A long row of nondescript, attached buildings — some with "Vacant" or "For Rent" signs hanging on their doors. Acres of asphalt, with row after row of white painted lines — and barely a car in sight. A hush over a sprawling property.

Not too long ago, Long Island's strip malls and traditional shopping centers were community anchors, vibrant hubs of retail, restaurants, service providers, and more. But as the region's retail habits have shifted, many of those one-time economic engines are now sputtering, in desperate need of rethinking and revitalization.

That no longer means finding another old-style retailer to take up home in an old space. The brick-and-mortar retail industry will not return to its former glory.

The changing face of retail, especially when combined with the region's housing and other development needs, marks a great opportunity for Long Island. A recent report produced for nextLI, a Newsday initiative that seeks to stimulate the discussion of public policy questions on Long Island, clearly shows what's possible: the chance to re-imagine some of our largest, most underutilized swaths of land, through cosmetic changes, adaptive reuse or full redevelopment.

Nearly every town and village across the region has a strip mall that needs TLC at a minimum and, in many cases, a significant makeover. In some locations, that could mean transforming strip malls and their adjacent parking lots into town centers, perhaps including open space, community hubs, commercial redevelopment and, yes, housing. But to truly capitalize on the potential of these properties, the Island has to become thoughtful, open to new ideas, and even adventurous.

RETAIL'S SHIFTING LANDSCAPE

While Long Island's historians often trace the region's economic roots to manufacturing or even farming, retail has long been vital to the landscape. Family names like P.C. Richard and Fortunoff became icons in the 1950s and 1960s; Swezey and Pergament came along even earlier. For decades, shopping was an economic driver — one the Island often fell back on, even after industrial giants like Grumman disappeared.

Online retail shifted the landscape. Some of the largest big-box retailers have closed stores, or gone out of business. Vacancies became commonplace in both large and small shops in neighborhoods across the region. That trend was only heightened during the pandemic, as residents grew more reticent to head to the mall. In October, the last Long Island Sears store closed. Two malls on the Island — Samanea New York in Westbury and Sunrise Mall in Massapequa — recently have sported vacancy rates at around 35%, although other regional draws, such as Roosevelt Field, are as low as 5%.

That's not to say there's no future for brick-and-mortar retail on the Island. There still will be a desire for some traditional shopping and for new efforts, like more experiential retail or walkable villages. But the typical strip mall or shopping center likely will not work the same way as it has in the past. And that leaves communities with declines in property tax revenue, jobs and economic activity.

As the Island's retail needs have changed, so have its housing needs. With increasing demand for housing in every price range and type of residential unit, from apartments to townhomes, advocates and developers always are searching for the right spots to add housing, beyond still-important locations near the region's train stations. Long Island must continue to preserve open space, too. Those interests are not necessarily in competition, but it means being smart about finding the right places to add housing.

The juxtaposition of these demands produces a clear opportunity and raises a seemingly simple question: With much of the necessary infrastructure already in place, could we invigorate tired retail spaces and their attached parking lots by turning them into something new and economically exciting, with housing, office space, communal spots and more?

POTENTIAL FOR CHANGE

The answer, of course, is yes. But on Long Island, it's never simple.

The nextLI study, "Rehabbing LI's Empty Storefronts," spotlights four retail locations. For two of them — Sayville Plaza in Sayville and Suffolk Plaza in East Setauket — the report recommends significant redevelopment. For Great South Bay in West Babylon, the report envisions a middle ground, where the property could become medical offices or laboratory space. And for the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, nextLI's researchers suggest a fulfillment center to process orders from online retailers. All together, the four projects alone could create more than 1,400 direct new jobs and could generate more than $200 million in private investment, the nextLI analysis found. Those are just examples of what's possible.

Sayville Plaza was chosen as a candidate for significant redevelopment.

Sayville Plaza was chosen as a candidate for significant redevelopment. Credit: Chris Ware

But big challenges remain, from sewer infrastructure in some cases to the costs of land acquisition, demolition and redevelopment, to rezoning requirements, which will come with their own set of environmental studies, public hearings and other steps along the way. At every stage, there will be many voices involved, including elected officials, landlords, developers, home seekers, local residents, and advocates. And any proposals are sure to meet with community objections — from traffic to the impact on schools.

An aerial photo of the former Sears building in Hicksville....

An aerial photo of the former Sears building in Hicksville. A mixed-use project called "Heritage Village" is proposed for the site. Credit: S9 Architecture/ Rubenstein/S9 Architecture

This concept of redeveloping retail isn't entirely new. Seritage Growth Properties, for instance, has been working for years to redevelop Hicksville's massive former Sears site. But it's been an uphill effort that's now on pause as the company reviews its plans, with nothing built yet.

A NEW APPROACH

That's often the case on Long Island when individual proposals get stuck in the mud. However, transforming our retail sites is an overarching issue with regional importance. Instead of reflexive pushback, why not try a different approach? A broader coalition is needed to advocate for and prioritize this issue, address questions and concerns, and attract individual proposals. Imagine an effort similar to what went into getting the Long Island Rail Road's Third Track project approved — and imagine the success that approach could have here.

State officials also could play a role. Earlier this year, the state enacted legislation that allows it to finance the acquisition of distressed hotels and commercial properties to give nonprofit organizations a chance to turn them into housing that could meet the area's needs. Perhaps there's an opportunity to carve a similar provision for older retail properties in the suburbs, or to find other incentives for landlords to plunge into something new when they've had enough of vacancies plaguing their properties.

And for the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, nextLI's...

And for the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, nextLI's researchers suggest a fulfillment center to process orders from online retailers. Credit: Chris Ware

One solution will not fit every property. The recent announcement that a Stony Brook Medicine outpatient facility will come to the Smith Haven Mall exemplifies a piecemeal approach that might work in some spots, even as more cohesive planning is necessary in others.

The nextLI report suggested cosmetic changes for the Morton Village...

The nextLI report suggested cosmetic changes for the Morton Village Plaza in Plainview. Credit: Chris Ware

Let's get started. Long Island needs at least one really good proposal to come to fruition to get the ball rolling. The nextLI report highlights Suffolk Plaza and Sayville Plaza as two distinct possible success stories, but there are others. Get officials from Nassau and Suffolk counties, along with local towns and villages, on board and encourage landlords to be part of the conversation. With the right incentives, plans, coordinated advocacy and momentum, the strip malls that dot Long Island's landscape with reminders of the past could become vibrant showcases of the region's future.

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.

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