43° Good Afternoon
43° Good Afternoon

Transforming a suburban crossroads

Hicksville train station.

Hicksville train station. Credit: Newsday / Ken Spencer

Change is coming to Hicksville.

It may not come easily. It will take time, and the right combination of local leadership, private investment, community engagement, innovative thinking and, perhaps most important, a new Oyster Bay way.

But it is coming.

The pieces of the puzzle that hopefully will bring new energy to downtown Hicksville have been slowly falling into place: the $121 million upgrade of the Long Island Rail Road’s busiest station; renovations of the Hicksville athletic center and the once vibrant Broadway Mall; and the repaving, cleanup and drain repair of Routes 106 and 107. And the recent approval of the third track expansion project will mean vastly improved LIRR service and the potential to lure workers to Hicksville businesses.

Now, town and state officials are starting to fill in critical missing pieces that could turn this tired crossroads into a major hub with housing for younger adults starting out and older ones wanting to downsize, entertainment and restaurants, and an economic and financial boost for the financially troubled town of Oyster Bay.

A rezoning plan for downtown Hicksville that would allow three- and four-story buildings with retail stores and restaurants on the ground floor and housing above is undergoing environmental review and will likely come up for a vote by the Oyster Bay Town Board later this year. Key projects, including the redevelopment of the 26-acre Sears store and parking lot into a mixed-use project with 590 units of housing, await town approvals.

In the latest significant step, state officials awarded Hicksville a $10 million downtown revitalization grant earlier this month. The state will provide consultants and planners to work with Oyster Bay officials and civic and business leaders. Together, they’ll develop a plan and specific proposed projects.

The state’s award also serves as an endorsement of sorts that could catapult the revitalization effort from vision to reality. Hicksville was close to winning the grant last year, but a lack of full-throated support from then-Supervisor John Venditto gave decision-makers pause. This year, new Supervisor Joseph Saladino led the presentation himself, talking of rental apartments and mixed-use development, topics that in years past were taboo in Oyster Bay. It’s a stunning shift for a town known for saying no.

What would a new Hicksville look like? At the center will be be a modern commuter train station with two new parking garages instead of acres of surface lots, sprawl that wastes valuable real estate. But beyond that, planners envision a walking path to connect key downtown locations, including the Hicksville community center, athletic center and library. Elevated walkways would allow pedestrians to avoid crossing Hicksville’s busy thoroughfares, while providing parks and plazas for community events, performances and fairs. The new housing, retail, restaurants and entertainment would add to the town’s tax base and Nassau County sales tax revenue.

A sea change in Hicksville would have impact beyond the hamlet. In the last two decades, Oyster Bay’s debt has quadrupled to $900 million. The town’s bond ratings stand at or near junk status. Last year, the town board passed an 11.5 percent increase in Oyster Bay’s property tax levy. Even with a leadership shift, charges of political corruption continue to haunt the town. It needs a sign that a brighter future awaits.

But that’s not to say the path to transformation will be smooth. The Sears project, for instance, faces questions. The 590 housing units are far more than what was initially proposed — and more than residents supported. Beyond that, while town officials say they have no plans to use eminent domain, there will be an effort to revitalize underused downtown lots and buy out owners of certain shops or storefronts to make way for more of the transit-oriented development the town seeks. That, too, could bring pushback.

Town officials and advocates have to encourage developers to include affordable housing beyond the state’s requirements, when possible, and to make sure new residential units are open to all. The shadow of a federal lawsuit claiming Oyster Bay violated fair housing rules to keep out minorities by giving preference to residents lingers. A town spokesman said there will be no town residency requirements for any new housing. That should be the case.

And this has to be done aboveboard with an open, public process that squeezes out the side deals and graft the can creep into major projects.

The to-do list is long and the route to a new Hicksville remains uncertain, especially with an upcoming election for supervisor and town board. Local residents should ask candidates about Hicksville’s redevelopment, and support those with a vision for the future and a plan to stabilize town finances.

Hicksville can be a symbol of the revival of the nation’s first suburb. Just think of it: The Hicksville way.