All too often we read that Long Island needs innovative solutions to solve its economic woes.
More jobs, manufacturing, destinations, etc. With an opportunity to develop 56+ vacant acres at the Mediavilla Orchard at Dix Hills/Elwood border in Western Suffolk County…the community opted for a shopping center. The residents (as represented by area civics) seem happy, the Town is happy, Suffolk County’s IDA is happy (which isn’t exactly a bastion of sound planning) and even has granted the project $18.8 million in total tax breaks, and the developer is happy.
The Project: Villadom’s Elwood Orchard
According to LIBN, Villadom, the developer who is proposing the project, has a successful record building on Long Island:
Since 1985, Villadom has developed high-end single-family homes on Long Island, multifamily housing in Brooklyn and several Long Island retail properties, including the 50,000-square-foot Miracle Mile shopping center in Manhasset where an Apple store is a tenant and is now being expanded.
With Elwood Orchard, the developer is looking to expand on that success. As interviewed by LIBN’s John Callegari, Kris Torkan, the developer, stated “I’ve been approached by large tenants that you can find around Huntington, and I’ve turned them down. This is an opportunity to create something truly unique for Long Island.”
Is a shopping center, as Torkan puts it “unique for Long Island?” Not exactly.
The 56+ acre parcel, situated directly northeast corner of Jericho Turnpike and Manor Road, near the Elwood/Dix Hills border, is essentially vacant. Villadom is proposing a 486,000 square foot shopping center for 49 acres of the site, which was part of the larger 110 acre Mediavilla orchard property. As of right now, the remaining acreage isn’t for sale. Currently, the parcel, with its steep slopes and dense woodlands, is mostly vacant, except for a 5+ acre portion that was formerly sand mined, and a small retail strip in the corner of the site.
Pictured Above: Villadom’s 49 acre-plus proposal
Is a 20th century strip mall the best we can do?
While the tax revenue brought by traditional commercial development is enticing (the expanded EIS for the site projects $3,036,066 in tax revenues for the cash-strapped Elwood School district), the community should think outside the box with the large site. Why not look to other, more innovative uses?
To the developer’s credit, about 8 acres of steep slopes will be preserved, and commercial development does make sense on Jericho, but this land presents a unique opportunity that is becoming increasingly rare. After reviewing the proposal, I was surprised to see such a run-of-the-mill commercial strip get such praise. I was half-expecting one more of Long Island’s go-to proposal: age-restricted luxury apartments and condos.
Prior to this application, a proposal for 35 acres on the site was pitched named Orchard Park containing retail, offices and a movie theater was proposed, but ultimately not even entertained by the Huntington Town Board. Villadom’s proposal has been embraced by the community thanks to low impact on the Elwood School District, and the prospect of creating a new accessory space for the local library, but is it worthy of the site? A vacant parcel this large west of route 112 in a rare thing – are we maximizing it’s potential?
The project is apparently slated to create 950 FTE permanent employees, but no one has seemed to ask the important questions. While 950 jobs seems tempting – what is the quality of the positions being created? Does it take advantage of Long Island’s educated, eager-to-work workforce, or are the positions low-wage retail that rely on a healthy regional and national economy to thrive?
More troubling, I did not see any true analysis on the economic need for an additional supermarket or retail space in the immediate community. Given the proximity of several supermarkets near the project site, as well as numerous commercial and retail vacancies, one would question if the additional square footage being proposed is necessary or even financially sustainable in the future decades.
Think Outside the Box
Both the civic groups in the Elwood area and the Town of Huntington need to think bigger with the property. This problem of small-mindedness goes beyond the township – Long Islanders as whole need to think on a bigger, more regional, scale.
Our region needs to maximize the potential of these large, vacant parcels. Instead of throwing retail usage on them, why not try to court clean industries? Instead of the Suffolk County IDA looking for loopholes to grant yet more tax breaks for the retail project, why not work with the developer Villadom to court next generation companies? Is the creation of more retail the domain of the IDA in the first place? Moving away from industry, why not cluster a dense multi-family development on 20% of the property, while preserving the remaining, unused 80% portion of the parcel?
These are all questions that should be asked when looking at the last large, vacant parcels on Long Island. Instead, our policymakers, developers and civics are all following Elwood’s example: sitting comfortably in the box, playing it safe.