said. “There are some things that the current guidance doesn’t answer.”

Ryba pointed to one of the provisions of PPP that requires 25 percent of funds must be used on utilities. 

“Can it be used for heat, power, internet and transportation expenses? No one knows because there are no specifics,” he said. “There are lenders who have already spent some of their funds.”

The director of the business center said that the federal government didn’t have much time to react and the SBA was not staffed to handle the influx of applications from the onset. 

A recent report from SBA Inspector General Hannibal Wared detailed that many small businesses could struggle to meet the 75 percent payroll requirement. 

Ware called on the association to evaluate the potential negative impact to borrowers regarding the percentage of loan proceeds eligible for forgiveness and update requirements. 

With uncertainty over the current criteria of PPP, local municipalities have stepped in to offer alternatives to businesses. 

Brookhaven Town is offering $10,000 grants to small businesses as part of its Emergency Microenterprise Business Relief Program. It is aimed at microenterprise businesses within the town that have five employees or less. The town received a special allocation of funds provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the CARES Act. 

The new norm for businesses could include being six feet apart and the use of protective dividers. Sean Hanley of LB Fabrication & Automation LLC., has begun making plexiglass social distancing dividers in an attempt to help his own business survive and also to allow any business to open up to full capacity. He has already installed dividers at Salon Blonde in Port Jeff, which is run by his wife. 

Many who first applied for the PPP loans after the initial April launch did not receive funds before the first set of $349 billion ran out by April 16.

Hanley’s Smithtown-based business was shut down following Governor Cuomo’s executive order. A good portion of its business comes from work on construction and other job sites where its metal fabricator and masonry services are sought after. 

“The clock starts ticking once the money hits your account.”

— James Luciano

He and his wife both missed out on the first round of the PPP loan applications but were able to get through in the second batch of applications. 

“We’re still waiting to hear back, but we would look at paying the rent first,” he said. 

Hanley is hoping the state will begin to relax restrictions so he and his wife can reopen their businesses and bring back their respective employees. 

While owners are anxious to reopen, there has yet to be any indication in what capacity businesses will be able operate. Social distancing guidelines will also play a factor. 

Luciano said it would not help his restaurant at all if he is potentially forced to reopen with significantly fewer customers. 

“We’re used to filling the place up, it would be hard for us with less capacity,” he said. 

In addition, Luciano expressed concerns on how social distancing could affect the day to day operation of the restaurant and impact the customer experience. 

“I think right now it is better to do the takeout services, we have been taking full advantage of the village’s delivery program,” he said. 

He said this is time when many businesses reap the benefits of increased foot traffic in the village and use funds to pay bills from the offseason in the winter. 

“We start to break even during May and in the summer is where we make a lot of our money, Luciano said. 

Close to two months into the pandemic, Ryba said they are still “early in the game}” and even as the crisis ultimately ends it could have wide-ranging effects. 

“There are a lot of difficult things that need to be sorted out, you could have millions of individuals who will be without a job,” the director of the business center said. 

Crisis Forces Owners to Get Creative

Stony Brook Trauma Center staff member Colby Rowe and Wang Center Building Manager Scott LaMarsh accept donations for the COVID-19 Donation Center. Photo from SBU

Local businesses throughout Long Island have been hit hard because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but it also has brought them closer together. These uncertain times have bred creative and unique ideas in an effort to keep these storefronts afloat. 

Renee Goldfarb of Origin of Era in Port Jefferson hosts daily livestreams demonstrating an item in her stock during the ongoing crisis. Image from Facebook

For Renee Goldfarb, owner of Origin of Era boutique in Port Jefferson, it meant finding ways to further connect with clients and new customers despite them not being able to come into the store. 

“There’s not the heavy foot traffic we are used to seeing, so instead of just sitting in an empty store why not continue to interact with customers online?” she said. 

Goldfarb started what she calls a “virtual shopping experience” where she showcases and models different pieces of clothing from a number of indie and female designers. In these half-hour livestreams, she said it allows customers to get that familiar experience of seeing products in real time and decide what they like.

“I’m very hands on; I want them to see how these pieces look on a normal human being, not just a store mannequin,” the boutique owner said. “The viewers also leave comments and it gives me the chance to talk to them and answer their questions.”

Goldfarb currently produces weekly videos on Instagram Live and Facebook. She said she has already sold a few items from her store and is getting good feedback from customers on the videos. 

 “The business community in Port Jeff is really trying to support one another,” she said.

Though times have been trying, it has not stopped local shops from supporting those who arguably need it the most.

Similarly, the Port Jefferson Business Improvement District is conducting a restaurant delivery program that will send meals to St. Charles and Mather hospitals for the medical staff, to thank them for their service during the ongoing pandemic. The Greater Port Jeff Chamber of Commerce is also assisting in the effort. 

Theresa Skogen, liaison for the Port Jeff BID and the chamber, said they already started to drop off meals at the hospitals earlier last week.  

“We started last Saturday — it’s been a good way to revitalize some of the businesses that had to shut down and it keeps them busy during their slower days,” she said.

James Luciano, owner of the Port Jeff Lobster House and BID secretary, said the BID is donating up to 40 meals at a time to the hospitals on a rotating basis. 

“Any restaurant that is in the Greater Port Jeff area can participate,” he said. “The BID will pay them a flat fee of $500 for 40 meals. We pick up the meals and deliver them to the hospitals for free.”

Luciano said they hope to continue delivering meals every day to the local hospitals. 

In addition, the Port Jeff chamber has set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds to help Port Jeff restaurants feed hospital workers at St. Charles and John T. Mather hospitals. GreaterPortJeff.com is sponsoring fundraising efforts for the restaurants involved and the campaign will also help local restaurants. As of today, close to $4,000 has been raised. 

“We wanted to make sure we could provide that service, and be able to employ local personnel.”

-James Luciano

In an effort to further help Port Jeff businesses, the Village of Port Jefferson has created a website page titled Open Today. The page contains a list of over 30 restaurants and other businesses. The BID is also sponsoring a free delivery service  from 12 to 8 p.m. daily.  

Luciano said they wanted to have a centralized delivery system in the village during this time and at the same time have this option available to customers. 

“We wanted to make sure we could provide that service, and be able to employ local personnel,” he said.  

For some entrepreneurs, making sure customers know that they are still present is just as important, despite seeing a dip in business. 

Gabriela Schwender, of Long Island Crafty Ones, a mobile and traveling workshop based in Rocky Point, said a lot of business plans have had to be canceled due to the pandemic. Her craft workshops cater to face-to-face interactions with her clients. 

In the meantime, she has been livestreaming craft workshops on the business’ Facebook page. While she can’t provide art materials like she usually does, Schwender said she has turned to finding common household objects that can make for fun craft projects. 

“Usually when I do these workshops, I’m right there to help them or guide them,” she said. “Right now, I’m answering questions through text.”

Schwender said a number of viewers have already reached out to her saying that they would like to hire her once the pandemic/shutdown is over. 

Gary Pollakusky, executive director of the Rocky Point Sound Beach Chamber of Commerce, said small businesses are going through a difficult time right now, adding the chamber has reached out to all its members in an effort to assist them in any way they can, including giving each other ideas and advice. 

The organization has come up with its own page titled Shop Locally, Distance Socially, which can be found on its website (www.rpsbchamber.org) where it lists a number of restaurants, retail stores and other businesses that are still open and taking online orders. The chamber is also encouraging residents to order a gift card for now, to shop with once life returns to normal.

“These small businesses and mom-and-pop shops need the support of the public more than ever before,” he said. 

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A new video released at the end of October looks to entice more people to come and shop in Port Jeff village businesses. Photo from Port Jeff promotional video

Port Jeff and the Business Improvement District are hoping cooperation will equal better results, starting with a new hashtag, #PortJeffersonMeansBusiness.

The Village of Port Jefferson, in partnership with the BID, released a new video at the end of October looking to entice more people to come and shop in village businesses. The video includes interviews with Mayor Margot Garant, along with business owners such as Debra Bowling from Pasta Pasta, Joey Zee from Z Pita restaurant and Jena Turner from Breathe, located on East Main Street.

The video was produced by parking and mobility administrator, Kevin Wood, through his media company FPS Inc. Originally created as part of a rebranding campaign for the village, it has become a step toward a tighter working relationship between the village and BID, which for years has not exactly seen eye to eye. 

Previous BID president, Tom Schafer, the owner of Harbor Grill and Tommy’s Place in Port Jeff, stepped down after a divisive mayoral race earlier this year. Schafer had strongly endorsed Garant’s opponent, John Jay LaValle, in the past election. 

Since he has stepped down, Roger Rutherford, manager of the staple candy store Roger’s Frigate has stepped into the role of interim president. While he said he wasn’t able to speak on the topic of the BID, he directed questions to James Luciano, the owner of the PJ Lobster House. At the time of reporting, members were expecting him to be voted onto the improvement district’s board of directors Nov. 5.

The incoming board member said with a change of leadership, bringing new blood onto the BID’s board has been necessary going forward.

“We’re in it to revive the community, we just need everyone to participate.”

James Luciano

The 36-year old has owned the PJ Lobster House since he was 23 and said the BID’s board had previously been reluctant to go for new ideas.

That, he said, is changing. One new concept is a grant system, where businesses can ask for matching funds up to $1,000 for small projects, whether it’s a sign that needs fixing or a new door. The village has agreed to waive the permit and application fee when it comes to these small projects.

The BID is looking toward future advertisements, including television commercials, railroad ads and joint ads with businesses in Connecticut. They are working with Dix Hills-based Ed Moore Advertising. Luciano said more focus is on social media, working with Mount Sinai-based social media agency Social Butterfly. Instead of using its own online pages for social media content, the BID plans to go through the already active Port Jefferson accounts.

The owner of the PJ Lobster House said the BID is planning on a new initiative to allow businesses to be put on a list for social media advertising with no extra expense to them, with two posts a week and boosts paid for by the BID.

In November last year, the BID and village partnered with Qwik Ride, a company that uses electric vehicles that both residents and visitors can use for transport within the village. The service was free thanks to a sponsorship between the BID and Qwik Ride, though some residents were critical of its low ridership numbers and some residents’ difficulty calling one of its cars. Luciano said at a recent BID meeting, the group met with the CEO of Qwik Ride to air their complaints about how the program was being administered, with some vehicles moving out beyond the village and ignoring requests to put more vehicles on the road during events. The BID offered to pay extra money on a shift to keep the transportation company within the area, but they could not reach an agreement. 

Garant agreed the service was not working for what the village required: A quick, efficient transport staying within the zip code.

In the past, the mayor has criticized the BID for sitting on its funds. The current budget for the improvement district sits at around $190,000, according to officials, and it receives $68,000 every year from the businesses within the district. The current advertising campaign is earmarked for $75,000. With the planned $20,000 grant program, the budget will sit on an approximated $90,000 surplus. The mayor said around $30,000 of that budget is set aside for Port Jeff in case of heavy snowfalls, but in recent years the village has not dipped into those funds.

The village has yet to give the improvement district its $68,000 for this year, with trustees saying they wished to see more movement on projects.

“The board of trustees wanted to see more initiatives going forward,” the mayor said. “When it comes to municipal funds, it’s move it or lose it.”