Eric Alexander is executive directorof Vision Long Island.
The battle over the recently defeated Avalon Bay rental housing project in Huntington Station was often confrontational. The development was compared both to a positive future for an area suffering from crime, lack of code enforcement and the closure of a school, as well as to the unwanted "Queensification" of Long Island. The volume of both sides' arguments steadily increased over the summer up to last month's vote.
Supporters of the 490-unit project, which would have included more than 100 affordable apartments, pointed to the $1.5-million windfall the school district would receive from AvalonBay Communities Inc. to offset costs from any influx of students. The average price of the affordable units was set to appeal to young professionals making between $50,000 and $120,000 a year - a group Long Island has a hard time keeping.
But in the end, opponents won with an organized and energetic campaign that railed against what they perceived as a loss of a way of life and safety, and a fear of increased traffic and further overcrowding to the local school system.
So what went wrong? The public process went awry. The dialogue about an important planning project descended into "I'm smart; you're dumb" and "I'm a YIMBY; you're a NIMBY." There were conspiracy theories and, in many cases, outright lies - for example, that Section 8 housing was in the proposal. The tension was heightened by the fact that many of the proponents of the project were outside organizations disconnected from most community leaders.
Opposition resulted from a lack of information and a lack of trust in town government. An environmental impact study had been conducted for the Avalon Bay project, but not the overall plan, which sought to rezone a half-mile area around the train station. When a significant zone change occurs, a review must be completed on the potential impacts. That process seemed to have been skipped.
Another complication: AvalonBay Communities, which has built exceptional developments in other Long Island downtowns, was unable to budge from its proposal to satisfy community concerns.
As the post-defeat analysis of this process continues, one fallacy that resonates is "you can't get anything done on Long Island." When outsiders call community folks names like "NIMBY," they are missing the fact that plenty of transit-oriented-development projects are under way here.
It received little media mention, but a six-story rental development near the train station in Mineola was recently approved. There also have been ribbon cuttings for transit-adjacent multifamily housing in Valley Stream, Babylon and Amityville. All told, 31 transit-oriented developments in 20 municipalities have been approved, built or begun construction in the past five years, resulting in nearly 3,000 housing units.
The Huntington Station proposal wasn't the first such transit-oriented project to be defeated, however, and it won't be the last. But there are lessons from its failure and from the successes of the projects moving forward.
When you look at the approved projects, you see that a number of elements came together on multiple levels: Towns and villages charted the course with downtown plans and environmental reviews for the resulting zoning changes; the state and federal government supported infrastructure investments; communities themselves stepped forward to aid redevelopment plans; developers partnered and negotiated with community leaders and municipalities to create a viable project.
Where to now? Huntington Station is a hardworking, multicultural community that has been given promises for years, most of which have gone unfulfilled. Its leadership needs to step forward and outline the types of revitalization efforts it will actually get behind. Regional leaders should provide support - but let the residents lead the way.
This was a great project that suffered from an awful process. Let's learn from these mistakes and successfully go about the business of building community-acceptable projects in Long Island's downtowns.