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Transit as Downtown’s Savior


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Transit as Downtown’s Savior


NY Times

October 7, 2007


WHEN Maurice Fox, a vice president for a development firm, heard that an acre of land four blocks from the Valley Stream Long Island Rail Road station was for sale, he told his boss at the Dennis Organization, and “we jumped on it.”


Next week, the developer will start laying the foundation for a $26 million 90-unit condominium complex with 37 one-bedroom units starting at $325,000, and 53 two-bedroom units starting at $395,000. Sales haven’t begun yet, but Mr. Fox said there were 293 names of potential buyers on a waiting list.


The main selling feature of the complex, called Hawthorne Court, is its proximity to the station, which offers a 32-minute commute to Manhattan by express train, he said. With so many young commuters and empty nesters living in the area, he added, “I realized that Valley Stream is in dire need of it.”


Nor is the Dennis Organization the only developer to have found opportunity where there are train stations. Transit-oriented development, as residential and retail development near public transportation has become known, has a growing list of enthusiasts on Long Island.


In addition to communities like Great Neck and Long Beach, which have long had housing near the Long Island Rail Road station, towns and villages in both Nassau and Suffolk County have found that building homes near the train is central to reinvigorating struggling downtown business districts where many of the stations are situated.


There are plans or completed condos within walking distance of train stations in Freeport, Patchogue, Riverhead and Islip, among others. Many projects include shops to serve the new residents. The village of Mineola, the Nassau County seat, has started implementing a master plan “almost exclusively centered on building residential down by the train station,” according to the mayor, Jack Martins.


Village officials seek to attract proposals for new condominiums near the train station by granting additional floors, and therefore more apartments, to developers. The mayor also expressed the belief that the higher density would keep prices for the new units low.


Right now, Mr. Martins said, the downtown district caters to the “9 to 5” crowd who work in the downtown county offices and courts and Winthrop University Hospital. “On weekends and in the evenings,” he added, “it’s a ghost town.” To attract retailers, “we need residential development to add that pedestrian traffic” outside of working hours.


In downtown Westbury, planning for revitalization resulted in the 90-unit Horizons complex, a now fully occupied condominium and retail center next to the train station, and a Bristal assisted living residence nearby.


There is also interest in building high-end rental apartments near the train. In Rockville Centre, for example, Chase Partners recently won a court decision allowing construction of 349 one- and two-bedroom apartments on seven acres a half block from the train station.


The partnership bought the land five years ago for about $14 million, according to Michael Faltischek, its lawyer, and will spend $80 million to build the luxury units. A suit filed by residents concerned about traffic congestion and higher school taxes stalled the project, Mr. Faltischek said, adding that the developer is now suing the village for $25 million in damages.


Some local organizations would like to create a statewide incentive program to encourage development near train stations, much like New Jersey’s “transit village” program, which provides money and technical help to communities planning such projects.


A recent meeting on the subject at Hofstra University drew planning and housing organizations, transportation advocates and representatives of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Some participants said the M.T.A. should be leading the effort to build more residential development near trains. “We’re calling on the M.T.A. to create a formal transit-oriented development program" providing both financial incentives and technical assistance, said Kate Slevin of the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign.


But Ernest Tollerson, director of policy and media relations for the transit authority, countered that such plans were premature, because transit-oriented development is “at an embryonic stage.”


The Long Island Rail Road president, Helena Williams, said one obstacle the authority might face is that most of the land underneath and around stations on Long Island is leased to the railroad by villages and towns and is thus under their strict control.


“You have to find communities that want transit-oriented development,” Ms. Williams said. “It’s not something that the M.T.A. can impose upon a community.”


Another criticism aired at the meeting: of the recent development near transit sites, the housing is more in the luxury than the affordable category.


“Where we have seen it happening, it has been happening as market-rate development, not affordable housing,” said Suzy Sonenberg, the executive director of Long Island Community Foundation, a part of the New York Community Trust, which helped Hofstra organize the conference. “We try to promote a mix, so that people who need to live near transit centers can afford to live near transit centers.”


Diana Weir, executive vice president of the Long Island Housing Partnership, mentioned that to offset the costs of “smart growth” developments like those near train stations, there was some help to be had from a $25 million state bond floated in May. Ms. Weir’s group administers those funds.


Developers who receive approvals for their plans of five or more units near train stations can apply for up to $25,000 for each unit, lowering the sale price. Buyers must earn no more than 130 percent of the median income, or $109,700 for a family of three, Ms. Weir said, and the units cannot be priced above $282,000.


Mr. Martins, the mayor of Mineola, says that although he plans to talk to the housing partnership about the funding, he also believes that prices can remain relatively low even with market-rate sales, if many of the units sold are studios and smaller one-bedrooms.


“My feeling is that in a community where you have median home prices around $500,000, if you can offer apartments in the $250,000-to-$300,000 range, that’s affordable,” Mr. Martins said.

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