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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Long Island's suburbs must change to thrive -- but are far from dying

FILE: The Empire State Building is shown in

FILE: The Empire State Building is shown in Midtown Manhattan on April 30, 2013. Credit: AP

A Rutgers Regional Report released last week could have been viewed as bad news for Long Island.

It says, essentially, New York City is getting larger while some of the exurbs -- that is extended suburbs, which in New York State reach all the way up toward to Sullivan County -- are getting smaller.

The reason?

According to the study, young people prefer lively urban neighborhoods to the land of single-family homes. But dig deeper into the study, eliminate the exurbs and zero in on Nassau and Suffolk, and there's ample reason for optimism about Long Island's future.

James W. Hughes, dean of Rutgers' Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy -- and one of the study's authors -- agrees. Asked whether Long Islanders should be worried about the region's fortunes drying up and blowing away anytime soon, Hughes said, "Oh, no. I don't think so."

Why? For one, while some exurbs are losing population, Nassau and Suffolk -- like some other counties in New York City's first ring of suburbs -- have gained residents.

OK, so the population growth in Nassau and Suffolk has been snaillike in recent years compared with the post-World War II boom: between 2010, the last U.S. Census, and the bureau's projections for 2013 -- the latest figures available -- Nassau grew by 12,613 residents and Suffolk was up by 6,392.

The growth was fueled primarily by a steady stream of immigrants, including new residents from Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Another plus for Long Island is that despite the so-called brain drain of young people, there are plentiful young adults who -- by choice or by circumstance -- still call Long Island home.

Meeting their housing, recreational and job needs will be key to the region's survival.

"If we want to start growing again we need to make transit-oriented communities attractive to our younger generation to retain and attract them to live here," said Kevin Law, president and CEO of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group. "But first and foremost there have to be jobs for them."

Hughes sees the likelihood of what he calls "submarkets" attractive to young people springing up in successful suburbs. "The areas that transform their downtowns into walkable downtowns, the ones that make use of being near rail stations, they're going to do well," he said.

The post-baby boom generations that he sees on campus and in cities "don't study alone or huddle in their dorms, they're out and walking around with their phones and their tablets. I can see young people used to a communal existence like that having a hard time being happy in the middle of a Levittown."

Lawrence C. Levy, executive dean of Hofstra's National Center for Suburban Studies, bristles at the suggestion that suburbs, here and elsewhere, are through. "There's been a growing narrative that the suburbs are dying and that's just not true," he said.

On Long Island and elsewhere, "there are people in power that understand the need for change, for developing different kinds of housing, for developing neighborhoods where the young and seniors can get what they need without relying on cars," Levy said.

And as Hughes pointed out, the soaring expense of living in New York City -- where residents seeking lower-cost housing already are migrating toward the outer boroughs -- could again seed significant out-migration to Long Island and other first-circle suburbs.

Still, there are plentiful issues that need addressing on Long Island, from high taxes and utility costs, to economic development and changing demographics.

The region's task, now and down the line, is to spur enough creativity, optimism and hard work to keep Long Island going.

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