Brownfield Plan is Not A Plan After All?
I left last nights meeting thinking to myself, Wow, what a knowledgeable group of people who really get it and have a desire to roll up their sleeves and fix the problems. Unfortunately I am not talking about the well paid experts behind the podium who have brought us to this point. I am talking about those residents who came ready to listen with an open mind and learn about yet another plan that is supposed to help us move forward. The people came to the meeting to learn something new but they already knew a great deal. It was obvious by the type of questions that were asked that people took the time to read the 136 page document that was supposed to be the focus of the meeting. They came prepared to ask specific questions and expected direct answers. Based on how the meeting went, it didn’t appear that this is what was expected from those running the show. There were many direct questions and suggestions, but there were no direct answers.
The well attended meeting opened at approximately 7:00 by Doug Aloise who introduced Rob Ripp who serves on the EDC (Economic Development Corporation) and was on the steering committee for the BOA (Brownfield Opportunity Area). He informed the residents that they are now entering phase 2 of the process. There was an obvious attempt to avoid talking about phase one. Mr Ripp skipped over phase one and began explaining what phase 2 is about. These are his exact words. “Phase 2 is taking a look at specific properties within the BOA area. What are the potential development strategies for those sites. The state has a uniform process. It is a three step process and this is phase 2. It is uniform across the state. So anything we do here in terms of our scope of work is done in compliance with the state mandate of the program and that is where the money comes from”. That is about as specific as it got.
He then went on to remind us of all the great things that have been accomplished. He talked about 1264- 1268 New York Avenue and the Community Garden. He did not mention how all of those properties mentioned above were removed from the tax rolls once acquired by the Town. He then beat the dead horse of how they brought in 7-11. I personally have no problem with the 7-11 but I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that Town Hall was recently packed with Centerport residents that were fighting to stop of all things a 7-11. Somehow the residents of Huntington Station are supposed to thank the powers that be for decades that we got one.
He then went on to talk about the street scaping, and that we are about to embark on the development of the plaza at 1000 New York Avenue which is a $3 million investment. Again, there was no mention that after it was aquired several years ago, it too was taken off the tax rolls and no longer paying taxes to SD 3.
Mr. Ripp then informed the crowd about the newly selected Master Developer Renaissance Development. He introduced Sean McLean and Don Monti who is the president of the organization. He promised that “the residents would be hearing a lot more from these folks as we work through a development plan. They are here to assist us in bringing in their private capital and other investors into the community”.
Doug Aloise then spoke. I am not sure what hat he was wearing for the evening. Doug served on the steering committee for the BOA report, he also serves on the CDA (Community Development Agency) and is on the Huntington Station Action Now Committee. This is what he said: “Why did we do this? “We did this because we wanted to study the market and see what the market is. To look at demographics. The benefits have been that the state likes to have municipalities to have a plan and we get ahead of some groups with funding. So we receive a 1.170 million dollar grant for Columbia Terrace. Columbia Terrace is to build 8 new homes”. Again when the property was acquired to build Columbia Terrace it was removed from the tax rolls and will not be put back on until and if that project happens. From the looks of the site that is far from the near future. Then Doug explained the advantage of this Master Developer over others is that “they utilize a crowd source, place making social media technology.” Really, that is what he said. I have no clue what that means, but Doug was proud to mention that we are only one of two municipalities that will benefit from that technology.
Renaissance tried to assure the residents that they will operate with complete transparency throughout the process.
Huntington School Board Superintendent James Polansky asked the first question which was “This plan involves a 1600 unit development. My question is did anyone take into account the impact this will have on the school district”? This was the answer verbatim from Joan Cergol who is Special Assistant to Supervisor Petrone. Petrone was unavailable for the evening.
“You are asking about a plan, but this is not really a plan. There’s some language in there that in retrospect we could have done a better job with. In using the word plan when it was not a plan, when in fact it was a market study. It was more of an opportunity review. There is no plan in place therefore there was no impacts to study”. Lets just get past that report. I know there’s going to be lots of questions about that report. That report stands where it is. Lets turn the page. You are here now. We want to hear what you have to say about all of these things. If you want further clarification of course you are welcome to ask. She then turned to a representative from Gannet Fleming (the company that created the report) and asked “Gary, is there anything you can add to that”.
The crowd was quietly processing the drivel and amazingly Gary from Gannet Fleming managed to add more information which again verbatim was “1600 units was a potential of what the market can enable in the area. It was a demand analysis, but it was not a plan. The BOA program is intended to allow the town to study the situation, to gather information that then would be able to be used by the community, town as well as the private side to better decide what the best development would be. It doesn’t suggest this is what you should do. So its not that type of plan.”
Mr Polansky continued, “I think it would have helped to have school district representatives on the steering committee in phase one”. To which he received a round of applause. The school district was never made aware that phase one existed.
Toni Tepe who is the chair of the Huntington Republican committee asked, “while you are putting together all of these plans do you have any plans to address the situation of crime and gangs in the station area and what can we do as a community to help work with you to clean up the problem before we move on? She too received a round of applause. The response to this from Joan Cergol was to remind everyone about the Committee De Jour which is now called Huntington Station Action Now and is comprised of many of the same people who served on the steering committee for the BOA. Toni Tepe’s question was not answered but she along with others were invited to join the committee.
Reverend Jerry Artis who is one of the adored members of the clergy in the Huntington Station community got warm laughs and applause when he said, “This is the first time I am hearing about this and its already phase 2. I would like to get in on phase one sometime. I am always getting in on phase two and three”. He then asked if there was a youth component to the revitalization plans. To which Ms. Cergol spoke about the 9th subcommittee of the Huntington Station Action Now committee. She explained that the group was organizing a youth basketball league. I wondered if this came as a surprise to Rev. Artis as he is already running a youth basketball league.
Huntington Station resident Kevin Thornborne also spoke in support of Huntington Station Youth. He encouraged the Town to reach out to the young people for their input in the plan.
Robert Lifson who is a longtime resident of Huntington explained how he served on one of the prior revitalization committees. He stated “I noticed that some of the same people served on the steering committee for this so I am somewhat surprised. Someone a lot wiser than me once said that if you don’t learn from history you are doomed to repeat it. The problems haven’t changed in over 20 years and we are coming up with the same solutions”. He made the point that “we failed over 20 years ago because the Town acted in isolation, none of these things work unless we have a partnership with all levels of government including schools, county, and state. The housing market has changed dramatically in the past 10 years. We have a declining real estate market. If you add more high density housing you are going to further drive the property values down.
Huntington School Board President Emily Rogan, tried desperately to get the meeting leaders to agree to a concise statement of why people were attending the meeting. She asked “Are we here to find out at this phase what the community would like to see in a perfect world if they could create something in these areas. Is that why we are here right now”? To which Joan Cergol responded “yes”. Emily explained that what she has been hearing for the past 6 years while serving on the BOE is that there isn’t enough for the kids in the community and she encouraged that a community center or a pool be included in the plan.
Kerry Niera who grew up in an apartment in Huntington Station that was owned by a well known absentee landlord stated, “personally I can’t trust any type of plan until I see the town take responsibility for the mess it has made in Huntington Station. How can we trust the town to have our best interest at heart when you look at what has happened to this beautiful community. We have to see progress in dealing with the absentee landlords and the crime before we can trust that any type of plan would be beneficial to the community”. To which Joan responded “Would you be interested in serving on the Code Enforcement committee of the Huntington Station Action Now Committee?
Huntington BOE member Jen Herbert stated “One thing I hear over and over from people who live in this community is that they want more businesses and commerce and they do not want to see more high density housing.
The general advisor of the Long Island Hispanic Soccer Association Louie Mendez spoke eloquently. He expressed his support for the revitalization efforts. He attended the meeting with a group of local Hispanic business owners who have a real stake in the local community and came to express their desire to see better days for the community. They also expressed interest in being included in the process.
Joan Cergol did her best to maintain her composure and do her job of deflecting and damage control. She was accompanied by a staff of experts that said a lot of words without offering any information. At points the crowd was beginning to get exasperated. One person called out from the audience, “What are you planning on building”? Another asked, “if we are not supposed to ask about the Brownfield report, then why are we here?” Someone else called out “You are not answering any questions”. To which Joan Cergol responded “There is no plan. We are at the beginning of the process”. The crowd of residents were very considerate and respectful considering many of them have been through this type of process before.
For us at the Huntingtonian, the evening was uplifting. We were encouraged and impressed by how well informed the community is. The community was well represented by our Superintendent and BOE members. Hopefully the town will catch on fast that the same old play book and the tired old bag of tricks need to be retired. The most offensive statement of the evening was when Joan Cergol explained that there were not enough engaged citizens in Huntington Station and that is why the same people have been asked to serve on committee after committee. Joan Cergol was the fall guy for the evening as she was doing the bidding for her boss Frank Petrone who declined to attend the event.
Mark Mayoka and Gene Cook attended the meeting. Huntington Bay Mayor Herb Morrow attended as well as Highway Superintendent William Naughton. None of the aforementioned were informed about the plan. Susan Berland attended. She knew about the plan since she seconded the resolution to hire Gannett Fleming in the first place.
Last nights meeting can be well summarized by this quote from long time Huntington Station resident and community activist Matt Harris, “To me, it was a waste of time and that is really too bad since there were community leaders, Town Board Members, School Board members, Huntington School Superintendent, religious leaders, local journalists, and many interested parties that wanted to get information, but walked away with none. A real shame. I would say, in a word, it was a missed opportunity.
Story by Ilene Fucci