The following was exclusively published by The Foggiest Idea on March 13th, 2022. Interested in supporting The Foggiest Idea’s award-winning reporting and analysis? Click here.
BY RICHARD MURDOCCO
Opened in 1972 and sprawling across 77 acres in Massapequa, the Sunrise Mall has struggled in recent years to gain a foothold in the over-stuffed imaginations of shoppers dazzled by the promise of next-day delivery from the likes of Amazon.
While malls across Long Island have struggled to cope with the pandemic’s economic impact, Sunrise Mall’s predicament has become especially perilous. Spanning an impressive 1.2 million square feet with more than 6,000 parking spaces, the property is half vacant. Late last month, Urban Edge Properties, the Manhattan-based company which led a consortium of investors to purchase the site in 2021, announced that its remaining tenants’ leases will not be renewed as redevelopment plans are being reconsidered.
“Sunrise Mall is clearly in transition, a reflection of the challenges facing a generation of shopping malls across Long Island and the nation,” said Coleen R. Conklin, vice president of marketing at Urban Edge, in a statement. “To ensure it remains a positive and contributing economic anchor for the surrounding communities, the Town of Oyster Bay, and Nassau County, we need to create an orderly roadmap for that transition.”
Urban Edge’s news release went out of its way to state that the mall owner is not considering any proposal to redevelop the site “as a residential community.” Its pre-emptive and flat-out rejection of housing at the soon-to-be derelict site is extremely shortsighted because it represents a missed opportunity to address the region’s serious lack of inventory. Throughout Nassau County median home prices have continually climbed, rising 8.2% compared to last year alone. The reason is simply because supply is not keeping up with demand.
Elected public officials apparently don’t see it that way. Joseph Saladino, Oyster Bay’s Town Supervisor, was quick to celebrate Urban Edge’s deliberate omission.
“Town zoning laws limit development activity at Sunrise Mall to light industrial and commercial uses only,” Saladino told Newsday.
On his Facebook page, the Supervisor went further, clearly aiming to reassure uneasy residents. “This location does not allow for residential development,” he wrote. “The Town Board is committed to protecting the suburban quality of life in our community, and will always ensure significant public input.”
Oyster Bay has become a purgatory for residential developments as of late.
First, there was Syosset Park that was pitched for the former Cerro Wire site by builders in 2015. A massive mixed-use development, it would have featured 600 units of housing. Caught up in the municipal back-and-forth and buffeted by withering pressure from local residents and the Syosset School District, developers finally got fed up and withdrew the proposal in 2019. And so, rather than dream big, owners of the site opted for an as-of-right Amazon distribution center.
Nearby in downtown Hicksville, Oyster Bay Town leaders took five years due to their own inertia as well as self-inflicted squabbles with the MTA before they formally approved new zoning for the area. Down the road, housing was also proposed as part of a mixed-use redevelopment of the 26.4-acre site that was once home to the area’s shuttered Sears Department Store. But now the future of Seritage Growth Properties, which owns most former Sears store locations across the U.S., is up in the air while the real-estate firm considers putting both itself and its individual assets up for sale.
According to Newsday’s Randi Marshall writing in The Point, sources recently told her that a range of groups and firms have expressed interest in the former Sears location. In fairness to the municipality, not much can be done with the property until Seritage finally sells—and that lengthy process could take months, if not years.
Regardless, Oyster Bay’s track record isn’t exactly stellar, no doubt due to elected officials’ purposeful indifference on this issue in order to avoid the hassle of public pushback that rises up at the first prospect of development.
But by preemptively ruling out housing at the Sunrise Mall, Oyster Bay is missing the chance to move the needle significantly on diversifying its housing stock on one of the few sites in this region that is actually properly equipped with the right infrastructure to handle that kind of growth. Worse, Urban Edge’s swift capitulation tells other developers to not even bother to try.
Across Long Island we’ve seen realtors’ open houses become circus-like events due to record-lows of housing inventory and increasing levels of demand. Meanwhile, Oyster Bay remains content to keep its developmental vision not only unimaginative, but also economically counterproductive.
But perhaps we shouldn’t be all too surprised.
After all, this township permitted a multi-story self-storage center to be erected mere steps away from one of the busiest commuter hubs in our region. So why should Oyster Bay leaders bother to think outside the box when they get a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redevelop a dying mall if it’s simply easier to sit back and let indifference take its toll?
Richard Murdocco is an award-winning columnist and adjunct professor in Stony Brook University’s public policy graduate program and School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences. He regularly writes and speaks about Long Island’s real estate development issues. Follow him on Twitter @thefoggiestidea.
You can email Murdocco at Rich@TheFoggiestIdea.org.