Lenae Price knew it wasn’t going to be a good night, but she didn’t think it was going to get nasty. The Action Long Island chairwoman of the Young Adults Alliance, a nonprofit group advocating for affordable housing, had gone to the Huntington town board in support of a lost cause: the Huntington Station Avalon Bay development.
More than two years ago, Avalon Bay Communities, a nationwide builder of luxury apartments, had proposed to spend more than $100 million on an empty parcel near the train station. Originally there would be 520 units, then the total was cut to 490. About 25 percent of the apartments would qualify as “affordable” (or less than the prevailing market rate). But to make the entire project happen the town would have to approve a new transit-oriented district (TOD), which would allow for much higher density. This zoning code would have been new for Huntington but not for Long Island; 31 of these TODs have been either approved, completed or under construction. For example, Wyandanch Rising, a half-billion dollar revitalization project when all is said and done, wouldn’t even have gotten off the drawing board without this innovation. How far up it goes is another question.
A few days before the Sept. 21 vote, word leaked out that Huntington Councilman Mark Cuthbertson, one of the four Democrats on the five-member town board, would no longer support Avalon Bay. Thus, Supervisor Frank Petrone’s pet project for the 26.6-acre property was unofficially dead. But lots of folks came to Town Hall anyway to witness the official burial. The corridors were packed with people, the clear majority of them waving red signs that declared their opposition to Avalon Bay.
After the 3-2 defeat, Price spoke before the board about how the housing issue affects people like her. “We’re trying to get housing for young adults who want to live and work on Long Island,” she recounted. “There are a lot of people in their 30s who are still living with their parents.” Looking at the crowd in the hearing room, she said it was ironic to see little kids holding up the “Say NO to Avalon Bay” signs because “they’ll grow up with no place on Long Island to live.” That observation did not go over well, apparently. Some shouted at her: “Good riddance! We don’t want you here! Go to hell!” The level of disrespect floored her, she tells the Press.
“People love to be inflamed,” she says. “They love to say, ‘No.’” She saved most of her wrath for the town board, some of whom she would love to replace. “Elected officials need to do what’s right for the community.” Price says. “They don’t need to let a very small group of inflamed people who are clearly misguided influence them.”
But who’s calling who misguided? Certainly not the “inflamed” opposition. They believe the Huntington Town Board deliberately tried to mislead them, and they stopped it in the nick of time. Emotions are still running high, weeks after the vote, on both sides of the issue—and the ripples are being felt throughout Long Island.
The opponents of Avalon Bay are gloating. They’re proud of how they stopped “Queensification” in its tracks through their use of social networks like Facebook, and the real estate development community is taking notice. (Next month Hofstra will host a symposium called “Social Media and Real Estate Development.”) Avalon’s supporters are gloomy because they know they lost a huge opportunity to provide affordable housing to Suffolk County with no large outlay of scarce public funds in this Great Recession. This fight over a luxury development is broader than just one town’s plight, because it shows how differently local governments respond to the pressures they face. Whereas some Huntington residents welcomed the apartment complex within walking distance of the train station, others, particularly those in South Huntington, believed their area has become a “dumping ground” for the town’s social problems, and the apartment complex, with its high-density zoning, was the last straw.
“Nobody understands the whole concept of why Huntington Station needed a transit-oriented district,” says Matt Harris, a South Huntington resident who set up the anti-Avalon Bay Facebook page this spring. With a core group of about five other people, a few thousand dollars, several hundred signs, and uncounted hours of research and outreach, he helped thwart a project sought by a multi-million-dollar real estate company with some rather deep pockets. He says it helped that the town didn’t adequately explain the purpose of the TOD. “Nobody knows why they were planning to do this.”
Harris says he first read about the project back in March when the Suffolk County Planning Commission approved the zoning change with a few added conditions, such as a bus stop and handicapped-accessible sidewalks. The Long Island Business News reported that “Avalon Bay Communities has found little resistance to its proposal…”
Harris was curious “about a project nobody in this neighborhood knew about,” so he went to developer’s website and saw “that picture.” It was an artist’s rendering of an apartment building four stories high, if you count the dormer windows in the attic loft. “I don’t want a four-story building in my community,” Harris says. “This is a community of residential homes!” After his group researched the project, he says, “It was apparent to us that most of the people who wanted this so bad didn’t live in Huntington Station!”
The parcel in question had been zoned for the development of 109 single-family homes on land owned by the Bonavita family’s Evergreen Homes company. When the housing bubble burst, the family became amenable to Avalon Bay’s approach. To line up community support, Avalon Bay made its pitch to the Huntington School District, offering up to $1.5 million as “an enhancement.” The school board did a study comparing Evergreen’s homes with Avalon’s units, and concluded that the apartment complex would have fewer kids and provide more taxes.