Imagine: a deepwater port on the North Shore, possibly where the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant was once going to be, bringing in cargo ships brimming with products from around the world and exporting the East End’s agricultural bounty to international markets. With one bold stroke, Long Island’s economy and culture could grow by leaps and bounds, giving the Island an entirely new dynamic.
It’s one of the more provocative proposals floated in The Long Island 2035 Regional Comprehensive Sustainability Plan, a 120-page overview of the issues affecting the future health and vitality of Long Island recently released by the Long Island Regional Planning Council (LIRPC) as a means of offering potential solutions to many of the Island’s most daunting challenges.
“It’s obviously a creative idea,” says Michael White, the group’s executive director, of the port. “Cities around the world are fighting each other to have more active ports. Think about this, if we had a port and more rail freight, our bridges and Long Island roadways would look totally different. Does it make sense? Is it feasible for Long Island?”
Well, maybe not, says Lee Koppelman, the former executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk County Regional Planning Board (LIRPC’s precursor) and now professor emeritus at Stony Brook University.
“A seaport makes absolutely no sense,” Koppelman says. “If construction is at a low ebb [now] and the [future] population increase is limited, how is that going to cut costs?”
Those kinds of questions call out for further study. The deepwater harbor is just one notion proposed by the report—the most ambitious project to come out of the local planning world in decades. After spending some $750,000 over more than a year and a half, the council and its team of consultants scrutinized almost 900 planning, engineering and government documents prepared over the last 40 years, and broke new ground with studies of their own. They held dozens of public meetings around the Island and conducted several intensive brain-storming sessions—called “charrettes” in the planners’ parlance—with key political officials, industry leaders, stakeholders and influential community members.
The resulting study is bolstered by five additional technical reports spanning governance, economy, infrastructure and transportation, land use and equity. Each represents the distillation of thousands of pages of more detailed analysis and policy debate.
A quick sampling:
- Create a Long Island Regional Infrastructure Bank to spread the cost of financing regionally significant improvements in water, sewer, roads, rail, power and other public amenities.
- Invest in new mass transit options along the north-south corridors to improve cross-Island connectivity and reduce dependence on cars.
- Encourage residential and retail development in the Island’s “downtowns” for young people to have more affordable housing and recreational opportunities.
- Change the way Long Islanders use our water resources by reducing consumption, increasing recycling, cutting down on waste and making distribution more efficient.
- Provide more connections across the Sound so residents and businesses can avoid the region’s congested core.
How many of these initiatives will ultimately become reality on an Island where so many previous proposals have come to be buried remains unsettled.
“It’s a compilation of a lot of ideas, most of which the council and its consultants have vetted, and we believe are viable,” says John Cameron, president of Cameron Engineering, a firm with offices in Woodbury and Manhattan, and the voluntary chairman of the LIRPC.
The first phase is barely complete and already it’s drawn national recognition. Earlier this month the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs selected the Long Island 2035 Sustainability Plan as a model in developing a framework for regional planning and implementation.
The two men spearheading the rollout of the LI 2035 project differ as much in appearance as they do in demeanor but they share the same goal. Cameron is close-cropped, dynamic and direct; White is bearded, professorial and laid back.
Cameron, a Nassau native, still finds the time to surf at Long Beach, while White, a former Montauk surfer born in Smithtown, put his board away years ago and these days watches his sons swim in national college championships. This pair of Long Islanders have known each other since 1984. Together, they bring a mix of enthusiasm and realism, with an attention to small details and an eye on the big picture.
“We all know Long Island has tremendous assets,” they proclaim in the sustainability report’s Open Letter to the People of Long Island. “We must use these assets to attract new economic growth to the region, to keep our youth on the Island and to create sufficient housing options. We must find ways to properly and equitably educate all our children.
Finally, we must act to enhance environmental, transportation and energy infrastructure to protect our natural resources and support the current and future population of the Island. Long Island has a tremendous opportunity to redefine what it means to live and thrive in a sustainable 21st Century suburban community.”
The passage above would not be mistaken for poetry, but it could symbolize the strengths and weaknesses of the report: a keen awareness of the problems facing the Island, an urgency to confront them and an opaque ability to solve them.
As the famed French observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in his 1840 book Democracy in America, “Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be; in this direction their unbounded imagination grows and dilates beyond all measure…. Democracy, which shuts the past against the poet, opens the future before him.”
Some of the best minds of our generation here hope foresight can save Long Island from itself, but if the past is prologue the prospect looks daunting. After talking to participants, advocates and critics, LI 2035 could be either the most comprehensive, far-reaching analysis of the challenges confronting us yet assembled, or a colossal waste of energy and money. The answer depends on those who’ve already invested so much of their time and effort just to get to this point. Can they overcome the inertia so endemic to our region and keep their report relevant? Or will they wind up watching their work collect dust on a shelf?
“The reality is that no Long Island Regional Planning Council can actually implement [the report’s recommendations] because we don’t have regional government,” says Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies, who was intimately involved in producing this new report. “It’s up to the counties, the towns and the villages to create a consensus over what needs to be done and how to do it.”
Mitchell Pally, chief executive officer of the Long Island Builders Institute and former vice president for governmental relations at the Long Island Association, agrees.
“They rely on others to implement what they come up with, and that’s the hardest part,” he says. “But that’s the same for any lobbying organization, and to some degree that’s what they are.”
Levy warns against letting this study collect dust.
“[LI 2035] ends up on a shelf if the people who pay for it keep it on a shelf,” Levy says. “If they let it die, they’d be wasting a lot of money.
“This was as in-depth, as deep and as broad a study of the entire region,” Levy exclaims, as anything he’s seen or participated in. And in his former role as a Newsday columnist and editorial writer, he knows firsthand the oblivion that can await even the noblest exhortation to improve Long Island. Levy emphasized that LI 2035 is “not a master plan, not a transportation plan, not a housing plan—but something that connects all the dots and looks at the Island as a whole and all of its needs. It’s not: What do we need to do in 25 years? But: what do we need to start doing now so that in 25 years this will be a livable place?”
Either way, somebody had better get busy.