It's been 12 years since Heartland Town Square was first pitched by developer Gerald Wolkoff. The $4-billion redevelopment of the former grounds of Pilgrim Psychiatric Center in Brentwood has been both praised and pilloried for its vision of Long Island's future. Progress has been fitful. At one point it seemed hopelessly mired in disputes over traffic and labor and pretty much dead.
Look again. Heartland has a heartbeat. That's encouraging.
The Town of Islip recently accepted the environmental impact study on the development, the latest step in a grinding process. Now the town board is evaluating whether the measures proposed to deal with traffic and other issues are sufficient. Then comes zoning approval, which involves Islip's planning board and town board, as well as Suffolk County. Obstacles still lie in the weeds, but with the project gaining favor among town and county officials, it's possible shovels could be in the ground next year.
The vital signs are getting stronger and that's good, because Heartland can play an important role in reshaping Long Island.
In a sense, the times have caught up with Heartland. Flash back those 12 years and remember what Wolkoff was pitching, because it's easy to get lost in the gargantuan numbers: 9,000 apartments, 20,000 residents, and more than 4 million square feet of restaurants, hotels, shops, cinemas and office space -- all located across 450 acres close to the Deer Park train station.
It was transit-oriented development before the term became fashionable locally. Wolkoff was targeting young adults and empty-nesters looking to downsize, groups whose housing needs were underserved and who would embrace living in a walkable community that de-emphasized cars and offered lots of amenities. Heartland, he said, would help stem the region's brain drain of young people seeking opportunities and different lifestyles.
Now that vision is being used in developments large and small, from the Ronkonkoma Hub to downtown Farmingdale.
Heartland also fits neatly into Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's ambitious Connect Long Island plan, which proposes to stimulate economic growth by using the second track on the Ronkonkoma line and rapid bus transit on north-south routes such as Route 110 and Nicolls Road to link new developments, universities and job sites. With transformative projects like the Ronkonkoma Hub and Wyandanch Rising proceeding, it would be a shame if Heartland -- with its projected tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue and 25,000 new jobs -- were sidetracked.
Some major issues need to be resolved. Primary among them is an agreement between Wolkoff and the unions whose workers would erect Heartland. The two sides have not talked in more than a year, but Wolkoff says he is open to discussions. The unions want a formal project labor agreement specifying wages and work conditions; Wolkoff says workers can achieve their goals without one. This can be resolved, but the county should mediate the standoff.
Other unknowns include how much traffic mitigation will be needed on the Sagtikos State Parkway and other roads and who will pay for it, and whether the 12 percent commercial vacancy rate in Nassau and western Suffolk will hurt Wolkoff's ability to attract business tenants. On the plus side, local residents and the Brentwood school district are on board, Suffolk has committed to improve adjoining county roads, and all involved say financing should not be a problem.
That leaves Wolkoff, who is often his own worst enemy with his bullish approach and his tendency to alienate others with intemperate remarks. Consultants are handling much of the communications these days with Islip and Suffolk. That's wise. Heartland is too important to let wither. But give Wolkoff credit, too. Heartland might be a legacy project for the 77-year-old developer, but it also happens to be a good idea. It's the right vision for our times and has the potential to change the dynamics of Long Island.
Let's get it right and get it done.