When Long Islanders talk of exciting downtown redevelopment and neighborhoods mixing apartments and stores the staid Town of Oyster Bay isn’t what comes to mind. But why not talk about its crossroads, Hicksville?
Since Hicksville’s roads were widened and train tracks elevated in the 1960s, the downtown has become a messy hodgepodge of big-box stores, strip malls, single-family homes and the busiest railroad station east of Queens. More of a place to pass through than a place to stay.
Until now. The state is fast-tracking a $121 million upgrade of Hicksville’s train station. Residents, business leaders and Oyster Bay representatives no longer dismiss the vision of a modern downtown. Their plans include new zoning to allow mixed-use development, with rental and owner-occupied housing above retail, density of at least 16 units per acre, and residential buildings up to five stories. The final version may even accommodate more housing.
In Hicksville. Yes, really.
Oyster Bay Councilwoman Rebecca Alesia is looking at potential models. She points to Farmingdale, where there’s now retail, restaurants and housing near the train station, and to Huntington, where she says she goes for an evening out. She wants a future when she’d get that evening in Hicksville, when people could get off the train after work and walk to a restaurant or take a trolley to another part of the hamlet. It could be a community that’s, in Alesia’s words, “charming.”
Oyster Bay has long been one of the last holdouts against change. For years, Supervisor John Venditto said residents prefered the suburban dream of a white-picket fence. But the town already approved Country Pointe in Plainview, a housing complex that has some office space and shopping. The town also is reviewing a proposed a major complex just off the Long Island Expressway at the former Cerro Wire site in Syosset. And there’s a new effort pitched for Hicksville’s Sears property, too.
Now, Oyster Bay officials are focusing on a bigger goal: the immediate area around the station itself.
The shift comes amid some changes in attitude among town officials, a diverse neighborhood hungry for something new and a transportation nexus in need of more. Add in the town’s deep financial troubles, requiring an economic and revenue-generating spark, and you’ve got a recipe for change. What the town has proposed isn’t monumental, but it’s change nonetheless.
It’s long overdue and couldn’t come at a more critical time. It’s a moment when Long Island can be a part of the future or stand on the sidelines and watch others compete, when communities can shift with the times or stay in place. But if the choice is to stay, we may find ourselves sliding backward economically.
In New York City, developers are building luxury condominiums and few rentals. Affordable apartments are harder to come by. Would-be residents will look for alternatives in the suburbs, especially if Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens become more unaffordable.
Not coincidentally, revitalized downtowns are emerging from Jersey City to New Rochelle, where housing, commercial development and transportation all fold into the same spaces.
As communities change, experts say, people will come. They’re young workers just out of college, or those in their 20s and 30s not ready to move to a large suburban home. They’re individuals who once would’ve rented in Queens or Brooklyn, but are in search of a more affordable alternative that still has an urban feel.
Each is a worker with talent, skills and a long career ahead. Together, they’re a critical mass of potential employees, and wherever they settle, businesses large and small will follow. That’s how a region grows and stays ahead of an ever-changing economy.
But even as Long Island communities embrace that concept, change is coming faster and more easily elsewhere. Developer Scott Rechler notes that it took him 10 months to rezone 10 million square feet of property in New Rochelle, where it’s taken just two years in total to start building. In Glen Cove, Rechler has spent 10 years trying to build new housing, retail and more near the waterfront. With the project tied up in court, no one is sure when ground will be broken.
But the holdup isn’t just in one court case. It’s endless hearings, zoning debates, environmental reviews and approvals, state and local regulations that twist developers into knots, infrastructure that’s not up to date, and constituencies with needs to meet. And it’s people and politicians who don’t want “new” or think it easier to say no.
Underneath it is a mentality that’s more troublesome and more difficult to shift. Augmenting the suburban housing stock and style we’ve maintained for so long could also change a community’s political and racial makeup — and that’s enough to make some say no.
There are signs the tide is turning. Eric Alexander of the smart-growth advocacy group Vision Long Island said that atthe 63 downtown development hearings he’s attended in the last four years, 50 had more public support than opposition. But even when the public is on board, it still can be hard to get decision makers to yes.
If you want the region and your community to keep up, to thrive, to grow economically, if you want to continue to live and work here, and you want the same for your children or grandchildren, it’s time to get on board. With the will to build, to change what we’re building and to make the process easier, we could compete with other communities outside of New York City.
But there’s certainly hope. After all, if it can happen in Hicksville . . .