As a kid growing up in Freeport, Doris Jones cherished her afternoons with friends at the Plaza Theatre, by the old railroad station, watching old Westerns for 10 cents apiece.
After she married and moved to Hope Place, her husband opened a dry-cleaning business on nearby North Main Street, a short walk from home. "I didn't drive until I was 35," said Jones, 72. "It was nice walking around. You saw people that you knew, you stopped, you talked."
Over the years, the crowd thinned out at the corner hangout down the street from the cleaners, a spot the locals called Moncks Corner. The theater closed down. A neighborhood grocery store with a celebrated petting zoo was replaced. And her husband sold the business.
Now Jones sees a streetscape of auto repair shops, warehouses and bodegas. Vacant lots abound. Cars zoom along North Main Street's four lanes, on their way into or out of Freeport.
"We have no place to go really around here," Jones said. We need "something that's going to bring revenue into this village and . . . make it look like the village it used to be."
Planning started last fall
Aiming to revitalize the area, more than 200 community members joined planners, developers and government leaders last fall to develop a new vision for the mile-long zone stretching south from the Roosevelt border to the Freeport train station and a small section of South Main Street. Officials will unveil a draft master plan at a Jan. 28 meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at Perfecting Faith Church on North Main Street.
Village officials and planners said the heart of the redevelopment would be built around the train station: a 150-room hotel, more than 1,400 units of new housing, 168,000 square feet of retail and 63,500 square feet of commercial space. Some parking spaces around the station would be converted to parkland and even garden plots.
"When we look at all the places around Long Island with potential for redevelopment . . . Freeport does wade to the top of that list," Michael White, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, said of the diverse village of 44,000, the second-most populous village in the state after Hempstead.
The plan includes ambitious visions under the elevated tracks, too. Sketches portray a community art gallery enclosed in glass, an open-air farmers market and, to address concerns about crime, a police substation.
Safety is a prime issue
"Probably the biggest issue is safety. It came up at every meeting," said Robert Freudenberg, senior planner for the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit planning group in the metropolitan area that worked on the project with Sustainable Long Island and an architectural firm from California.
The concern about crime at the station, where a sexual assault was thwarted in broad daylight July 2008, pushes some locals to use the Baldwin train station, said Annette Dennis, 50, who lives in the Stearns Park section. The incidence and perception of crime taints the image of the whole village, she said. There were four homicides in Freeport last year, one in 2008 and two in 2007, and 62 arrests for gang-related crimes in 2008, the most recent year for which figures were available.
"If you mention it pretty much to any Freeporter . . . people shake their head and say, 'Yep. I know what you're talking about,' " she said. "It bothers me because that's my home. I want to be proud of where I live."
To be sure, there is activity on North Main Street, with churches, offices and a supermarket.
But many residents expressed frustration about a divide between the section south of Sunrise Highway - with its Nautical Mile and upscale waterfront homes - and the north side.
"Not many people from the south side of Freeport attended these meetings," said Anthony Miller, 27, Jones' grandson.
Mayor Andrew Hardwick's administration aims to bridge that divide by spurring economic development and creating jobs in the North Main Street corridor, village officials said. As a catalyst, the village plans to improve street lighting and plant more trees using grant money.
Residents "don't feel that the community provides them with everything that it can," said Norman Wells, executive director of the Freeport Community Development Agency, and the changes would "uplift the spirits of all."
Under the plan, North Main Street would eventually have more housing and a mix of commercial and retail uses, like bookstores, jazz clubs, cafes and restaurants. To make the strip more pedestrian-friendly, the plan envisions shrinking the roadway's lanes or installing bike lanes.
The prospects for bringing such plans to fruition depend largely on zoning and financing in this tough economy, White said. In Freeport, where officials have said they're open to making necessary zoning changes, he's optimistic the plan will yield results. "The implementation step is unfortunately where Long Island all too frequently fails," he said. "I believe looking at the success here so far . . . Freeport represents a great opportunity for implementation."