Viewpoint: ‘Great Neck the Greater’ is no more but …

Karen Rubin
Karen Rubin, Viewpoint Columnist

I listened with frustration and envy at a Long Island Regional Development Council presentation of the application process for the new round, the fifth, of Downtown Revitalization Initiative awards. This year the amount available from the state is being doubled from $100 million to $200 million, and the award can be as much as $20 million to a community, or two awards of $10 million each, as decided by the individual council (there are 10).

On Long Island so far, winners through four rounds have included Westbury (used $2 million of its $10 million for a cultural arts center to house a gallery, public performances, arts education and meeting space); Central Islip (which was using its grant to implement Complete Streets Policy to enhance affordable transportation, driving commerce in downtown, calming traffic and enhancing the general health and welfare of the residents of the community); Baldwin (spending $1.5 million of the $10 million to improve traffic and pedestrian safety along Merrick Road), and Hicksville.

When Hicksville won, Joseph Saladino, Oyster Bay Town supervisor said, “Gov. Cuomo’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative is helping transform Hicksville into a vibrant community. Public workshops hosted by our Local Planning Committee have obtained an exciting vision from our residents and great new ideas for potential uses of the $10 million in Downtown Revitalization Initiative funds awarded to the Town of Oyster Bay by New York State.

When complete, Hicksville will be a Shining Hamlet on the Tracks! I encourage communities across New York state to apply for this transformative grant opportunity.”

Another change for this fifth round is that two contiguous hamlets, villages or municipalities that share a walkable main street or corridor can join together to make an application. But that probably wouldn’t work for Great Neck, even though the dream would be for all the villages that share our main street of Middle Neck Road – Thomaston, Great Neck Plaza, Kensington, Great Neck Estates and Village of Great Neck – to combine.

What are the chances that a Village of Great Neck, probably the most needy among Great Neck Peninsula’s nine villages and unincorporated areas of downtown revitalization, would go through the process of seeking a grant itself or even combine with, say, Great Neck Estates? Oh, and by the way, the deadline to submit is Sept. 15.

Transit-oriented development has been a major theme for winning projects. A visionary village leadership might see their way to introduce funding for a Middle Neck Road trolley that would let the Old Village benefit from proximity to the LIRR; it could improve Middle Neck Road to promote safe travel for pedestrians and cyclists, it could seek partnerships for mixed-use and affordable housing rather than the contentious projects the board has pushed through that residents and neighboring villages resent, and even turn some of those vacant (obsolete) retail storefronts into new service businesses.

The 10 Regional Development Councils were established 10 years ago by Gov. Cuomo – a brilliant mechanism to engage communities to work together with private sector, nonprofits, residents to develop shared vision and goals. The results have been transformative – in fact, that is a criteria for selection, that projects contained within the plan be “catalytic,” “transformative” in spurring economic revitalization for a community.

These can include restoring, repurposing, rehabilitating a historic structure into a cultural center, building a multi-use project with affordable housing units, improving safety and quality of life.

One can only imagine what could have been done with the historic, former Playhouse Theater and now how community input might produce a more constructive, satisfying reformation of the Tower Ford building in Thomaston.

Here are some of the projects I fantasize about:

Trolley to travel up/down Middle Neck road to LIRR station in Great Neck Plaza to reduce traffic, which would especially help Lake Success and Kings Point, especially when the East Side rail service begins, and reduce traffic and parking pressures

Refurbishment of Stepping Stones lighthouse (Town of North Hempstead)

Restoration of Saddle Rock Grist Mill (Village of Saddle Rock)

Rehabilitation of 1920s Tower Ford building into multi-use structure preserving historic architecture (Village of Thomaston)

Rebuilding Middle Neck Road to be pedestrian and bike friendly (multiple villages, but mainly Village of Great Neck, Great Neck Plaza, Great Neck Estates, Kensington)

The rules require that the municipality should have conducted an open and robust community engagement process resulting in a vision for downtown revitalization and a preliminary list of projects and initiatives that may be included in a DRI strategic investment plan and the municipality has identified transformative projects that will be ready for implementation with an infusion of DRI funds within the first one to two years (though the plan doesn’t have to be final; the community gets $300,000 to do planning).

But this requires leadership as well as outreach to community partners, aspects that seem to have evaporated from Great Neck Peninsula.

Even if Great Neck’s “downtown” can’t get its act together to qualify for a DRI grant, another avenue to pursue is Nassau County, which is applying $62.9 million in American Rescue Plan dollars for a robust economic recovery and community investment package.

“This bipartisan plan will deliver relief for small businesses, revitalize main streets and downtowns, strengthen Nassau’s water and sewer infrastructure while supporting workforce development, senior citizens, veterans, and youth,” County Supervisor Laura Curran said. “As we recover from the pandemic, Nassau County is ready to come back stronger than ever.”

Also, Nassau County just got a windfall to repair roads. This is the time to rethink Middle Neck/Lakeville Road – our main artery – along Complete Streets/Smart Growth principles. This is the time to think about the nexus of quality of life, health and wellness that can be incorporated into our streetscape.

That means making Middle Neck Road safe for walking and biking, making it pleasant to stroll through. These changes will improve business for merchants and landlords alike and bolster home values while decreasing property taxes because of making the property tax pie bigger. Economic development is not divorced of a sustainable, quality environment.

If there is a wistful whiff of nostalgia, it is because I’m old enough to remember when then-Great Neck Plaza Mayor Bob Rosegarten, as president of the Great Neck Village Officials Association, would speak of “Great Neck the Greater” – shorthand for the cooperation among the dozens of municipalities and authorities on our peninsula of 40,000 people. Now we have individual fiefdoms consisting of assorted tribes.

Perhaps the DRI rules would allow the town of North Hempstead to make such an application and be the lead and coordinating agency for the next round. That’s a question I might pose to Wayne Wink, the Democratic candidate for supervisor to succeed Judi Bosworth. (Hicksville’s application was made through the Town of Oyster Bay.)

Hopefully, there is a next round Downtown Revitalization Initiative now that Kathy Hochul has replaced Andrew Cuomo. Will she continue to implement such innovative, progressive, pragmatic and bold methods to achieve massive economic revitalization and sustainable, clean, green infrastructure development throughout the state?

“A healthy downtown is vital to a community’s overall economic health, especially as we enter a post-pandemic future,” said then-Lieutenant now-Governor Hochul.

And what will Great Neck, the Greater, do to seize on this opportunity to move forward?

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Karen Rubin

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