My high school class celebrated our 10-year reunion a few weeks ago. It was at a trendy rooftop beer garden bustling with 20-somethings, young families and couples drinking craft beers at rustic wooden tables and eating tapas-style appetizers.
Sounds like our Plainedge High School reunion was in Brooklyn or Manhattan, right? No, it was suburban Farmingdale. That’s a snapshot of what the Village of Farmingdale looks like a decade after our graduation.
In 2006, Farmingdale was withering. Main Street was a sad strip of vacant storefronts, broken signs and dive bars. The closure of Bollinger’s, the village’s old-fashioned ice cream shop we went to after school concerts, plays and games while growing up, felt like a nail in the village’s coffin.
So you can imagine the surprise of those in my grade who hadn’t been back in a while that the village corridor was so full of life that night.
Now Main Street boasts of hip wine bars and an olive oil shop along with its established chocolate store and meat market. An apartment complex has opened and several are under construction nearby. Tying the transformation together are matching ceramic signs and awnings for nearly all storefronts along Main Street’s almost fully occupied row of restaurants and retail. And the village even has the first Zipcar car-sharing location on Long Island.
Those of us who’ve been back to Farmingdale only occasionally were pretty awe-struck. The revitalization plan was put in motion years back with environmental and traffic studies that led to changes in zoning, railroad-gate timing and transportation flow that fostered the revitalization we see now.
“It worked,” Farmingdale Mayor Ralph Ekstrand says humbly but also with pride.
It’s not just my high school class that’s impressed. Farmingdale was name-dropped as a success story several times at a Long Island Association panel on housing a few days after the class reunion.
Panelists there — including a county executive, a developer and housing advocates — acknowledged that as recently as a decade ago, re-imagining downtowns around rentals and the idea of a car-free lifestyle, as Farmingdale did, was pretty unheard of outside of Patchogue.
The first question to the panel, though, pulled me off my Farmingdale cloud nine. The new vibrancy masks the fact that only a sliver of the units being built are actually affordable.
Sure, you could argue it doesn’t matter because the first block of rentals filled so fast at market-rate-and-above prices. But that’s partly because Long Island’s inventory of such housing is so low that it drives demand high regardless. These units got industrial development agency tax breaks for making 10 percent of the inventory affordable — that’s a handful of apartments among about 100 units planned. At around $2,000 a month for a studio, these are not apartments 23-year-olds on starting salaries with college debt or seniors living on Social Security can afford.
But Farmingdale deserves kudos. Despite NIMBY opposition, it made it this far. The luxury rentals are easier to accept because the pricing wards off typical NIMBY fears. Plus, because rents of the new units are significantly higher, they aren’t a threat to the many residents who own single-family homes and illegally rent out their basements.
Renting is not as smart as buying. But to keep future generations here and provide options to seniors and lower-income residents, affordable rental units are what we need, in addition to rent-to-buy arrangements and grants for first-time home buyers.
Farmingdale is no Manhattan for millennials or Florida for boomers. To keep generations from leaving, there needs to be more than meets the eye.
Amanda Fiscina is a web producer for Newsday Opinion.