Patchogue Village sees dramatic gains in development a decade after Swezey's closed
A decade after the closing of Swezey's Department Store threatened to shutter Main Street, Patchogue has been reborn.
The old Patchogue -- a down-at-the-heels mill town with boarded-up storefronts and a dubious future -- is gone. In its place stands a contemporary village of chic shops, popular restaurants, hundreds of new homes and fashionable artists' lofts.
Many officials who have watched Patchogue's transformation over the past 10 years say the village is a model for other struggling Long Island downtowns, from Riverhead to Hempstead.
On a recent Saturday night in the village, partiers danced to rock and hip-hop music at a Railroad Avenue club that once housed a Knights of Columbus hall. Nearby on Main Street, folk-rocker Suzanne Vega played at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, where earlier generations watched movies and vaudeville shows before the venue was boarded up in 1987.
Patchogue officials, residents and developers said reinventing the 2.2-square-mile village as an arts and entertainment hub required:
Approving apartment and townhouse complexes and developing affordable housing
Refurbishing shop facades
Adding decorative lighting in pedestrian alleys
Boosting development of music clubs, art galleries and performance spaces
Reaction to development in the village has been positive, with some criticism over whether there are enough parking spaces for new residents and visitors. The village secured more than $30 million in federal, state and county government grants for upgrades, including $7.2 million to expand capacity at the village sewage treatment plant to accommodate new growth.
Developments such as New Village, a $100 million complex of apartments and commercial space now under construction, have helped reduce the downtown vacancy rate to less than 6 percent, Mayor Paul V. Pontieri Jr. said. Many of the village's aging and antiquated stores have been supplanted by upscale shops, music clubs and eateries.
The Public House 49 bar-restaurant occupies a formerly vacant space at 49 E. Main St.; a few doors down, Roast Coffee & Tea and Bridgehampton National Bank took over the shuttered Carl & Bob's clothing store. Restaurants, which numbered four in 2004, have quadrupled to about 16.
Developers say New Village and other projects that have reshaped the community were possible because Patchogue already had a strong infrastructure, and most importantly, its own sewage treatment plant.
But officials say there is another reason why the village has been reborn: a willingness to push change, including making political decisions other communities have not, such as approving higher-density housing.
"Patchogue has always survived because it adapted to things," Pontieri said. "This community was ready for leadership that wasn't afraid of change."
The village also won millions of dollars in grants to develop workforce housing priced according to a formula aimed at helping middle-income residents buy or rent homes. Supporters say affordable housing is crucial to keeping Patchogue viable.
"It is the key to our future as an island. You can't have an economy that stagnates. You can't have an economy that has no growth," said Suffolk County Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), a village resident who maintains his district office there. " . . . Otherwise, what happens is you lose your young people and your workforce. What we've done here in Patchogue is we've found a new growth model that works."
Village officials say new construction so far has had a modest impact on property tax revenues, but next year, they expect a 3.8 percent increase over this year's $6.7 million, bringing the total to $6.97 million.
On hard times
Patchogue's turnaround seemed unlikely a decade ago, when many believed it was time to write the village's obituary. The once-thriving downtown -- home to 19th-century churches and festooned with murals by East Northport artist Hans Gabali -- had fallen into decline. The 2008 hate-crime stabbing death of Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero deepened the village's sense of depair.
A 2002 study by the Suffolk County Planning Department said 18.2 percent of downtown Patchogue's storefronts were empty. The vacancy rate was worse -- 42 percent -- in the northwest section of the village that had been home to Swezey's, the iconic department store long associated with Patchogue, Riverhead and Setauket.
The decision by Swezey's to leave its original home at the northwest corner of Main Street and North Ocean Avenue -- known as the Four Corners -- in 2000 for a new West Main Street store "really sucked the energy out of Main Street," Pontieri said.
In addition to relocating its flagship store, Swezey's closed several other downtown storefronts it had occupied. "They pulled probably 70,000 square feet of space off Main Street," Pontieri said.
The moves failed to save the ailing chain, and Swezey's closed for good in 2003. Plans to build a hotel and condominium complex at the Four Corners fell apart in June 2006.
But soon after, Patchogue began to show signs of life.
Since July 2006, when ground was broken for the Copper Beech Village townhouse complex on South Ocean Avenue, developers have put $87 million into four major projects, adding 324 housing units within walking distance of Patchogue's downtown. The YMCA of Long Island built a $21 million, 54,000-square-foot facility on West Main Street.
This month, the first tenants are expected to move into the first phase of New Village, which is projected to include 291 apartments, 17,000 square feet of office space and 46,000 square feet of stores on six Main Street properties.
The project by East Setauket-based Tritec Real Estate will feature a five-story tower at North Ocean Avenue and Main Street -- a replica of the Swezey's spire that rose from the same spot before it was destroyed by a 1946 fire.
While not criticizing growth in the village overall, some residents and officials have expressed concern that New Village may be too much for Patchogue.
They cite potential parking problems for the project, which is slated to have more than 500 slots, including 293 in a below-ground parking garage reserved for apartment residents.
"The New Village project won't even provide enough parking spaces for its residential tenants, not even considering its commercial tenants and what its needs will be," said former village trustee Gerard Crean, one of three village board members to vote against the project in 2011. "New Village gives us a much more urban feel than we had originally hoped for. . . . New Village just isn't a proper scale for the rest of the community."
Trustee Jack Krieger, who supported New Village, said Patchogue officials plan to add hundreds of parking spaces over the next several years, using revenue from 240 newly installed parking meters that are projected to generate $300,000 annually.
Merchants said Patchogue's new image and influx of residents have boosted business.
"It's better than what it was: empty, broken buildings," said Marc Siegel, owner of Blum's Swimwear & Intimate Apparel. He and his father, Abe Siegel, had considered closing the third-generation Main Street business about 15 years ago. Their decision to downsize the store paid off when Patchogue bounced back, he said.
"We started going up, up, up, up, up, up, up," Marc Siegel said.
Susan Wheatley of Center Moriches recently shopped in Patchogue with her sisters, Wendy McCarthy of Water Mill, Joan Blake of Huntington and Barbara Frehlich of Queens Village.
"It really has changed a lot," Wheatley said after visiting the Wisteria Lane gift store, Cheese Patch and the Colony Shop. "We went to the theater here a month ago, and today we came down to do some shopping."
Village shop owners such as Andres Rivera, owner of Queen City Cupcakes, said upscale restaurants attract patrons who also frequent their stores.
"For us, it's been great," said Rivera, who bought the 3-year-old store in January. "Better than we expected."
Pontieri said the arts are a key component of Patchogue's turnaround. Venues such as Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts attract customers who patronize village restaurants and shops, he said.
The village-owned theater opened in 1998 after a $3.35 million renovation of the old Patchogue Theater, which had closed a decade earlier. It now attracts about 150,000 people a year to live shows and concerts, "putting a tremendous number of people on Main Street," Pontieri said.
Artspace Patchogue Lofts, a 45-unit apartment house and art gallery, opened in July 2011 on a Terry Street parcel previously occupied by a vacant house and a little-used village parking lot.
Artspace vice president Shawn McLearen said the Minneapolis-based company, which has constructed 35 art-oriented residences in 13 states, was won over by Patchogue officials, who raised $18 million in federal, state and county funds to help build the project.
"They made it clear to us that not only did we have the support of local leadership when it came to addressing very complex real estate development challenges, but we had the understanding of a community that the role of the arts, artists and their families was significant and deserved a place at the table when thinking about long-term community development goals," McLearen said.
Eric Alexander, executive director of Vision Long Island, a smart-growth advocacy group, said Patchogue and other growing downtowns such as Farmingdale, Wyandanch and Huntington Station are responding to a demand for small, and less costly, housing aimed at young professionals and retirees.
"Long Islanders love their local communities. Long Island is a community of communities. When people see positive changes, they want to stay here," he said.
Longtime residents agree.
"My sister lived here in the early 1960s, and I remember when it was really, really bad," said Kevin Ryan, a retired court officer from nearby East Patchogue, as he sipped a soft drink outside Roast coffee shop on Main Street.
"Look at all the improvements," he said, sweeping his hand toward the bustling street. "They put Patchogue on the map. Not bad for a blue-collar village."