The following are answers to The Foggiest Five, a set of questions asked to influential Long Islanders on the future of the region.
This round features answers from Dr. Lee Koppelman, whose extensive resume includes serving as the Director of the Suffolk County Planning Department from 1960 to 1988, as well as serving as Executive Director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board from 1965 to 2006. Koppelman also is a professor at SUNY Stony Brook, where he teaches in the Public Policy graduate program. Currently, he is the Director of the Center for Regional Policy Studies. Koppelman’s answers were recorded in July 2015 by the author.
1. What is your favorite part of living on Long Island?
I don’t have any favorite spot. I’ve lived in Hauppauge, in the Smithtown portion. I’ve lived on the Nissequogue River, which I loved, had a great view. When I moved to Stony Brook on West Meadow Creek, it was a million dollar view – because I oriented the house that I got the afternoon sunsets…and those sunsets are just magnificent, coming in over the water, with the purples and reds.
2. What is our greatest regional challenge?
We have several. I don’t even prioritize. Certainly, the basic objective of planning is to achieve balanced growth. That means you need all of the specific land uses to serve the human needs, and that includes the needs of the economy, as well as the environment. And that means you to have a balanced variety of housing, again, consistent with the needs of the population at any point in time.
So if the population starts having more babies, you need more tot lots, you may need more elementary schools. If the population is aging, you need senior citizen activities, you need senior citizen housing. In other words, there has to be the full panoply of land uses to adequately meet the needs of the population at anytime that you’re doing the planning. So housing is a key priority.
We don’t have “affordable housing” for the young. That doesn’t mean there isn’t affordable housing, but for a young single person, the last thing they need to be saddled with is a house. We need studio apartments.
…But any type of rental has been violently avoided. We did a whole series of studies on the tax consequence of different housing types. The single-family detached house has the heaviest tax burden. In contrast, rental housing (including two bedroom units) are primarily used by either single people, or married without children, and the end result is that the taxes these rental units or condominium units or whatever they may be, they provide a tax surplus. And the economics are very simple to understand.
As you continue to expand, the curve drops. In other words, the people who are buying the McMansions, proportionate wise, are paying less taxes than the average middle class family. And so if you look at the real estate taxes in any of the luxury communities, or especially in the Hamptons, all of the Hamptons, the houses there that are selling for fifteen million dollars, their taxes maybe fifty to seventy thousand dollars. If you have a house in Stony Brook that’s worth a million dollars, you’re paying fifty percent that amount in taxes.
That’s why taxes are a crisis. And I can’t convince the people that it’s in their interest – we don’t have to put multifamily housing right on top of single-family, but they oppose it even if it’s half a mile away.
3. What is an easy first step to solving this challenge?
The status of the economy is one factor that has caused a turnabout, because now all the politicians are all of a sudden all concerned with jobs, and tax base.
The other is demographic. That’s why planners just have to be patient, and live long enough. What has happened, is that the very same people who were in their thirties and forties, and opposed every single effort that I made to get rental housing available for the singles, the elderly, for the middle class who don’t need a house – whatever it is, and now twenty years later, the 30 year olds are fifty, the kids are out of the house, and now all of a sudden a condominium sounds like a great idea. In those days, even senior citizen housing was violently opposed.
The second prime problem is transportation, and here it’s affected by NIMBYism. Every time there’s opposition, the limited amount of highway funds is dissipated.
Now in addition to that, you have a secondary problem. We don’t get 90% money on the interstate because once you get past Queens, it’s not continuous. And the interstate has to be continuous – it can’t be a dead end. So, the west end got 90% money, and everything in Nassau and Suffolk only got 50% funded.
Now, when I did the regional plan that was published in 1970 – just to meet the transportation needs at that time was $17 billion. That was rail, and road. On today’s dollars, you can multiply that by ten or fifteen.
So right at the present, in my judgment, we need two referenda – an open space bond issue, and a transportation bond issue. I think the last transportation bond issue was when Rockefeller governor in the seventies.
The MTA is always behind the eight-ball money wise. The last point on transportation, since they are always short of money, they have more projects then they can pay for. If they propose a project, and they’re not stupid – they know there is a need. Like Jericho Turnpike, the most fatal highway, accident-prone stretch of highway in the State of New York. Well, anytime anyone opposes anything that DOT wants to do – they pack up their maps, they take the money, and they go upstate. So we’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot every time we oppose something.
It was the same thing with the railroad. I did the plan for the railroad – called Park and Ride. We need double tracking on the North Shore/Port Jefferson Line. To do what the railroad needs certain accommodation. Everywhere from Route 110 in Huntington into Smithtown, whatever they proposed, the local people objected. So nothing can be done, and that’s part of the problem.
4. What has been the biggest change that you’ve seen on Long Island during the course of your career?
From a standpoint of the environment, we’ve made great strides. For example, in Suffolk County, more than 25% of the total real estate is in dedicated parklands. On top of it, the environmental studies that we initiated on the hydrogeology, the marine environment, on the Peconic Estuary bay system, all of that has produced some good science, all emanating from the planning department, and some of it being turned over to the health department like the Peconic studies. That’s been a success story, and that’s probably the greatest achievement we’ve made.
Our efforts at housing, until recently, have been largely a failure. We’re beginning to get senior citizen housing, condominium projects, nursing homes, independent living, so we’re beginning to get an array of housing choices.
On transportation, it’s been a mixed bag. A lot of my transportation plans now exist. The bus system exists. The electrification of the mainline of the railroad exists. I didn’t get the north shore line because the MTA didn’t have the money. Otherwise, I would’ve gotten both.
5. What do you think Long Island will be like in 20 years?
It will probably look pretty similar to what we have now…with the exception that I anticipate a lot more urbanization that’s already taken place in Nassau County. The same thing that’s happening in Nassau County, that has happened in Queens. Queens, primarily, has been a low-rise community. A lot of single-family housing, apartment houses limited to four stories – you go higher you need elevators, that’s what did it. But now that Manhattan prices have a median of about a million dollars per unit, and they’re socked in on Manhattan Island, the developers all of a sudden are discovering Queens.
From a standpoint of geomorphology, Long Island can sustain any type of building that you want to put up. Just look at Stony Brook University Hospital – Five stories underground, seventeen story building, so it can be done. In Nassau County, it’s already happening. In fact, if you look at the Hempstead Hub, which has about one third of all the economic activity on six or seven square miles, you’re surrounded by high rise office buildings, or Hofstra University, with seventeen story dormitories.
So, in the next twenty years, the builders are discovering that in Manhattan, where you have to buy the developable land by the square foot, if you’re smart, you buy on Long Island. Buy it now while it’s still cheap, with the idea within the next ten or twenty years, they’ll build.