Riverhead officials cracked down recently on vacant and potentially unsafe buildings they said have made it more difficult to revitalize the downtown area.
After inspecting 10 downtown properties in a process that began in November, Riverhead’s fire marshal and code enforcement officers recently issued more than 100 violations for those properties. While the owners of seven of those properties were working toward addressing the violations, the owners of the remaining three properties were ordered to bring the buildings into compliance with the town code, Riverhead officials announced March 26 at a news conference at Town Hall.
A public records request revealed the three properties are 117 E. Main St., 53-55-59 E. Main St. and 103-105 E. Main St. The properties at 117 E. Main St. and 53-55-59 E. Main St. are owned by Riverhead Enterprises, whose CEO is Shelly Gordon, according to business records dating to 2013. The violations included a bird infestation and a deteriorated floor on the second story of the 117 E. Main St. building; roof leaks and exposed electrical wiring at 103-105 E. Main St.; and water carpet damage and ceiling mold at 53-55-59 E. Main St.
“It’s upsetting to have a situation like this, but we are doing everything possible to clean it up," Gordon said in an interview Saturday.
He said there had been a failure in communication at some point between Riverhead Enterprises, which he described as a real estate partnership, and town officials before the violations being filed. But "once we were served with this notice, we realized this is top priority," Gordon said. "From our standpoint, we are ready to deploy all the resources that are necessary to comply with the request from Town Hall.”
The owners of the three properties were ordered to correct the code violations by April 19 and the violations cited by the fire marshal by April 22. The town will consider legal action against owners who do not comply by the deadlines, said Riverhead Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith.
A Roadblock for Revitalization
Dawn Thomas, community project supervisor for Riverhead’s Community Development Agency, said such vacant buildings are among the biggest challenges to efforts to revitalize the downtown area.
“The size of some of those buildings is a throwback to a different time,” said Thomas, whose agency administers and secures grants for downtown revitalization projects in Riverhead. “They’re too large . . . with the advent of the internet, the kinds of uses and businesses that would have located downtown when these buildings were built are no longer viable for any new uses like retail, restaurants or small boutiques.”
Councilwoman Catherine Kent, the town board’s liaison to the Downtown Revitalization Committee, said vacant downtown buildings have been a recurring topic in revitalization discussions.
"Some of these owners seem to be holding onto their buildings, thinking they're going to get a better price as we revitalize," said Kent. "But at the same time, having those big, empty buildings in a central location downtown holds back revitalization."
Kent said one tool that officials have at their disposal is a revision passed last fall to the town code's blighted properties section, under which a system assessing points to property owners for specific buildings violation was tweaked to address vacant buildings.
Thomas said other businesses — such as mixed-use retail and residential projects — have expressed interest in occupying vacant Main Street and downtown buildings since the federal government in November approved Riverhead for designation as an Opportunity Zone, a federal program designed to boost private investment in underserved communities through tax benefits.
" I think [the town board] will look into other tools and other actions that we can take," Kent said, "because revitalizing downtown is something we fully intend to get finished."
PROGRESS IN MOTION
- Some of the properties issued violations had not been inspected in 10 years, according to town officials.
- One issue that prevented the buildings from being inspected in the past has been a lack of code enforcement staffing, said Richard Downs, Riverhead Town's investigator for its code enforcement division. He said that in the past year the town added two additional code enforcement officers.
- Bob Kern, president of the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, said recently that there has been interest by prospective businesses in such vacant buildings, but that the interested parties would likely wait until Riverhead's Downtown Revitalization Committee makes recommendations on zoning and other issues such as building height requirements.