But he had sympathy for those who fought the proposal, and he faulted the town board.
“I think the real issue was the lack of planning around the TOD zone,” says Alexander. “In our view, that is a clear misstep. It’s really up to the community what they want in their area.” He says that the outcome in Huntington disproved the “whole regionalism mantra that regional planning trumps community planning. It doesn’t. You’ve got to get your supporters locally in a home-rule state!”
That lesson has been put into practice in Babylon Town, where millions of dollars in federal, state, local and philanthropic financing has been committed to help revitalize Wyandanch through an ambitious public-private partnership.
Huntington Station has been the subject of “revitalization for decades,” says Michael White, the executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, but “it’s never really seemed to have happened.” He adds that “Wyandanch is by many indices still one of the most disadvantaged communities in all of Long Island. But the difference is that a big change is actually happening there.” He credits Babylon Supervisor Steve Bellone for “taking the lead.” Rather than waiting for a developer to come up with an idea, White tells the Press, Babylon “steps up and says, ‘We’re going to be the master planner. We’re going to find the funding to do what needs to be done’” and change Wyandanch into “a vibrant, transit-oriented center.”
Just this week Babylon received $14.7 million in federal money, which the state’s Environmental Facilities Corp. will dole out. The financing will be allocated to building a new sewer line in downtown Wyandanch, an estimated $18 million project that will enable higher density housing. In February Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said the county would waive $10 million in sewer hook-up fees for five years to make business development more affordable. A week ago Suffolk County transferred two parcels worth about $1 million to the Wyandanch Rising project.
Levy and Bellone may have their political differences (Bellone is supposedly on the short list of Democrats gearing up to challenge Levy, now a Republican, in 2011) but they see eye to eye on the merits of Wyandanch Rising. And Bellone is lavish in his praise of the county executive’s assistance on this ambitious proposal.
“Essentially what we’re doing,” explains Bellone, “is taking an undeveloped commercial corridor in the most economically distressed community on Long Island and infilling a beautiful new downtown that is pedestrian friendly and mixed use. We’re trying to create a real place here that would [otherwise] not exist here today with wonderful amenities. It’s pretty easy for us to do affordable housing projects with our zoning powers. But the difficult thing is that affordability is not the only thing that is driving young people off Long Island. It’s also the fact that we don’t have places that are attractive to young people.”
The trouble is that after eight years since the idea first took root, no ground has ever been broken, let alone revitalized. As a public official in Huntington Town says, with a certain amount of glee, “Yes, there’s a plan, but there’s nothing done yet!”
Vanessa Pugh, director of Babylon’s office of downtown revitalization, tells the Press she hopes construction for the sewer line will start this fall. But the bids for the sewer project aren’t due back until Oct. 29. So, once the ground freezes, that’s it until spring. Pugh says she’s very pleased with the overall effort so far, estimating that they’ve raised more than $25 million.
“The supervisor made a commitment to the community,” Pugh says, “and the community made a commitment to the supervisor that we are all in this together.”
To some extent Wyandanch residents are all in this together whether they want to be or not, simply because they have no other choice at this point. But they’ve been down this road before. And keen observers like Delano Stewart, the publisher of the weekly Point of View who’s been living in Babylon for more than 30 years, have grown weary of the broken promises. A former planner for New York City’s Community Development Agency, Stewart helped organize a three-day workshop held eight years ago this very week to discuss future development. Facilitated by Ramon Trias and Associates, a Florida-based town planning and architecture firm, the discussion included community activists, school trustees, transportation engineers, public officials and even Bellone. It was apparently a fruitful session, yielding a colorful report dubbed Wyandanch Revitalization, which would employ Smart Growth ideas to make the community pedestrian friendly, as well as a magnet for job training, affordable housing, and even a food court specializing in Caribbean, Southern cooking and African cuisines. And, of course, a place where young, educated people will want to stay and raise a family.
“We got all the players together from the political world and put everybody on the same page,” Stewart says of that workshop. “We had everybody on board.”
But since then the winds have changed, he says, and those promising ideas were altered. “We were excluded from doing the area we had developed plans for,” says Stewart, who estimated he’d sunk about $200,000 into his project over the years. He says he’s disappointed that Wyandanch Rising is not what he and his backers sought. He wants to make sure his community benefits the most from any renewal project, but he’s afraid that once again Wyandanch will come out the loser, and “you just have a prettier ghetto.
“Revitalization should mean more than concrete,” he says. “We can’t funnel money out to the rest of the town and have nothing remain to rebuild the community.”
Sitting in his home less than a mile from the Wyandanch train station, which he said the Long Island Rail Road had wanted to shut down in 1983, he leaned forward on the couch and raised his hands. “How many of our families will do better as a result of this work?”
That question won’t be answered for years to come.