If you follow @TheFoggiestIdea on Twitter, you know that it has been a busy two days. Two events, one aimed at shaping the future of Long Island and the other to study where we have been/where we are going, were held.
On Monday, Destination LI held its #LIREDI conference, which focused on Long Island’s infrastructure and economic development. The conference was attended by more than 700 individuals, spanning a variety of organizations from across the region. The event provided live streaming, so anyone unable to attend (such as myself) was able to do so digitally. To see notes from the event, you can search the #LIREDI hashtag on Twitter.
On Tuesday, the Suffolk County Planning Federation held its Autumn Planning Conference at Brookhaven National Lab. The annual event always has interesting panels and discussion, but this year was especially thought-provoking – first was a roundtable of town planning directors, followed by a breakout session entitled “Past Planning Directors and the Next Generation of Planners.” I attended the event, and even posted some videos taken during the discussions.
After both events, it’s important to ask whether we as a region are addressing the elephants in the room – the true thorns in Long Island’s sides that plague our region. There has been much talk, but are we skirting around what truly is afflicting us?
It is great that we talk about ramping up our infrastructure networks and studying affordability of housing. It’s nice to see a new generation become interested and invested in Long Island, and even go as far as saying that this next generation will “fight” to stay in the region.
The realities of our aging suburbs on Long Island cannot be denied, nor could we afford for them to be ignored. Planners by trade have to be optimistic, but must also be realistic when assessing a region’s needs and growth strategies. The current approach being taken by developers and stakeholder groups, who these days are driving the discussion, is fueled by optimism but reinvents the wheel – wasting precious time and resources instead of working to solve our long-established problems. There is a darker side to these issues that few conference events and their accompanying panelists broach.
Our current long-term strategies lack a detached professionalism that is unhindered by political forces and agenda-driven solutions. This professionalism must be present for Long Island’s solutions to be legitimate and workable. Detachment is something that our region has been lacking for the last decade, allowing the elephants in the room to sit comfortably. Long Islanders shouldn’t have to settle for substandard development proposals that masquerade as “planning,” furthering our regional woes.
Urban planning is not merely saying that development is “responsible” – it’s assessing our region’s needs by quantifying market trends, environmental data and resident feedback. Planning for our future is not catering to one age demographic, but rather, the needs of all Long Islanders over the course of the future decades. Planning for our future is not urging downtown development to attract jobs, but to justify why development, if even necessary, should be placed in any downtown, if at all. Many tout the expansion of transit, complete with speakers brought in from various urban centers across the country, but few address the marked lack of population density to drive demand to fiscally support such expansions or the MTA’s frequent capital budget shortfalls. Planning is balance, crafted from a scientific and methodological approach, not buzzwords, faulty surveys or ideal conditions that are neatly summed up on a PowerPoint slide.
Saying we need affordable housing is easy. Execution of the concept on Long Island has been extremely difficult for decades. Yet, this uncomfortable reality is not discussed on panels. Our regional problems require us to stare into the abyss that is our elaborate network of expensive balkanized districts, dissect the unbalanced economics of real estate development and inherit racism. Contrary to what many in this region feel, sheer density won’t change 60 years of racial division, jumpstart Long Island’s stagnant economy and upgrade our infrastructure to 21st century standards. Despite what Suffolk County and a myriad of developers are saying these days, more sewers alone will not jumpstart our economy while solving our worsening water quality woes. We need a sewer plan to work in conjunction with a robust open-space plan, which in turn works to complement our approaches to economic development.
Long Islanders are being sold a bill of goods. The special interests are saying, “If Long Islanders just let developers increase residential and commercial density, we can stave off all of our problems.” This bill of goods has been sold to residents before – single-family home subdivisions and strip malls were once seen as the way to prosperity. It’s the same flawed argument, but now with higher density, upping the stakes and adverse environmental impacts. A planner wouldn’t tell you that connecting the proposed Heartland mini-city in Brentwood with the Kings Park train station 8.1 miles away is transit-oriented development. A developer or a pro-development county government with a focus on economic development, would make that claim. A panelist would glorify it, even suggesting biking from point A to point B while ignoring Long Island’s limited suburban infrastructure.
To start tackling the elephants in the room, we need true regional planning.
…and to execute our regional plans, we need professionals to do so. In recent years, municipal departments are not being given the support they are needed to properly plan. Instead, municipalities cut staff and outsource critically important planning functions to politically connected boards and stakeholder groups. Worse yet, in the case of Suffolk, the county merged a once nationally acclaimed department of planning with economic development. Despite what anyone says to the contrary, economic development is not planning. It is a piece of the puzzle, but crafting strategies for economic development is not urban planning, an important distinction that has been forgotten in recent years.
At the Suffolk County Planning Federation, Lee Koppelman said the following regarding his greatest accomplishments as planning director for the county:
“While I don’t want to prioritize, one of the most important accomplishments was the quality of the staff. No one worked for the Suffolk Planning Department via the root of politics or political appointment. They had to apply through civil service, they had to have a planning background, and a good deal of the quality of our work was a testimony to the staff that I was able to put together.
I treated the department as I would’ve treated an academic department at any top-rated university.
Second, our biggest priority was our open space and environmental programs. Our groundwater study was pioneering, and a lot of good things came out of that program, such as the Pine Barrens Act of 1993, which one of my former employees as head of the water authority took over the responsibility of the administration of that particular program. So he brought planning into the Suffolk Water Authority. And out of that one study, we had the Freshwater Wetlands law passed by the state, half-a-dozen changes to the health codes in both counties, the recycling laws – everything we are talking about today on Long Island started with the staff of the Suffolk County Planning Commission. So I’d have to say those are the areas I am most happy with. I am glad you didn’t ask me what the failures were.”
In the years since, has Long Island set any national benchmarks when it comes to land-use policy? Or do we just squabble over out-of-scale development that goes far beyond any prior recommendations? Have we made a true, dedicated effort to curb nitrogen runoff into our coastal and ground waters, or are we too busy looking to put a Band-Aid in the form of sewers?
The convenient narrative of brain drain, downtown revitalization and smart growth make it easy to stand behind a podium and tout the benefits of economic development. However, what isn’t wise is to completely disregard the elephants in the room. Optimism is one thing, foolishly disregarding reality is wholly another.
Instead of being in a single-family home, the elephants will be in the room of a shiny new multifamily complex. We can gloss over our critical issues and continue on the course we are, but at the end of the day, those elephants will still be in the room.