The following was written exclusively for The Foggiest Idea, and published on July 24, 2017.
Within the same week, two of the biggest and potentially most transformative development projects in Long Island history won key approval.
First to get the green light was the Long Island Rail Road’s Third Track project, which will span the 9.8 miles between Floral Park and Hicksville—the busiest transit corridor on the Island where four lines converge. After weeks of uncertainty, New York State Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan finally signed off on the $1.95 billion needed to make the decades-old proposal a reality by effectively removing the last legislative hurdle it faced.
Next up was Heartland Town Square, Jerry Wolkoff’s massive $5 billion mixed-use development for the former Pilgrim State Hospital grounds in Brentwood, which has been on the table for 15 years. The first phase, building 3,500 units on 113 acres, was unanimously approved by Islip’s Town Board in a 15-minute meeting that was as anticlimactic as it was fast. As the Suffolk County Planning Commission reportedly weighs its objections to the rezoning, three neighboring towns—Huntington, Babylon and Smithtown—may still shoot it down, but so far Heartland is making some serious headway after a long delay.
Policymakers and stakeholders were quick to connect the dots between the two huge projects, with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone remarking that the approvals show “the thirst and hunger on Long Island for getting big things done.” Their success has created a buzz that a new day is dawning on Long Island—but not so fast.
In a recent editorial, Newsday took the notion a step further, citing Garvies Point in Glen Cove, Wyandanch Rising and the Ronkonkoma Hub as part of what it called Long Island’s “21st century bold rush.”
Aside from the approvals coming so close together, the similarity ends there.
A public need with many virtues and benefits, the Third Track is critical for Long Island’s future. Heartland, on the other hand, is a private development effort that is excessive in size and scale.
The Third Track is a must-have transportation infrastructural project, as well as an economic linchpin that will ensure the success of other sizable Metropolitan Transportation Authority investments being made across the New York metro region, including East Side Access and the Second Avenue Subway.
For the LIRR system, the additional track will also generate additional capacity and resiliency while triggering the potential for transit-oriented growth along its rail corridors. The project is being packaged with the removal of street-level grade-crossings, along with signal improvements, station upgrades and parking increases to ensure that the rail network can meet today’s demands as well as accommodate ridership in the future.
In contrast to the many virtues of the Third Track, Wolkoff’s Heartland is a mini city that at full build-out could yield over 9,000 apartments, 3 million square feet of office space, and 1 million square feet of retail. The sheer scale of the project is the reason for its years of delay as the township has grappled with how best to handle its size.
Yes, Long Island needs the housing, but the apartments Wolkoff is pitching haven’t had defined pricing as of yet. The developer told Long Island Pulse that they would be “affordable market rate,” which does little to address the disconnect between what’s being built in Nassau and Suffolk Counties, and what the region’s population of young professionals truly want.
Heartland Town Square will also create large swaths of office and retail space at a time when Long Island’s market for both segments may very well be near the saturation point, especially as the commercial real estate sector struggles to adapt to retail’s “new normal” of decline.
Despite this new—and flawed—narrative being touted by policymakers, the approvals are impressive in their own right. For a region known for its staunch opposition to anything and everything, they are unusual. Heartland has been in the works since 2002, and the LIRR Third Track proposal has been kicking around for a staggering amount of time – nearly 70 years.
At a recent Long Island Association luncheon in Woodbury, Gov. Andrew Cuomo rightly celebrated the Third Track’s assent. He also announced that the relatively under-the-radar but just as important double-track construction project between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma would be completed a year ahead of schedule. Cuomo, who has noted the legacy of the region’s master builder Robert Moses, is following in the master builder’s footsteps by having New York State undertake several large, cornerstone developmental efforts that span roads, rivers, rails and air.
But when it comes to the other real estate efforts here on Long Island, let’s hold off before popping the champagne.
Although some of the developments like TRITEC’s Ronkonkoma Hub are rooted in decades of sound planning theory and symbolize a new corner being turned at an individual site, a project like RXR’s Garvies Point is a controversial private effort on environmentally tainted land in Hempstead Harbor that does little to address our region’s demonstrated needs for affordable housing and true transit-oriented development. Despite its best intentions, even Wyandanch Rising, the site of much-needed investment in a troubled area, is struggling to get the necessary momentum it will need to succeed.
Sure, it was an historic week for Long Island, but each project must be judged on its own merits. Both approvals are significant, but their implications couldn’t be more different.
If Long Island is entering a new era, let’s ensure that this time we embark on a strong foundation of solid community planning that benefits the entire region.
Richard Murdocco regularly writes and speaks on Long Island’s real estate development issues. He is the founder and publisher of The Foggiest Idea, an award-winning public resource for land use in the New York metro region. More of his views can be found on www.TheFoggiestIdea.org or follow him on Twitter @TheFoggiestIdea.
You can email Murdocco at Rich@TheFoggiestIdea.org.