There's no question that Gerald Wolkoff's massive Heartland Town Square project in Brentwood still has the potential to be transformative. But there are obstacles he has to address soon.
In this economy, after the flight of tens of thousands of the young people who are a major part of his market, does the demand for this much housing and retail still exist? Can Wolkoff really build it without reaching a project labor agreement with the building trades unions, which he declines to sign? And if he's so anxious to get it moving, why did he take six months to answer issues raised by the Town of Islip?
In 2002, Wolkoff bought the land at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center from the state for $20 million. A year later, he formally rolled out his plans for a stunningly ambitious mixed-use development. The plan for 450 acres now outlined in the draft environmental impact statement calls for 9,130 units of housing, 1,030,000 square feet of retail and 4,150,000 square feet of office-commercial space -- plus 105,000 square feet of civic space. It would take 15 years to build, in three phases.
Given Long Island's need for bold thinking and for more rental housing, this page has supported Wolkoff's proposal. But this moment calls for at least a bit of reflection and rethinking. Wolkoff would like the regional economic development council for Long Island, created by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, to submit his project to the state as vital to the region. That may happen next month, but some members of the council's infrastructure working group raised several significant questions.
Perhaps the most insurmountable obstacle is his refusal to sign a collective bargaining agreement specific to this project with the construction trades. Once, Wolkoff did draft an agreement, but the unions thought it was much too one-sided in his favor. The trades still say they'd make concessions to help him build it affordably. Though he has spoken with individual unions, he now refuses adamantly to sign any agreement. That attitude is not going to get this project built.
In a letter to Wolkoff on March 11, Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan raised a number of concerns, including the cost of needed transportation-infrastructure improvements. The town thought he had committed to pay $75 million. In his Sept. 7 response, Wolkoff said he had never agreed to that, but he'll pay $25 million, at the start of phase three. He says his project will bring government tax revenue, and government has to help with the roads. That seems like wishful thinking.
Another obstacle is zoning. Wolkoff and the town agreed to build the project in phases. If traffic exceeds his predictions in the first phase, for example, the town could reduce the scope of future phases. But Wolkoff wants the town to rezone the whole 450 acres at the start, to give him the certainty he needs to get financing. Talks go on, but there's no final agreement on harmonizing his request to rezone it all at once and the town's need to reduce density later, if necessary.
Though Wolkoff says he has invested $74 million in the project, at the moment it seems as if the developer himself has become one of the obstacles to getting it done. If he wants it to be a transformative project, he needs to be more flexible and realistic. If he can't, it may be time to rethink what can really work at this regionally important site. hN