The $500 million revitalization effort in Wyandanch may have appeared stagnant for the past year, but Babylon Town officials say behind-the-scenes efforts have been underway that will lead to visible progress in 2018.
Large scale construction in the 40-acre redevelopment zone settled into a hush in 2017. The whir of circular saws faded, the concrete dried and the backhoes disappeared. Residents grew concerned.
“There’s a despair that happens when all the construction vehicles go away and nothing’s happening,” said Amy Pfeiffer, the town’s director of downtown revitalization. “Now there’s stuff happening again.”
The Wyandanch Rising redevelopment — a $500 million public-private project that started 15 years ago — made noticeable gains from 2013 to 2016 with the construction of two mixed-use buildings that include 177 apartments, a plaza and ice skating rink, the creation of a spray park and botanical garden, and the construction of a sewer line that was the first significant extension of the Southwest Sewer District since the 1970s.
The coming year promises more tangible development, officials said. The town and master developer Albanese Organization Inc. of Garden City are to unveil plans at a community forum Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Wyandanch Senior Nutrition Center.
The new work “will show that the town is dead serious about moving this forward to the second, third and fourth phases,” Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said.
Wyandanch Rising was conceived by current Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone after he was elected Babylon town supervisor in 2002. It was designed as a transit-oriented redevelopment that could improve the economically distressed community while also connecting it to, and lifting up, communities beyond.
“When we started there were a lot of people who were skeptical that we could ever get a beautifully designed, new downtown underway in Wyandanch, and we knew the skeptics were wrong,” Bellone said.
Despite the cynicism, the revitalization is on track, he said.
“New downtowns don’t develop overnight, and you don’t create the kind of change that this effort is seeking overnight either,” Bellone said. “But you can see the direction that this is going, and all the signs for future growth and prosperity there exist.”
The 177 apartments are more than 95 percent rented, Albanese chairman Russell Albanese said, with nine vacancies among the affordable housing units, for which there is a waiting list. He said he expects there will be a total of 700 to 1,000 housing units in Wyandanch Rising, both for rent and purchase.
But the developer has struggled to fill the 35,000 square feet of retail, and it remains 50 percent vacant.
“It’s been one of the most challenging aspects,” Albanese said.
This year, four more retailers have signed leases, including a Caribbean restaurant that was in the strip mall that once stood on the site. In addition, LISTnet, a technology advocacy group, is creating a “digital ballpark” and renting out office space for tech companies, focusing on minority-run businesses.
According to Pfeiffer, the town has received $6.6 million in federal funds, $54.5 million in state funds, $21.6 million in county funds — including $8.9 million in bonded contributions — and has used $51.1 million of town funds for the project. The town also has received $10.3 million in lending from Empire State Development.
Albanese said his company has invested $8 million in cash equity and $2 million in overhead for the development.
NORTH OF THE TRACKS
Building a new train station and adding a second Long Island Rail Road track along the Ronkonkoma Line that runs through Wyandanch are underway, including a new overpass to connect the north and south sides of the track in the Wyandanch Rising development area.
At the same time, Albanese will construct a five-floor building north of the existing apartments. It is to include 124 affordable housing units, limited to incomes at 50, 60, 80 and 90 percent of the area’s median income, which in 2016 was $92,933. The developer also will construct an adjacent one-story building to house the Wyandanch Community Resource Center, which has been operating out of a trailer since it opened in 2009.
In addition, a five-story building is to be constructed around the train station parking garage, with 100 senior apartments run by the nonprofit Selfhelp Community Services, which promotes independent living for seniors.
Albanese also is to develop plans for a building east of the existing apartments. The Long Island Music Hall of Fame is to open its first museum in the building, using about 10,000 square feet of the space. Bellone had originally sought also to use the building as office space, hoping to fill it with tech companies. But no companies came in, so the town and Albanese focused on moving the county-owned Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center from its current location south of the site.
Then talks began with the YMCA about a health and wellness center.
Albanese said a memorandum of understanding has been signed among the town, county, YMCA and upstate Peekskill-based HRHCare for a health and wellness center, offering doctor services, classes on diabetes prevention and healthy cooking demonstrations. The YMCA, offering a gym, pool, day care and summer camp, would use 50,000 square feet of the building. That design might be scaled down, officials said, as the organization is still about $8 million short in financing.
SOUTH OF THE TRACKS
Apartment buildings going up on the north side of the tracks led to complaints from residents that the majority of Wyandanch, which is located to the south, was being ignored. Officials say they hope the new work next year will allay those concerns.
Albanese plans to build two mixed-use buildings on either side of the existing post office with 100 rental apartments each and a total of 35,000 square feet of commercial space. Tentative plans also call for the construction of 50 to 60 townhomes that would be for sale. A swath of green space running north-south — dubbed the “South Lawn” — is planned next to the buildings.
But three nearby homeowners have declined to sell their properties to the town. Babylon officials said they are getting appraisals of the properties and will continue to try to negotiate.
One of the homeowners, Rene Iraheta, 48, isn’t optimistic about the negotiations. He said the money he owes on his mortgage is likely more than $100,000 over what an assessment would conclude. Because the town cannot legally offer more than market value to buy a property, Iraheta, a machine operator who has been out of work on disability for two years, doesn’t know how he would be able to pay off the mortgage.
“It might be better to stay here a couple of years and then the property values will go up” from the new development, Iraheta said.
Town officials said they will not use eminent domain to force homeowners out and will work their plans around the properties if necessary.
So far, the town has spent $27 million to purchase 48 properties for Wyandanch Rising, 13 of which were purchased using eminent domain. Two of those properties were homes.