A proposal is moving forward that would transform a wide expanse of fields and oak trees in Brentwood, once the grounds of the state's largest psychiatric hospital, into the site of a $4-billion project that would be among the largest in Long Island history.
If developer Gerald Wolkoff can pull it off, the 451-acre Heartland Town Square project he first proposed in 2002 will become a mini-city -- with 8,999 apartments and three office towers, including one 20 stories tall, plus stores, restaurants and landscaped walkways. Approvals from Islip Town and Suffolk County could come as soon as this summer. If they do, Wolkoff will have succeeded in overcoming a difficult financial and political climate for projects as big as Heartland.
Unlike other major developments on Long Island -- from the Lighthouse Project in Hempstead to Riverhead Resorts in Calverton -- that have floundered amid political squabbles, community backlash or financing woes, Wolkoff's vision has gained strong support in a community willing to accept density and traffic. The anticipated payoff: tax dollars and thousands of jobs.
And in an unusual arrangement, Wolkoff has agreed to build in three phases, giving Islip Town the power to pull the plug if the project causes more traffic than projected or fails to leave enough public space. Phase One alone calls for more than 3,500 apartments, half of the retail and about 20 percent of the office space.
"The stars are aligning for the Heartland project," said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, the region's leading business organization.
To be sure, significant hurdles lie ahead. Wolkoff needs to secure financing, for example. And other concerns linger, primarily about Heartland's density: When finished, it would have 40 percent more people per square mile than Queens.
Even the project's supporters worry about congestion on Brentwood's busy roads and the impact on its struggling school district. Town and school officials predict the total Heartland project -- completion would take 15 to 20 years -- would add more than 2,200 schoolchildren to a district with 11 of its 17 school buildings already near capacity. In addition, the newest version of the plan includes an entrance and exit onto heavily traveled Commack Road in Huntington Town.
The phase-in plan was designed to give the town the right to block further construction if traffic projections and other goals aren't met. Wolkoff must set aside a certain amount of public space and maintain a balance of residential, retail and office space as he builds. And the developer has increased his financial commitment for traffic-easing road improvements from $25 million to nearly $50 million.
"To give him carte blanche -- we couldn't do that," Islip Town Supervisor Phil Nolan said. "It's a way for us to reasonably test Wolkoff's theories and Wolkoff's whole dream."
Heartland would transform the former grounds of Pilgrim State Hospital, which reached a peak of nearly 14,000 patients in 1954.
Project's density a concern
Current figures for Wolkoff's project, still the subject of negotiations, are staggering: apartments housing 20,000 people, almost as many as live in Hauppauge; 3.4 million square feet of office space, and 1 million square feet of restaurants, hotels, shops and cinemas. Twenty-three percent of the apartments would be offered as affordable housing.
"The whole concept, it's got tremendously exciting potential," said Islip planning chief Dave Genaway. What complicates its promise, he said, is the project's density.
Wolkoff says density is the project's linchpin, allowing him to build housing at rental prices young professionals can afford and help stanch the region's brain drain.
Wolkoff insists projection models used by planners to predict traffic patterns and the number of schoolchildren will not apply to Heartland. Many residents, he says, would have no need for cars. They would use free shuttle buses to the nearby Deer Park Long Island Rail Road station and rent cars by the hour for other trips.
The developer also believes his apartments -- ranging from efficiencies to two-bedroom -- would be too small for families with children. Instead, he said, the development would attract young singles and older couples whose children are grown. All of which he initially asked Islip Town to accept on faith.
"It's a different paradigm than they're used to in the suburban area," said Wolkoff, who agreed to set aside 9 to 15 acres for buildings such as schools or a firehouse, if needed.
He has been met with skepticism. "When Wolkoff says they're not going to need cars, that's baloney," said Lee Koppelman, director of Stony Brook University's Center for Regional Policy Studies.
Current plans for Heartland's Phase One call for 3,504 apartments, 560,000 square feet of retail space and 625,000 of office space at a cost Wolkoff estimates at $1 billion or more.
Broad support for project
Planning experts say Wolkoff has avoided most of the pitfalls that have brought down similar projects. Most important, they say, Wolkoff, 74, a longtime Brentwood property owner, has won allies among his neighbors. Civic groups applaud the development's predicted jobs and affordable housing.
"In contrast to many other proposals where there's instant civic association opposition, the people who live within 5 to 10 miles of it have not opposed it," Koppelman said. "The citizens in the Brentwood community certainly would support some tax relief and, more importantly, jobs."
Heartland has broad political support on Islip's town board.
Wolkoff said he has invested $72 million of his own capital and has spoken with interested investors. Financing, like the construction, would be secured in phases, he said. Including expenditures to date, he expects to invest as much as $125 million in Phase One.
Some experts say the economic climate for such large-scale investment is improving.
"The large banks have come through this and have the ability," said Kirk Kordeleski, chief executive of Bethpage Federal Credit Union.
However, Kordeleski and others note that investors are looking for significant contributions of cash from developers and say Wolkoff likely will have to boost his current cash pledge of 12 percent for Phase One. They noted that Wolkoff is an attractive candidate because of his track record as a developer and his extensive property holdings.
What's next for Heartland Town Square:
The Islip town board is expected to vote this spring on a final generic environmental impact statement and forward the proposal to Suffolk County.
At most 45 days after receiving proposal, Suffolk County Planning Commission holds a hearing and votes on it.
Meanwhile, the town board holds hearing(s) on the master plan and sweeping zoning changes to accommodate Heartland.
The town planning board offers a recommendation to the town board.
The Islip town board as early as this summer votes on the master plan, as well as local law and zoning changes. If the Suffolk County Planning Commission doesn't support the project, a town board supermajority (4 out of 5 votes) is required.
After the town board votes, Huntington or Smithtown, which are adjacent to the project, would have 20 days to register an objection with the county. This happens rarely. If it does, the Suffolk County Planning Commission with a two-thirds majority could reject or alter the segment of the project within 500 feet of that town, according to the county planning director.
If the project moves forward, the town's planning board will review development plans, site plans and building permits, and conduct one or more supplemental environmental reviews, including the impact to the Brentwood school district.
Primary issues to be resolved:
Projected school overcrowding in the Brentwood school district
Securing of financing