The following was published on newgeography.com, based off of my LIBN piece “A Former County Executive’s Take on Things”. That piece served as the foundation of this New Geography piece, expanding on the original themes.
Recently, former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi took a turn answering The Foggiest Five, a new segment that asks influential Long Islanders five questions regarding the future of the Nassau-Suffolk region. His answers gave an interesting look at our issues, and I appreciate the time he took answering the questions.
Featured answers to The Foggiest Five include those by David Calone, chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission; Chris Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences; Neal Lewis, the executive director of Molloy College’s Sustainability Institute; Karin Caro, founder of BluChip Marketing; and other influential Long Islanders. In an upcoming feature, the Rauch Foundation’s own Jocelyn Wenk took a turn answering the series, reflecting her ample experience delving into the datasets of the Long Island Index.
Suozzi served Nassau’s County Executive from 2002 to 2009. Since Nassau is an older, first ring suburb, the County has limited opportunities for a complete overhaul of its physical imprint. In recent years, their redevelopment efforts have been skewed towards infill and revitalizing already-existing areas.
His answers reflected Suozzi’s unique experience gained thanks to the years he ran Nassau County. When asked about the biggest change he’s witnessed on Long Island, Suozzi highlighted property taxes as a “root of all evil” of sorts concerning our regional problems. Suozzi gave five causes to our tax problem:
1)Waste, Fraud and Abuse, 2) Long Island residents pay much more in income taxes to the federal and state governments that we get back in federal and state aid, 3) unfunded state mandates, 4) too many governments, and 5) lack of growth.
It’s hard to argue with the realities Suozzi laid out. While we often squabble about our local land usage, the reality is that our costs are unsustainable. Further – we are getting diminishing return on our sky-high costs of living. Our infrastructure is still crumbling and inadequate, and our water quality is still being degraded.
One possible solution, according to Suozzi, lies in his “cool downtowns” approach, building off of the clusters, corridors and centers theory that has been mentioned for Long Island — and much of the nation — since the 1960s and early 70s. Suozzi writes:
We have a few cool downtowns now but not enough. Rockville Centre, Garden City, Westbury and Great Neck have downtown rentals, offices, restaurants and shops that are all near train stations. Long Island residents flock to these parts for entertaining and relaxation. Mineola, Farmingdale, Glen Cove, Hempstead, Freeport and Long Beach are trying to create cool downtowns but to be successful, we need more of them. We need to create at least 20 cool downtowns so it will make sense to link them by bus and mass transit.
The planning theory behind Suozzi’s solution makes some sense, given the existence of numerous village-like nodes through the county. In Nassau, his vision for cool downtowns works easier than it does in neighboring Suffolk, mainly because of their limitations in infrastructure and generally later development. Further, economic and housing realities must be addressed.
Simply put, Nassau is where the infrastructure is more conducive to mini-downtown intensification. However, what Suffolk lacks in infrastructure, it gains the advantage in sheer space. Suffolk’s developmental destiny isn’t fully charted yet as it is in Nassau. This means two things: it’s not too late to execute sound land use planning, and that we still have the opportunity to take action to reverse our fortunes, which would resonate across Route 110 into Nassau as well.
It is important to realize that Suozzi’s downtown solution in of itself should not be an excuse to merely increase density on Long Island for the sake of increasing density. There will always be pressure from developers to densify well beyond local wishes, and seek subsidies to do so. These “cool downtowns” must mesh with comprehensive and regional strategies for attracting jobs to these targeted areas that take advantage of Long Island’s educated workforce.
Also we should look at the quality of the density. Urban-like density alone does not create the atmosphere of a village; anyone who has spent time in the dense suburbs of cities like Seoul or even Los Angeles can tell you that. Tall structures and related commercial developments tend to be inhabited by generic stores with little resonance with the history and culture of their communities. Village systems work best when they develop organically, and grow, as much as possible, within the confines of already existing architecture or in new buildings that fit with local styles.
Form also matters. There is a difference between the “little” downtown areas of Long Island that have charm, which is in a direct contrast to dense, almost urban centers. In our pursuit for suburban renewal, we cannot lose sight of what makes Long Island special, it terroir, if you will, of small communities that in many cases have been in existence for well over a century. Long Island may be expensive by national standards, but the staggering price increases in New York City for similarly appointed residential units, makes the Island comparatively affordable, and with excellent access to the city.
While New York City has a variety of urban centers, Long Island’s approach to suburban revitalization should build off of Suozzi’s cool downtowns, but in a suburban manner. Part of the Island’s charm isn’t so much its Queens-like centers, but rather, villages such as Rockville Centre, Babylon and Patchogue – low slung, vibrant areas with good access to transit and the infrastructure needed to support their growth. By just blindly throwing density at Long Island’s regional issues, we are at risk of creating urban problems in a suburban environment.
Long Island has other assets, particularly in terms of better schools. Many people who live in the city in their twenties and early thirties tend to look towards areas with good public schools, ample parks, and high levels of public safety. This is already leading to the much discussed growth of “hipsturbia” in the Hudson Valley river towns. Long Island could be a strong competitor for these people if it understands its’ primary appeal.
Finally for “cool downtowns” to work you must address the fundamental economic and demographic challenges facing the region. Although it can’t hope to compete head-to-head with Manhattan for some very high end jobs, the area should be attractive to a lot of back office and specialized companies. If employment opportunities expand, then you might be able to more easily persuade younger workers to move to the Island, creating a consumer market for cool downtowns. Being “hip” isn’t enough, but getting more competitive and richer might work.
Richard Murdocco writes regularly on land use, planning and development issues for various publications. He has his BA in both Political Science and Urban Studies from Fordham University, and his MA in Public Policy from Stony Brook University, and studied planning under Dr. Lee Koppelman, Long Island’s veteran planner. You can follow Murdocco on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea, Like The Foggiest Idea on Facebook, and read his collection of work on urban planning at TheFoggiestIdea.org.