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Upper Port

The street-level view of the Port Jefferson Crossing apartments, a 45-unit affordable housing complex opening within weeks. Photo by Raymond Janis

The transformation of Upper Port is happening in real time after years of well-documented social issues and underinvestment.

In the coming weeks, the village will complete two major initiatives. Station Street will soon open to traffic, and the Port Jefferson Crossing apartments, a 45-unit affordable housing complex developed by Conifer Realty, will launch.

As these projects open, further planning is in full swing. Conifer is working with the Village of Port Jefferson Planning Board on a second development located at the Main and Perry streets intersection. Meanwhile, the Board of Trustees is actively pursuing a vision for the proposed Six Acre Park along Highlands Boulevard.

In an exclusive interview with Mayor Margot Garant, she summarized the activities. “I think we’ve made great progress,” she said. “I think it’s a great start to what will continue to make [Upper Port] a safe and welcome place.”

Completing these projects marks the next chapter in a multiyear village undertaking to revitalize its uptown. Yet as the area undergoes its metamorphosis, a broader conversation is emerging.

Community revitalization in context

A good plan is the genesis of effort and conversation between the constituents, elected officials, economists, environmentalists, civic organizations, resident groups, business owners and, yes, real estate developers.’

— Richard Murdocco

Richard Murdocco is an adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University. His writings focus on land use, economic development and environmental policies on Long Island. In an interview, Murdocco detailed the regional and historical context surrounding redevelopment efforts in Port Jeff.

Downtown revitalization on Long Island dates back at least six decades, said Murdocco, when communities started tackling the effects of suburbanization and population boom.

“Downtown revitalization is not anything new,” Murdocco said. “The first comprehensive plans were drafted in the early ’60s by the Long Island Regional Planning Board and Dr. Lee Koppelman. Those identified key downtown areas where to focus growth, and the whole point of the plans was to mitigate the ever-ongoing suburban sprawl that western Suffolk County, especially, was getting a taste of at that time.”

With the eastward expansion of the Northern State Parkway and the construction of the Long Island Expressway, downtown areas soon became targets for growth. Ideally, this growth consisted of additional multifamily housing options, expanded retail sectors and developing neighborhoods near train stations.

Although development plans today are often pitched as novel or innovative, Murdocco contends that the general framework underlying revitalization has been replicated across generations.

“These concepts are as old as city building,” he said. “It may be new for Long Island, but it’s not new in practice.”

The view of Port Jefferson train station from the Port Jefferson Crossing apartments. Photo courtesy Margot Garant

The Patchogue model

‘For an area to be successful, there has to be people and there has to be a reason for people to be there.’ 

— Paul Pontieri

Today, proponents often cite the Village of Patchogue as a cornerstone of community revitalization on Long Island. Spearheading these efforts is Paul Pontieri, who has served as the village’s mayor since 2004. 

In an interview, Pontieri detailed his approach to community building. For him, areas that thrive are those with people.

“For an area to be successful, there has to be people and there has to be a reason for people to be there,” he said. “Businesses go where people are.”

Another priority for Pontieri was attracting young families into Patchogue. “We have a lot of young families,” he said. “That happened because we provided the kind of housing they can afford.”

Apartments were central for creating affordable housing options, according to Pontieri. While existing rents may appear overpriced to some, he believes these rent payments are preferable to the mandatory down payments when taking out a mortgage.

“Right now, if you have to put 20% down on a $500,000 home, you’re telling me that a 22- or 23-year-old that just got married has $100,000 to give on a down payment — it’s not going to happen, and that’s the reality,” he said. “You have to have the apartments because they will come into the apartments and begin to save their money, even though the rents on those apartments seem exorbitant.”

Pontieri holds that Long Island communities today face the challenge of drawing and keeping youth. According to him, young people will inevitably move away from unaffordable areas.

“You have a choice: You can sit there in your house — you and your wife at 75 years old — and your kids move someplace else because they can’t afford to live in your village,” he said, “Or you make your community user-friendly, kid-friendly, young-family friendly.” 

Murdocco said Patchogue had been held up as the standard-bearer for community rejuvenation because Pontieri more or less carried his vision through to completion. Though revitalization brought unintended consequences for Patchogue, such as magnifying a “parking problem that was enhanced and amplified by growth,” Murdocco said the example is generally regarded favorably.

“Overall, it’s lauded as a model because they did it,” the adjunct professor said. “For all intents and purposes, the area is thriving relative to what it was.”

Differentiating Upper Port

‘Our little footprint can’t really hold as much as Patchogue.’ 

— Margot Garant

While Garant acknowledges the utility of Pontieri’s method for Patchogue, she points out some key distinctions unique to Upper Port.

Like Pontieri, she holds that the neighborhood’s success depends on the people it can attract. “I believe that new residents and the new opportunity will drive an economic base and new economic success,” she said. Though arriving at this new resident base, Garant is employing a different approach.

For one, the two villages differ widely concerning their respective topographies. When organizing a plan, Garant said Port Jefferson must operate within the confines of limited space, further constrained by the existing built environment.

“Patchogue is flat, and it’s a grid system, so you can spread out there and have larger parcels that connect to the heart of your village,” she said. “In Port Jefferson, we’re in a bowl. We’re surrounded very much by residential [zones] on both sides of Main, so I see us as able to grow a bit differently.” 

Tying into the issue of topography is the matter of density. Garant maintains Pontieri had greater flexibility, enabling vertical and horizontal expansion to accommodate a growing population. “Our little footprint can’t really hold as much as Patchogue,” Garant said. 

Applying the Patchogue model to Upper Port is further complicated by the historical and cultural differences between the two villages. Garant stated she intends to bring a family oriented culture to Upper Port. In contrast, Patchogue attracts a more robust nightlife scene accentuating its bar and restaurant culture. 

“I just have a different philosophy when trying to revitalize the neighborhood,” Garant said. “I think Patchogue became known for the young, jet-setting community, the Alive After Five [street fair] bringing people to Main Street with a different sort of culture in mind. We’re looking at making things family oriented and not so much focused on bars and restaurants.”

In an email statement, trustee Lauren Sheprow, who emphasized revitalizing Upper Port as part of her campaign earlier this year, remarked that she was impressed by the ongoing progress. She remains committed to following the guidelines of the Port Jefferson 2030 Comprehensive Plan, published in 2014. 

Referring to the master plan, she said, “It does appear to be guiding the progress we are seeing take shape uptown. It would be interesting to take a holistic look at the plan to see how far we have progressed through its recommendations, and if the plan maintains its relevance in current times where zoning is concerned, and how we might be looking at the geography east of Main Street.”

Six Acre Park

‘The Six Acre Park is something that I see as a crucial element to balancing out the densification of housing up there.’

­— Rebecca Kassay

Along with plans for new apartments, Garant said the proposed Six Acre Park would be integral to the overall health of Upper Port. Through the Six Acre Park Committee, plans for this last sliver of open space in the area are in high gear. [See story, “Six Acre Park Committee presents its vision.”]

Trustee Rebecca Kassay is the trustee liaison to the committee. She refers to the parkland as necessary for supporting new residents moving into the village.

“As far as Upper Port, I am hoping and doing what I can to plan for a vibrant, balanced community up there,” she said. “The Six Acre Park is something that I see as a crucial element to balancing out the densification of housing up there.”

Plans are ongoing to convert the remaining six acres of open space along Highlands Boulevard into a tranquil, arboretum-like setting. Photo courtesy Rebecca Kasay, taken from Google Maps Street View

With more density, Kassay foresees Six Acre Park as an outlet for the rising population of Upper Port. “Everyone needs a place to step out from a suburban or more urban-like setting and breathe fresh air and connect to nature,” she said. “The vision for Six Acre Park is to allow folks to do just that.”

In recent public meetings, a debate has arisen over a possible difference of opinion between the village board and the planning board over active-use space at Six Acre Park. [See story, “PJ village board … addresses Six Acre Park.”]

Garant said the Board of Trustees has yet to receive an official opinion on behalf of the Planning Board. Still, the mayor does not see sufficient reason to modify the plan.

“We’re talking about creating an arboretum-like park used for educational purposes,” she said. “At this point in time, we don’t have enough land. The uptown population is welcome to use the rest of the parkland throughout this village.” Garant added, “But we are extremely mindful that when the new residents come to live uptown and they bring their needs, there’s a lot more that’s going to happen uptown and a lot more opportunity for us to make adjustments.”

Identifying the public good

In my opinion, property owners have allowed their buildings to deteriorate so that they would be able to sell the properties to — in this case — subsidized developers.’ 

— Bruce Miller

New development, in large part, is made possible by the Brookhaven Industrial Development Agency, which can offer tax exemptions to spur economic growth. Former village trustee Bruce Miller has been among the critics of Upper Port redevelopment, taking issue with these IDA subsidies.

“It’s an open secret that the properties were very poorly maintained up there,” Miller said. “In my opinion, property owners have allowed their buildings to deteriorate so that they would be able to sell the properties to — in this case — subsidized developers.”

In Miller’s assessment, while the projects are taxpayer supported, their community benefit is outweighed by the cost to the general fund.

“The buildings that are being built are paying very little in the way of taxes,” Miller said. “At 10 years it ramps up, but even at 15 years there’s not much tax they’re paying on them.”

Responding to this critique, Lisa Mulligan, CEO of Brookhaven IDA, released the following statement by email: “In accordance with our mission, the Brookhaven IDA is committed to improving the quality of life for Brookhaven residents, through fostering economic growth, creating jobs and employment opportunities, and increasing the town’s commercial tax base. The revitalization of uptown Port Jefferson is critical to the long-term economic well-being of the region, and housing is one key component of this.”

Town of Brookhaven Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook), who represents Port Jefferson on the Town Council, also took issue with Miller’s claim. For him, the purpose of IDA subsidies is to identify benefits to the community and advance the public good.

“So often, there is no public benefit,” he said. “If it’s the will of Port Jefferson Village to revitalize an area that has struggled to attract investment for many years, that may be an appropriate use of IDA funding.”

However, Kornreich also acknowledged that these tax incentives come at a cost for ordinary taxpayers. For this reason, it remains crucial that the IDA has a firm grasp of the public good and advances that end alone.

“When this unelected body gives these benefits to a developer, it’s a tax increase on everyone within that taxing district … they are increasing your taxes,” the councilmember said. “When you pay those increased taxes, what you’re doing is supporting this vision of a public good.” In instances where the IDA functions without a view of the public good, he added, “It’s a huge betrayal.”

Garant suggested that ridding Upper Port of vacant lots constituted a public good in itself. While IDA benefits may mean short-term sacrifices for village residents, the tax exemptions will soon expire and the village will collect its usual rates.

“For us in the short term, we might be making a little bit of a sacrifice, but I can tell you right now what I’m making on the payment in lieu of taxes program is more than what I was getting on those buildings when they were blighted,” she said. “Six, seven, eight years down the road, when we’re at the end of those PILOT agreements, we’re going to be getting a sizable tax contribution from these properties.” She added, “I was looking down a 10- to 15-year road for the Village of Port Jefferson.”

Murdocco foresees opportunities for continued discussions within the village. According to him, community development done right is highly collaborative, uniting the various stakeholders around a common aim.

“A good plan is the genesis of effort and conversation between the constituents, elected officials, economists, environmentalists, civic organizations, resident groups, business owners and, yes, real estate developers,” he said. “I know for a fact that in Upper Port Jefferson, a lot of that did happen.”

The SBU adjunct professor added, “In terms of defining a public benefit, it depends on what the community wants. Do they want economic growth for an underutilized area? Do they want environmental protection? Do they want health and safety? That all depends on the people who live there.”

Port Jeff village trustee on his role in tackling the big projects

Trustee Bruce Miller (right) being sworn into office. Photo courtesy of Miller

By Raymond Janis

Village of Port Jefferson trustee Bruce Miller has taken on several big projects throughout his time in office. 

TBR News Media had an opportunity this week to catch up with him for an exclusive interview. In this interview, Miller addresses his background in education, the East Beach bluff, his preference for architecture and more. 

What is your background and why did you get involved in local government?

I was always a believer in public service. I got that from my parents, who also felt the value of contributing. I was drafted into the Army in ’66 and left as a sergeant with honorable discharge. I am a 2nd vice commander of the American Legion post in Port Jefferson Station. 

I got an excellent education from Stony Brook University. From there, I became a public school teacher in special education. While I was doing this, I also volunteered at my daughter’s school. I was on the [Port Jefferson] school board for 12 years, a president, vice president, and a budget and technology chairperson. 

I was a teacher that understood board politics and the requirements of training teachers. I was the driving force in moving the district from what I would consider mediocre in this region to a nationally ranked school district. We achieved a level of 34th in the nation, according to a Washington Post survey, and this drove up our real estate values. We were number one for several years in New York state with real estate appreciation and one year we were near 10th in the nation. And this is not me saying this, but The New York Times saying this. I had a very successful run during my 12 years on the school board.

I have been working for about 30 years on the conservation and advisory committee. I was for a while the trustee liaison to that committee. It used to be a board and I would like to see that happen again.

There’s a lot more, but maybe I can speak to them through some specific questions. 

Miller receives a regional Scope award for educational excellence during his tenure as a school board member.
Photo courtesy of Miller

How has your background as an educator shaped your approach as village trustee?

There are two aspects to my educational background: my teaching background and my school board background. As a teacher, I was a public servant and of course the village board is a public office. In teaching, you know there are budgets to deal with and priorities to be set. As a school board member, again you’re dealing with budgets. I dealt a lot with technology, doing what I thought was forward looking and I found that I could better express myself in bringing excellent technology to the school district in Port Jefferson.

Because of my educational background, and by working hard in this effort, we brought really excellent education and technology to the district. Budgets are another aspect. You have to be able to fund these things, and in a public forum you need to be able to get support from the public. You need to be able to persuade people that you have a vision, whether it’s in the school district or the village.

What are the most critical issues facing the village?

Critical has a number of meanings, one of which is that something is happening now and you have to do something about it. In that context, something is happening now: Our [East Beach] bluff is eroding and we have to do something about it. 

We can either let the country club slide into the Long Island Sound or we can take measures to remediate. You have the country club above and the beach below. I voted for a rock wall that would preserve the beach and access to the beach. There is another, larger plan that we are still looking at that involves driving steel sheeting in front of the country club. We’re within literally a couple of feet of losing the tennis courts and they are going. New plans have to be made for them. 

The question is do you go for the steel sheeting or do you let nature take its course? I’m not decided on that at this point. One of the things I respect about the village is that we have a lot of intelligent people who bring a lot of knowledge and background. In the few discussions we’ve had over Zoom, there were suggestions that were very positive that were an alternative to the steel sheeting suggestion. 

I have been emailing the board for a very long time regarding the fact that a) we should have a public hearing on this, which is not going to happen; and b) that we should be permitting the residents to vote on a bond. We’re talking about $10 million total on this project and they should decide what they want and we should be listening to all the viewpoints. We should be more open and transparent in terms of solutions and alternatives. 

We’re also losing revenue on the power plant. Over a number of years, we’re going to lose 47% of the revenue and we’re more than halfway through that process. Obviously, the businesspeople are going to see more in taxes because we’re receiving less from an alternate source. In my opinion, we need to rebuild with quality, so that you have a magnet for Port Jefferson, for the business community. 

A lot of people come to Port Jefferson because it’s different. It’s a real village with a history and people like that. We should be emphasizing that history. We also need to focus on green energy. We need to do as much as we can. By doing this, bring more revenue into the village, the school district, the fire department, the library, etc. 

How would you like to preserve what you call the New England heritage within the village?

Miller at Village Hall in Port Jefferson. File photo

We’re already doing some of that. We have what we call the Roe House, which is on Barnum Avenue. This is from the Roe family. It’s an authentic, prerevolutionary, colonial structure. We have a number of exhibits within the Roe House that point to our history. 

We often call it the Setauket Spy Ring, but Port Jefferson was also part of this history, the Roes are a part of this history. We have this heritage, it’s important, and we are emphasizing it. We’re going to see an upgrade in the status of the building. It now has a historic designation and we’re going to see more of that. 

How has the village changed from the time you took office and what measures have you taken to guide those changes?

There’s been an awful lot of change in regards to uptown development. When I first came into office, this was in the project stage. Now we’re seeing stuff rising above the ground and a number of properties that are either approved or well along in the approval process. There’s a former fish restaurant [PJ Lobster House] on North Country Road and 25A. The restaurant has moved downtown and they’re beginning the demolition phase. 

We’ve seen a project on Texaco Avenue that has been completed, two other projects at the foot of Main and Broadway completed. Another project where a former carpet store, Cappy’s Carpets, used to be has been completed and occupied.

There are a lot of problems with flooding in Port Jefferson, a lot of hills. Everything runs down into the lower Port area. I’ve been talking about mixed surfaces, not just hard pavement, which contribute to the velocity of the water. We’re making some progress with that by having water gardens. 

We have developed our parks, which I think are very attractive. We have a Dickens Festival that draws people into the village, which of course the merchants love. It’s really an excellent festival, voted best festival on Long Island several times. Every year it gets a little better. 

When I was in the school district, the motto was: “Excellent at getting better.” I want to achieve that and live up to that. When I’m in the village, I want to see excellence. I have had battles over architecture. I want it to be excellent, to improve the village, and to attract more people to the village. 

When I was in the school district, the motto was: “Excellent at getting better.” I want to achieve that and live up to that. — Bruce Miller

You have an upcoming meeting with representatives of the Long Island Rail Road. Could you preview that meeting?

It’s about a vision, about looking at a need, seeing an alternative to the present situation, and advocating for that. 

A lot of this is about developing networks and relationships. I’ve met with Phil Eng, the former LIRR chairperson, under the context of a better ride. It’s a long ride to Manhattan for a lot of people who commute. Out of necessity, it requires a transfer either at Huntington or Hicksville because you cannot take a diesel engine into Manhattan. The future is a better ride into Penn Station, but also a better ride into Grand Central Station, which will be a possibility in the future.

This requires electric energy and how do you get that? Obviously a third rail is a possible solution, a very expensive solution. My comments to Mr. Eng and his associates have been, “By the way, we pay taxes too.” There was a time when the Ronkonkoma line, which has a decent ride, was diesel, but they electrified it. So is it our turn? This is what I’ve been advocating for. 

We want to get our foot on the ladder. We’re kind of standing at the bottom of the ladder watching everybody else go by. We want to get on the ladder and then move upward. On [May 31], we will be meeting with the Long Island Rail Road planning people to discuss the future and the possibilities. We will be discussing the schedule, we will be discussing a second track, we will be discussing a third rail, battery electric, and moving the LIRR station in Port Jefferson. Basically they would move the station and the rail yards west and eliminate the crossing in Upper Port, which would do a lot for traffic. 

I work on big projects and these are not accomplished in six months or a year. It takes several terms, but if you achieve these goals, they are very positive for the residents of the village. 

Trustee Bruce Miller delivers a speech regarding National Grid. File photo

In your opinion, how can residents play a more active role in decision-making?

I had mentioned the country club and participation on the part of the residents in terms of a public hearing and being able to vote on major issues that affect them. I believe we should have more participation in this area. 

During COVID, we had board meetings on Zoom. Now we have public meetings where the public attends, but we’re not having meetings on Zoom. Some of the people I know in the village who are infirm or who have particular medical issues that prevent them from attending public meetings are kind of shut out of the process. I am pressing, and will continue to press, for public meetings upstairs in the Village Hall, but also a component on Zoom where people can not only look in but participate as we had done during the COVID era. 

I think that would be a very important step forward. I have just learned that Riverhead is going to be doing this and there are a number of other communities on Long Island that do this. In the past, people who are not comfortable going into public places were shut out, unable to participate. Now they are shut out again and I believe we should be supporting them.

Is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers?

As I said, I’m a person that works on big projects. I like to be a team member, but there are also certain times when you have to go against the grain. My belief is that I am an independent trustee. I’ve worked hard for the village and the school district. Also, in between my village and school district experience, I co-founded a grassroots committee to repower Port Jefferson. 

I’ve worked with legislative leaders at all levels — town, village, county, state and congressional people as well. I believe that I have a vision. I have demonstrated in the past that I have executed on that vision and I want to continue to serve. I believe in service, I believe in giving back. I’m not wealthy, but I’m comfortable. I have time and I would like to contribute.

Green energy is very important to me. Making the village affordable is a very high priority for me. Transportation has become a high priority. I believe I have the vision and the energy and the diligence to work on this. I think the village needs a voice that will stand up and say, “No, this is not right.” 

I am a very positive person, a very optimistic person, and I believe I take this optimism and enthusiasm to the work that I do. 

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Local nonprofit Give Kids Hope Inc. is bringing a thrift store to Port Jefferson’s uptown.

Filling the vacant spot where Sue La La Couture previously was, the Give Kids Hope thrift store is a new endeavor that founder Melissa Paulson said will bring more resources to people struggling within the community. 

“Our previous location was very small,” she said. “This now gives us more flexibility with having programs for families or other free events.”

An inside look at the new Give Kids Hope thrift store in uptown Port Jefferson. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Now located at 1506 Main St., the front of the store will be a shop where people can find housewares, antiques, furniture and other trinkets. By selling items like these, Paulson said it will help keep the nonprofit’s overhead going, as well as provide funds for the food pantry in the back of the store. 

But that doesn’t stop the original mentality behind her organization. 

“Items like clothing, toys, shoes, essentials and pantry are always free to families in need,” she said. 

Give Kids Hope Inc. is a 501(c)(3) that Paulson started nearly a decade ago after her daughter was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma at just 18 months old. It was during this time that Paulson decided she wanted to devote her free time to charity. 

“I knew I wanted to do something to help other families in similar situations,” she previously told TBR News Media.

That’s when Give Kids Hope was born. Paulson created the nonprofit to help children and their families battling cancer, and as the years went on Paulson began seeing how many other people were in need around her. 

“There are so many less fortunate people in the community,” she said. “I never realized how many Long Islanders are struggling just to put food on their tables and a roof over their heads.”

She began gathering supplies she knew people would need, especially around the holidays, to donate to shelters, housing units and food pantries — and she was doing it out of her home for many of those years. 

Last year, she opened up her first brick-and-mortar location in Port Jefferson Station at 4390 Nesconset Highway. When that lease was up this summer, she said, she decided to move closer to the village where foot traffic and parking are better.

Right next to the thrift store is a parking lot with plenty of spaces, which Paulson said will help bring people in to browse.

“It will drive people here and allow them to shop, that way we can help more families in the area,” she said. 

Paulson said that because items in the thrift shop will be donated, the inventory will constantly change. 

 Photo by Julianne Mosher

“Everything that we’re collecting and selling ranges from antiques, collectibles, home decor — all the nonessential items that people don’t need, but more so want,” she said. “We have seasonal decor, vintage jewelry … we’re hoping to get more people to donate a variety of different things.”

She added that items will also be available for purchase on Facebook and easy pickup.

Paulson, a Port Jefferson resident, said that although the previous location was good for the time, she hopes that the larger space will allow her and her volunteers to host different events that will benefit locals — especially children.

“If the funding comes in, we’ll be more than happy to offer additional programs,” she said. “But as always, the pantry is a given and then our free ‘shopping’ events.”

Give Kids Hope has several events throughout the year where people in need can come to the location and browse and “shop” for things, like back-to-school supplies or holiday gifts. All the items are free.

She added that the nonprofit is looking for volunteers and grant writers. 

“The key thing is to keep our doors open, so if anybody has items to donate, we encourage them to get involved,” she said. “I encourage people to come down and get to know us, to see who we serve and also be a part of making the change. It’s a really wonderful thing and I’m so happy to be a part of it.”

Paulson said that if anyone or a family are struggling in the local community to reach out to Give Kids Hope.

The thrift store is currently open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Hours may change and donations are accepted at the store during these times. 

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. 

Sonny Stancarone will be hosting a new piano relaxation program in Port Jefferson. Photo by Julianne Mosher

What do you get when you combine meditation, mindfulness, yoga and pianos? A new piano relaxation center in Upper Port.

Vic “Sonny” Stancarone, owner of Sonny’s Pianos at 1500 Main St., decided to open another spot right across from his store, that will be beneficial to the community — especially after a stressful 2020. 

On Friday, April 30, a dozen people gathered at his new Piano Relaxation Center, now located at 6 North Country Road. The idea behind it, he said, was to give people a new space to learn piano in a stress-free way. 

He said that this has been something he’s wanted to do “forever.”

“I love buying and selling pianos,” he said. “But I love working with people and now I circle back to doing what I’ve always wanted.”

Photo by Julianne Mosher

At his other shop, Stancarone buys and sells refurbished pianos. From Steinways to Young Changs, he cleans them up, tunes them and helps them find new homes. He is also known for his art case collection — often vintage pianos with decorative artwork painted throughout the instrument.

But on top of selling pianos at wholesale prices, he had an extensive career in health, fitness and wellness — while also being a piano performer. 

Stancarone is a former health and fitness director for big-name corporations, adjunct professor and yoga practitioner. He said learning breathing exercises, relaxation and meditation techniques, yoga and marital arts helped cure him of crippling childhood asthma at 11 years old. That experience always stuck with him and, with whatever career path he followed, he always tried to help others the way he was helped, before. 

His piano playing and teaching methods are based on breathing with the diaphragm, relaxing with emphasis on enjoying the playing rather than playing perfectly. He calls his method “piano yoga.”

“I feel that piano playing is wonderful, creative, therapeutic, life-enhancing, stress-reducing vehicle that everyone can enjoy,” he said. “The biggest problem with the piano is that people are intimidated by it, they think, ‘Oh, I don’t have talent,’ or ‘I can’t play it,’ but it has nothing to do with talent.”

He added that interested people just need to sit down and try. The way to success is approaching the keys like one would for meditation or mindfulness.

“I want them to read, relax and clear their heads of everything,” Stancarone said. “To just kind of connect to what I call the musician with them, so that they could just get into the flow.”

So, the new relaxation center is a new way for people to learn piano, learn how to decompress or just jam out. 

“People are looking to get out of the house,” he said. “They’ve all been cooped up. So, something like this is very nonthreatening. It’s very relaxing. It’s very easy and my approach is just now sitting down to play.”

The main thing is just to relax and enjoy the instrument. 

Sonny Stancarone instructing two piano players at his new space. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“My mission is to let people see that everyone can do this,” he said. “And show someone that the piano is the most accessible of all instruments — you can just sit down and you’re making music.”

The space will offer classes of 10 people — each receiving their own spot at a piano. 

“I teach them breathing techniques, stress management techniques, relaxation techniques,” Stancarone said. “We do a little sitting chair yoga … so, it really incorporates a lot of different things.”

A look inside the new Sue La La Couture on E Main Street. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Originally located at 1506 Main Street in Upper Port, Sue La La Couture decided to move down to E Main Street for a new opportunity.

Although the East Main location is a bit smaller, owner Sue Gence said the new space will give her more exposure and have a different atmosphere than her former spot.

“I was waiting for uptown to change,” she said. “But after four years, nothing was done and my landlord was selling the building.”

Gence said she had the opportunity to stay at the old store, but she took it as a sign for her to make a change, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I was closed for nine months,” she said. “I survived somehow.”

Known for selling dresses for prom, Sweet 16s, homecoming, flower girls, bridesmaids and mothers of the brides, the pandemic hit her business since all of those events were cancelled.

But Gence is feeling hopeful now that the vaccines are here and things are beginning to open back up.

“I feel like everybody wants to get out of the house and wants to celebrate something,” she said. “This season is actually really, really, really busy — especially down here.”

The old Sue La La Couture closed on Dec. 31 and reopened next to the former Max & Millie storefront in mid-January. 

Gence, a Rocky Point resident, said she opened the store when she was just 33 because she loved glitter and making other women feel beautiful. 

“Eventually I want to design my own clothes and create my own brand,” she said. 

Sue La La Couture is open five days a week — closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays — by appointment only.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

The former Café Bada-Bing finally went “bada-bye.”

Steps away from the train station in Port Jefferson, construction crews began to knock down the former vacant bar on April 12.

Last known as the Bahia Bar & Discotec, the plot will soon be home to a new mixed-use site with 45 units of housing and more than 3,000 square-feet of ground floor commercial space to be called Port Jefferson Crossing.

The company behind the build, Conifer Realty, LLC, joined village officials as demolition began.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Village Mayor Margot Garant put her hard hat on and got behind the bulldozer, to help knock down its first wall. 

“This is a revitalization project that’s been going on now for many years,” she said. “We’re finally out of the planning process and into the building process.”

This is the first step toward giving Upper Port its much-needed facelift, including revitalizing the train station, building affordable and safe housing for young people and senior citizens close to the LIRR.

According to the IDA, Port Jefferson Crossing is a $24 million project that will construct 45 units of residential workforce housing in the heart of Port Jefferson.

The affordable housing component will be given out based on a lottery system, and will be located at 1609-1615 Main Street, currently the site of two vacant buildings.

“The public private partnership with the Brookhaven IDA, Suffolk County and the Village of Port Jefferson is instrumental in bringing Port Jefferson Crossing to fruition,” said Roger Pine, vice president of Development of Conifer, in a statement. “This is a long-term partnership that will bring continued revitalization to areas most in need in Long Island.” 

Garant added that this project was a collective effort of several state agencies to bring life back to uptown, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) complimented the mayor for her efforts. 

“Some good things are happening,” he said. “You’re making things happen here on the local level. You’re doing the things necessary to create   vibrancy, to create opportunity to create a place that people will flock to here, right around this train station.”

He said that a mixed-use building like this one will make the region more attractive to young people.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We need to build a growing sustainable innovation economy,” he added. “You’re at the fore-front of doing that work and making it happen. And certainly, building more affordable housing in our downtown is key, not only to revitalizing and creating more vibrancy downtown, but to creating a prosperous economy.”

The land-clearing demo will take about two weeks before its ground-breaking event and the actual building.

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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.” 

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The location where Port Jeff expects to run Station Street, next to a proposed apartment complex. Photo from Google maps

Plans for an affordable apartment complex planned in upper Port Jefferson continue to make progress with a public hearing set for July 9. If all goes well, the next step would be site plan approval. 

The apartment complex now being called Port Jefferson Crossing would be located directly adjacent to the Long Island Rail Road train station and would take over the property of a now-decrepit cafe.

During a Port Jefferson Village Planning Board work session on June 11, developers provided new details on the project. 

Joanna Cuevas, senior project director for Conifer Realty, said the apartment complex will be a part of upper Port Jefferson’s ongoing revitalization efforts. 

“We want to provide high quality affordable workforce housing,” she said. 

Current plans cite the three-story complex will have 45 units in total, 37 one-bedroom apartments and eight two-bedroom apartments. The complex will also offer over 3,100 square feet of retail space.

“The units are targeted at households earning between 30 percent and 95 percent area median income for Suffolk County, with an average income of $37,000 up to $111,000 for a family of four,” Cuevas said. 

Building amenities will include a covered parking garage, a community room, laundry facilities and a gym. 

The project will facilitate the creation of Station Street, a one-way road that provides entry to the adjacent parking lots just north of the train station parking lot and just before the initial footprint for the proposed development. 

Mark Owen, civil engineer for R&W Engineers in Hauppauge, said the road will also have an access driveway to the east of the building, where there will be a door for the complex’s underground parking. 

Cars will be entering Station Street from the west, then going into the Long Island Rail Road parking lot at the curb cut in and then exiting out onto Oakland Avenue. Developers said they want to get as many cars off Main Street and on their way. 

Members of the Planning Board expressed concern with the amount of cars that could be on Station Street. 

“[Route] 112 gets really backed up down to North Country Road and it seems like it will be a shortcut for the majority of the people who want to go east,” said board member Tom Vulpis. 

Alison LaPointe, special village attorney for Building & Planning Department, said they actually want people to use the new 20-foot-wide street. 

“That’s the village’s hope: As part of our comprehensive plan update, we are very excited that Station Street is going in because the goal is to get as many people off that very busy roadway and away from Sheep Pasture Road as quickly as possible,” she said. “Also [it will get] the Suffolk County bus routes off of that stop right by the tracks — it leads to a significant amount of backup into Port Jefferson Station.” 

A public hearing is set for July 9 during a 5 p.m. Planning Board meeting, which will likely be held remotely online and can be watched live via the village’s YouTube page.

Detectives are looking for Alejandro Vargas-Diaz, 36, who also goes by Alejandro deVargas-Diaz and Robin Vargas, who police have identified as a suspect in a July shooting in Port Jeff. Photos from SCPD
Detectives are looking for Alejandro Vargas-Diaz, 36, who police have identified as a suspect in a July shooting in Port Jeff. Photos from SCPD

A suspect has been identified in connection with the deadly shooting at a Port Jefferson billiards hall in July, and the police is looking for help from the public.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers and Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad detectives are looking for Alejandro Vargas-Diaz, 36, who also goes by Alejandro deVargas-Diaz and Robin Vargas. He is the alleged shooter in a July 22 incident in which Albert Luis Rodriguez Lopez, 27 of Selden, was shot and killed at about 8:30 p.m. inside Billiards DBM, located at 1604 Main Street in upper Port Jeff Village, according to police. He has ties to Brooklyn, Queens, Paramus, New Jersey, Patterson, New Jersey and Hartford, Connecticut, police said.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Anyone with information about these incidents can contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers to submit an anonymous tip by calling 1-800-220-TIPS, texting “SCPD” and your message to “CRIMES” (274637) or by email at www.tipsubmit.com. All calls, text messages and emails will be kept confidential.