Dobie: Patchogue comes back to life, with lessons for all of us

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A grand opening was held on Tuesday, June

A grand opening was held on Tuesday, June 24, 2014, for the 291-unit New Village at Patchogue development, built by Tritec Real Estate. The development is a key part of the revitalization plan for downtown Patchogue. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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Michael Dobie Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

What would you have said 10 years ago if someone told you that someday Patchogue would be a center of the arts, entertainment and dining?

A polite reply would have been a guffaw. Which makes what's happened in the village a bit of a miracle.

A decade ago, Patchogue was dying. Nearly half of its commercial space was vacant. Swezey's, its iconic department store, had closed. Blight abounded. There was no energy and no foot traffic.

Now? The bustle is back. People are flocking to the village to live, eat and be entertained, and the vacancy rate is 5 percent.

There are clear lessons in this for the rest of Long Island.

Turnarounds don't just happen. They require political leaders not afraid to be bold, residents ready for something different, and sewers to accommodate the construction needed to produce change. Patchogue had all three. Now it's a model for how to eliminate blight, grow a tax base, create jobs and build community pride.

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Patchogue has succeeded so wildly that some people say the village now has a parking problem. Mayor Paul Pontieri scoffs at that. A parking problem, he says, is when no one is parking.

Housing has been the key. Since Pontieri became mayor in 2004, the village has worked with developers and Suffolk County officials to build several major projects within easy walking distance of downtown. The nature of the projects is important. They include town houses and apartments -- a healthy portion of them affordable. And to generate the foot traffic businesses crave, they are more dense than what many people are used to. But the density produced little controversy.

"Density is a product of design," Pontieri said. "People don't care as much about the numbers if they like the look and feel."

That's what officials emphasized on each project -- including Copper Beech, the town house development that got the ball rolling; New Village, the $100 million apartment-retail-office complex now coming on line; and Riverwalk, the condominiums being built on the village's west side.

Patchogue succeeded by defying the Long Island development trifecta: We don't like rentals, we don't like affordable housing and we don't like density.

Other communities like Westbury, Riverhead and Farmingdale are pursuing similar strategies. Larger and more transformative projects -- the Ronkonkoma Hub, Wyandanch Rising -- are in the pipeline.

Some say these developments destroy Long Island's suburban way of life. Nonsense. Places like Patchogue preserve that way of life.

They re-energize downtowns while leaving alone our vast tracts of single-family homes. They help us retain our young people, the ones who someday will buy those single-family homes, and provide landing spots for older homeowners who want to downsize.

Just look at who's moving into New Village in Patchogue. Half are ages 25 to 34. One-quarter are over 60. And some are Long Islanders returning from Florida and the Carolinas.

If you don't like these developments, don't move there. No one is forcing you to go. But don't make the mistake of believing everybody else is just like you. Long Islanders are tremendously diverse in ages, interests and finances. We need a similar diversity of housing.

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The more we succeed at providing that, the more we prosper. Fall short and we'll die. Like Patchogue almost did.

Michael Dobie is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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