The following was published in the Long Island Press on April 22, 2016. You can read the original here. 

After providing significant analysis of our region’s various maladies for more than a decade, the Rauch Foundation is actively looking to find a new organization to permanently take over publication of the Long Island Index.

“We think the Index is ripe for a re-visioning,” said Ann Golob, director of the Long Island Index, via a news release, “and we welcome new ideas about how to use research, surveys, mapping and any other possible tools to address Long Island’s future.”

If one of the few remaining independent voices ceases to exist, then an honest assessment of Long Island’s present and future could be seriously hampered. Depending on who (if anyone) opts to scoop up the Index, Long Islanders could lose not only a valuable resource for data, but yet another unique voice in the narrowing regional discourse regarding our development issues.

This situation is concerning—especially when one takes stock of just who, exactly, is driving the discussion.

Currently, Long Island’s development issues are explored by a decreasing number of players and perspectives. Traditionally, the region’s local weeklies explore them on a granular level: the Town Board wants to approve a gas station here, a variance there. On the larger scale, publications such as Newsday, Long Island Business News and the Long Island Press cover the basics of larger real estate projects before occasionally diving in deeper.

Local governments are in the mix as well. At the Town level, conversation about such issues mirror those of the weekly papers. It’s a little different at the county level. In recent years, Suffolk County’s Planning Department was merged with Economic Development, a blow to their autonomy, which was followed by the outsourcing of work to outside firms. Now county leadership often uses the department as a tool to serve their ideological goals. In Nassau, its county planners are so overworked, understaffed and underappreciated, they rarely engage in important discourse.

Vested stakeholder groups such as the Long Island Builders Institute, the Long Island Association, Long Island Housing Partnership, Vision Long Island, and others also drive the discussion, but their policy recommendations must be taken with a grain of salt thanks to their inherent biases. Others, like Destination Long Island, founded by Renaissance Downtowns as a way to supposedly drive millennial participation in the local development process, have come and gone with nary a whimper. These days, the Regional Plan Association seems to be juggling the entire New York metropolitan region, which includes New York City and its suburban environs, so its focus on Nassau and Suffolk is limited to viewing the Island as one piece of a much larger environment.

Regarding the future of the Index, it will all boil down to who will take it on. Perhaps it will be the Long Island Association, the business advocacy group led by Kevin Law, who is cozy with various industry insiders and governmental entities. Given the close relationship the Long Island Index and LIA have shared, this move would be the most logical, especially since the LIA has been aligned ideologically with it on projects such as the LIRR Third Track, the drive for more multifamily housing, and in previous years, the necessary expansion of the region’s academic, health sciences and research sector.

Maybe one of Long Island’s many academic institutions will see the value of what the Index has to offer, supporting their own efforts to better understand trends, growth and where exactly Nassau and Suffolk Counties are headed.  For example, if Hofstra or Stony Brook University agreed to publish the Index, would their students be able to participate in collecting data and writing reports? Acquiring the Index could position not only a school to be a leading policymaker on Long Island, but expose its students to a process that would benefit from their fresh insights.

Although it’s probably unlikely, maybe the Index would be taken over by Vision Long Island, the developer-friendly, smart-growth nonprofit organization that has scoffed at Rauch’s regional approach to the Island because it favors a development strategy that is focused on “hyperlocal place making.” The Index’s vast resources of regional data and name-brand recognition carry weight in the media and real estate circles, so it might be worthwhile for Vision LI to broaden its horizons by thinking bigger and more academically, two aspects the Index embodies. It’s not like Vision and the Index aren’t compatible. Both are regarded as pro-growth organizations, and Vision’s “hyperlocalism” has impacts that resonate beyond the town line.  For that matter, can it really be considered hyperlocal if every village in Nassau and Suffolk Counties wants to follow the same template for economic development?

We want our regional strategies to be data-driven, and they should take the best aspects of home-grown localism and large-scale regionalism. Perhaps a marriage between Vision Long Island and the Long Island Index would facilitate that.

Unfortunately, regardless of who takes over the Index, it will more than likely become just another member of Long Island’s “mutual admiration society” (a term a friend of mine in planning circles coined rather adeptly) – vested industry interests and insiders who puff each other up with the same stale recommendations for Long Island’s future.  And that would be a shame.

There simply isn’t enough diversity of thought when it comes to discussion of real estate development on Long Island. Since 2003, the Rauch Foundation’s Long Island Index has been a very valuable resource for data on the region. I sincerely hope it finds a new home that allows it to present research in an independent fashion that doesn’t bow to the real estate industry’s demand-driven policymaking.

In my own policy analysis and writing I’ve aimed to accomplish much of what the Index initially sought to do: package Long Island’s regional issues in a friendly manner without losing the nuances these complex issues have.  As such, I always felt a kinship with the Index, for I respected its ability to present data in an approachable manner.

Golob is correct in saying that it is a good time to reevaluate the future of the Long Island Index project.  Its recent presentation and findings were flawed, seemingly more aligned with industry puff pieces than with hard-nosed data-analysis. Rauch’s Long Island Index was claiming that the “value created” through increasing density will trickle down to tenants, fostering affordability in housing.  It was a pro-building approach that has been disproven in New York City, and a far cry from the Index’s recommendations of smart open space preservation policies and water protection efforts.

While I’ve disagreed with some of their more recent recommendations,  I have always respected the work that they have done. In particular, the Index’s data indicators, showcasing shifting demographic trends, and interactive maps that highlight anything from multifamily developments to visualizations of census data, have been incredibly helpful in an ongoing quest to quantify and understand Long Island’s on-the-ground realities.

The Index’s contributions to a conversation that has been traditionally dominated by vested interests has been invaluable, as has its ability to make supposedly “boring” data sets approachable and eye-catching to the general public. Sound planning efforts are fueled by a variety of opinions and perspectives, all which contribute to a healthy discourse and ideally, more vibrant policymaking.

If the Index is shuttered next year, the conversation could become so much less engaging that it’s practically pointless. Let’s hope it finds a happy home.