Stony Brook University has many strengths — top-notch research, of course, plus such other jewels as a Grammy Award-winning string quartet in its music department, and a baseball team that became the underdog darling of this year’s College World Series. But one thing it does not have is a real, inviting college town. Now, the university and the town — Brookhaven — are trying to change that. If they succeed, it would be a long-overdue and welcome addition to our flagship public campus.
There’s already an upscale unincorporated village of Stony Brook, but it isn’t what the 23,000 students — especially the 10,546 campus residents — really need. It’s too far to walk easily, for one thing, and its array of shops is charming, but too boutique-ish to attract students in large numbers. A campus-provided bus shuttles students to the Village of Port Jefferson — a great destination, but not close enough.
So the focus of the college town initiative, appropriately, is on a place where students do walk: the area around the Stony Brook station of the Long Island Rail Road, at the north edge of campus, on Route 25A. It has stores, offices and restaurants, but it needs architectural cohesion and improved walkability. Brookhaven Supervisor Mark Lesko brought the idea to Stony Brook’s president, Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr., who embraced it as a chance to do something major for the off-campus experience of his students.
The proposal is to find a master developer or planner to create a safe, walkable, attractive, student-friendly downtown. Preliminary discussions have been going on for months. Just this past week, a newly formed safety, beautification and improvement planning committee for the project held its first meeting. This week, the committee will issue its request for qualifications, the first step in identifying developers or planners interested in creating a college town.
This would be good example of transit-oriented development, using a mass-transit facility as the heart of a mixed-use project. It would require close coordination with the landowners: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state Department of Transportation, the university, and private owners of 19.6 acres, north and east of the campus, where students already go to eat or buy a few essentials.
The university’s master plan calls for new dorms for up 1,000 to 1,200 students near the station area. Those dorms would provide customers for the retail shops in the new college town. So would apartments contemplated for above the stores, which would be suitable for graduate students or young professors. Taken together, the dorms, apartments and retail would awaken that part of campus. All of it needs to be more walkable than it is now.
This is an excellent idea, but it will require close coordination with the community and its lawmakers: Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), Assemb. Steven Englebright (D-Setauket), Suffolk Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), a former president of the area’s leading civic association, and Brookhaven Councilman Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld. The community will be sensitive to how the new downtown looks and how it affects residents and businesses; the town and campus must be just as sensitive. It’s too good a concept to let fail.