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A grand opportunity for Baldwin

The corner of Grand Avenue and Merrick Road

The corner of Grand Avenue and Merrick Road looking south from the northwest corner in Baldwin. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams

Baldwin residents are tired of waiting. Who could blame them?

Again and again, over the course of the nearly two decade saga involving downtown redevelopment, they’ve seen developers come and go, arriving on the scene with big ideas and new promises only to watch each and every one of them fail to materialize.

It’s time to try something new.

In the most recent disappointment for Baldwin, developers Engel Burman, of Garden City, and Basser Kaufman, of Woodmere, have withdrawn their plans to revitalize the properties along Grand Avenue. The reason for the latest failure? The developers determined it would be too expensive to condemn and buy back about 20 properties along the stretch — without significant tax breaks. Among the breaks they sought was a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, which would have allowed the developer to avoid paying taxes for a stunning 30 years. The Town of Hempstead said no.

Town officials acted properly in turning down the request; indeed, it’s good to see Hempstead’s Industrial Development Agency making better decisions on projects that don’t meet its criteria. But the developers’ assertion that the project wasn’t financially viable without such breaks likely is also correct.

That leaves the town, and Baldwin residents, in a tough spot. Amazingly, it seems this is one issue where town Supervisor Laura Gillen, who grew up in Baldwin, and town Councilwoman Erin King Sweeney, who represents most of Baldwin, are on the same page. Both are recommending the creation of an overlay district — a special zoning that would establish height and density maximums, and design guidelines for facades, streetscapes and more. Such a district could allow for more piecemeal development, where individual developers and property owners could develop specific projects, without the need to please and financially compensate every property owner at once.

The key question is whether this kumbaya moment will last. Gillen and King Sweeney, who have been feuding, and the rest of the town council have to prioritize the Baldwin downtown. Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, who lives in Baldwin, promises her support, too — and the county’s role is critical to getting infrastructure and road improvements done. Then there’s the state, which had committed some funds to the old project. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky is working to keep those funds in Baldwin’s hands; that should happen.

Hempstead officials rarely have welcomed new ideas, particularly those involving multi-unit or multi-story buildings, without a fight. But unlike so many development projects on Long Island, this isn’t a case of a community rejecting change. Here, civic leaders desperately want new development, and have had enough of the starts and stops.

So, after a community meeting scheduled for the end of August to discuss next steps, the town can move quickly to establish the zone. Its plan to finish before the end of the year is a good one. Next, the town must work directly with property owners and developers to bring change to Grand Avenue. Baldwin has waited long enough.

— The editorial board