Ambitious Wyandanch redevelopment plan takes shape

Wyandanch (Dec. 17, 2009)

Wyandanch (Dec. 17, 2009) Photo Credit: Newsday /Alejandra Villa

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Burned-out, boarded-up buildings give way to attractive retail stores and apartments.

A high-speed thoroughfare is transformed into a leisurely Main Street, USA, with shops and pedestrian crossings.

Empty garbage-strewn lots revived as European-style plazas, including fountains, art and space for outdoor concerts, ice skating and a farmers' market.

The visions are just a few parts of Wyandanch Rising, the Town of Babylon's extensive redevelopment initiative for downtown Wyandanch.

The revitalization plan is one of Long Island's most ambitious: more than 60 acres at an estimated cost of $500 million, much of which the town says will come from private development.

Supervisor Steve Bellone, who has championed Wyandanch redevelopment since taking office in 2002, calls the initiative a "comprehensive, community-based approach" that is "not just about building, but about changing lives."

From the 1920s to the 1970s, Wyandanch thrived as a diverse community with a vibrant downtown. But it fell into disrepair during the crack epidemic, and rising crime rates drove out many families.

>>MAP: See a list of properties in the Wyandanch revitalization area

An incongruent mix
Downtown Wyandanch now is an incongruent mix of single-family homes, small businesses and blighted, vacant commercial buildings and residences. Government officials and suburban planners consider it to be one of the Island's most economically distressed communities.

Years in the planning, Wyandanch Rising targets seven areas and lists 76 residential and commercial properties with a total market value of more than $40 million on a map of "eminent domain appropriation areas/lots."

The project has been embraced by many in and outside the community, though some downtown property owners are wary of being swept out by redevelopment.

The plan will begin to take shape in the coming months, most notably with the expected start by this summer of construction on a long-awaited sewer line connecting to downtown businesses - an essential element of any redevelopment.

Key parts to come later: mixed-use buildings with apartments above businesses, an LIRR station addition to accommodate car, bus and bicycle users, called an "intermodal" facility, and the narrowing of Straight Path to slow down traffic.

The goal, Bellone said, is to create an attractive, functioning downtown that will spur private sector economic development.

"Without us stepping in in a way to really facilitate the revitalization, the private sector will not, because of the circumstances in the community, make the investments necessary to revitalize," he said.

Those circumstances include a crime problem - most notably, seven murders from Jan. 1, 2008 through Nov. 30, 2009. Suffolk Legis. DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville), who represents the area, cited another shooting last week and said, "The problems continue to exist and they need to be addressed . . . The town is doing a wonderful job with the Wyandanch Rising initiative. Unfortunately, people's perception of crime in the community may have a negative impact on how successful the plan is."

Other obstacles have been the dangerous Straight Path (324 reported crashes over the same period) and dismal tax rolls because of undeveloped parcels.

Bellone estimates the redevelopment will create 3,000 construction jobs, 825 permanent jobs, $6.7 million in sales tax and $6 million in property tax revenue annually. Right now, the town estimates there are 50 to 75 permanent jobs and $800,000 a year in property tax revenue. 

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Financing far from clear
Bellone acknowledges it's not clear how the town will pay for much of the $500-million price tag. For the $18-million sewer project, the town has committed $6 million from its solid waste fund and last week received a $2-million state grant.

For the $45-million intermodal facility, the town has pledged to bond for $15 million, money Bellone said will be recouped from parking revenue, and is applying for federal grants for the rest. Bellone said he is "optimistic that when we're ready to put the shovel in the ground, we'll have that money." Babylon has received nearly $7.5 million in grants used for planning.

Wyandanch Rising has support from officials ranging from Sen. Charles Schumer to Gov. David A. Paterson to Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, and the area was named one of three "spotlight" communities statewide for a new initiative to support redevelopment of 250 brownfield sites. That support signals a good chance of success, experts said.

"You can't just talk revitalization into happening," said Lee Koppelman, director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies at Stony Brook University. "There's got to be strong political forces that want it to happen . . . I see a climate there that didn't exist for many, many years."

Last week, the town reached a tentative deal with Maryland-based design firm Torti Gallas to create a more concrete vision of the redevelopment.

Bidding for the sewer contract should begin in March, Bellone said, with construction to start by summer. "We've been consistently moving the ball forward, moving the ball forward, and we're at the point now where we can actually see, OK, we're moving toward a development stage."

Many in the community enthusiastically support the initiative. Belinda Marquis, 55, a pediatrician with an office on Straight Path, said she was skeptical at first but Bellone "has come through on a lot of things he said he'd do" - including beautification efforts, a new clock, a new post office and a resource help center. Some said they appreciate officials including the community in planning.

"This is giving us an opportunity to grow with it and participate and this is important, especially for the next generation," said resident Sonia Wade, 55.

Others criticize what they say is a sluggish pace, vague plans for homes and businesses, and poor communication.

"People have the opinion that they want to see more than beautification," said Marquis' husband, Hilary, a local business owner and member of a community committee offering input on the plan. "They want to see something concrete and how it translates into dollars and cents for their business." He said some owners are unhappy because they expected the town to offer more help through relocation assistance, refinancing and loans.

"We're not interested in trying to put anyone out of business," Bellone said. "Anyone who has a legitimate business in the community, we're going to want to help and support them." 

'Taking Map' makes a stir
Reg Mays, owner of Computer Business Center, said he read all 187 pages of the town's plan, approved in May, after learning recently from a Newsday reporter that the address of his business was on the town's "Taking Map" of eminent-domain appropriations.

After Mays and other Merritt Avenue owners whose properties were listed approached the town, a Babylon employee told Mays his property would not be acquired. "Obviously, this guy hadn't read the 187-page report," Mays said. "It clearly states what they intend to do, so don't tell me this is not what it is."

Bellone said the town is "not even remotely thinking about acquisitions" of the Merritt Avenue properties whose owners approached the town. The properties are on the map because they are potential sites for redevelopment, he said, if the private sector is interested.

"Not everyone in the redevelopment zone is targeted for acquisition," he said.

Bellone declined to say which or how many of the 76 sites the town will pursue. So far, Babylon has acquired 19 properties - one of which was not on the map - for $15.5 million. Four were taken through eminent domain, for $4.2 million, the town said, with money from federal stimulus funds and bonds not yet issued. The 19 are the majority of planned acquisitions, the town said.

Homero Peña said he's not convinced the town has no interest in the Merritt Avenue property where his Railroad Deli & Grocery sits. Peña was trying to sell his business but uncertainty over the redevelopment caused the potential buyers to become anxious about signing a long-term lease. They recently backed out, he said.

Many downtown business owners said they have not received redevelopment information from Babylon and that rumors run rampant.

"Nobody has approached me," said Mark Demopoulos, owner of a wholesale ice cream business that has been in the downtown for 43 years. "I don't even know what to think about it. All of the businesses around here talk about it."

Bellone said the town has had "extensive communications with people in the business community" in addition to mailing newsletters to residents and holding community meetings.

The uncertainty extends beyond businesses. Rene and Ana Iraheta live on Grand Boulevard, among a mishmash of mostly dilapidated houses and businesses. But the Irahetas' home, which they've lived in for two years, is well-maintained.

The couple hopes to remain there with their three children, two of whom are in Wyandanch schools. Worried about what they've heard in rumors, they became more fearful when they saw their property listed on the Taking Map. "I'm worried because I love my home," Rene Iraheta said. 

Homes to be condemned?

Bellone said that only a handful of homes might be condemned in the redevelopment. "We certainly don't have any plans to condemn anybody's house," he said. "But if it were necessary for the town or a private developer to acquire a piece, then we'd negotiate with the owner and reach a fair price just like any other buyer would."

Some residents remain skeptical about prospects for real change. They cite a history of politicians ignoring Wyandanch and past talk about redevelopment that never came to fruition. Bellone acknowledges this project will take more than a decade to complete but insists the initiative has broad-based support.

"I wouldn't say that we've removed every ounce of doubt," he said. "[But] I think people have seen this is a real commitment and a real effort."

Peña said he is willing to move if the town offers assistance but for now he is happy to remain in what he said is a good spot for business. "I don't want them to just push me out, I want to be in the community," he said. "I guess we'll just wait and see."

>>MAP: See a list of properties in the Wyandanch revitalization area

>>MORE: See The Town of Babylon's plan | Wyandanch revitalization sewer plan (PDF map)

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