Lee Koppelman was a rare regional voice. A planner who understood both the need for development and the demand for open space, who grasped the political landscape without serving as a politician, who could be charming yet demanding, rooted in reality yet willing to dream. An influencer before influencers became a phenomenon, one who didn't always get it right, who didn't always succeed, but who never stopped trying.
It's difficult to quantify or fully describe the scope of the influence of Koppelman, who died this week at the age of 94. Today's younger generation of Long Island politicians, developers and activists might not even know Koppelman's name. But they see his imprint across the region, particularly in Suffolk County — on open space and housing and development, transit and highways, universities like Stony Brook and local municipal and county politics.
As Suffolk County's planning director in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s and head of what was then known as the Nassau-Suffolk Regional Planning Board until 2006, Koppelman recognized early on some of the Island's key issues, many of which still loom as significant, unresolved concerns. One of his greatest strengths, perhaps, was the ability to use his training, stature, and political know-how to attempt to put important ideas and concerns in front of the region's decision-makers and elected officials.
That started with affordable housing. Koppelman lofted huge numbers into the ether, saying the Island needed as many as 100,000 affordable housing units. But while he cited the need for varied housing types, and for housing in downtowns and commercial centers, he often focused on homeownership and was less committed to rentals, which advocates now say are a critical need. And despite the drumbeat from those like Koppelman, the Island never dealt with its dearth of housing options in extensive and meaningful ways.
Koppleman had more success on the environment. The Island 's vast tracts of open space, particularly in Suffolk County and in areas like the pine barrens with its pristine sole-source aquifer, likely wouldn't look the same without Koppelman's spotlight.
Then there's public transit. On that, Koppelman was a future-thinker; the Island wasn't ready for most of his plans. But without him, we might not be riding an electrified Long Island Rail Road train on the Main Line.
Even in Koppelman's early days, Long Island was a crazy collection of governments, advocates, elected officials and fiefdoms that needed someone to bring them together. Koppelman mixed politicking with big thinking to get some priorities over the finish line. But for decades Long Island planning defined him, and much of the region was defined by his work and ideas. More than anything, Koppelman brought a powerful, regional voice to the table and his ideas about the Island of the future can bring us closer to achieving those dreams.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.