By Skyler Gilbert
For over 20 years of his career, Eric Alexander, a prominent Long Island community developer, sat in on meetings, listening to local Main Street representatives across the island linger over the stiff competition from their indoor shopping rivals.
“They’d always say, ‘we have to be more like the mall, we have to be more like the mall’,” Alexander remembered. Then he laughed. “Now the malls want to look more like downtown.”
Due to the growth of internet shopping (Amazon.com sales revenue increased 1170 percent from 2006 to 2016, according to Statista), experts say there is a shift in commercial preference from malls and big-box stores to downtowns, which have become cultural centers and restaurant scenes.
“Shopping [isn’t] going out of style in the burbs,” Lisa Schamess, communications manager of Build a Better Burb, a national nonprofit group advocating new urbanism, said. “But its character is changing.”
In Westbury, a Nassau County village, the local government was awarded $10 million in funding to revitalize their downtown last year, as part of an annual grant New York State initiative (called the Downtown Revitalization Initiative, or DRI) launched by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2016. The initiative is the largest public aid program for downtown growth toward Long Island in state history.
The strategic investment plan, created by a local committee of Westbury business leaders, includes funding for rezoning a new residential area near the Long Island Rail Road, improvements to the Westbury Community and Recreation Centers, and $4.4 million toward streetscape beautification.
“We are in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment waiting for the state to sign off on some of the projects already approved so we can start spending some of the money allotted,” Tom Verni of the Westbury Business Improvement District (BID) said. “We expect that to be done by the end of the year or shortly after the new year then start rolling some of the programs and initiatives out by the spring or summer of 2018.”
One of the goals of the downtown improvements is to increase restaurant sales. Of a $33 million dollar sales surplus in Westbury restaurants, $32 million of it can be attributed to Old Country Road, which is not downtown, according to data provided by the Westbury BID. There is “unmet demand” for restaurants on Post Avenue, Westbury’s Main Street, according to the investment plan.
Food and beverage locations outnumber retail stores 35 to 31 in downtown Westbury, a margin that is expected to grow in upcoming years, according to the BID. This trend aligns with Long Island’s overall data: employment for cooks and bartenders is expected to increase by 29.8 and 26.9 percent, respectively, according to state labor data. For context, overall job growth is projected to be 11.1 percent.
“Hard goods aren’t coming back,” Alexander, who serves as the director of Vision Long Island, said. “It’s not like the shoe store is coming back to Main Street. It’s really restaurants and bars that are driving this growth.”
Growth of the arts is another major component to the project in Westbury. Funds from the state grant are being allocated to house a permanent home for the Westbury Council for the Arts, which had previously functioned nomadically.
“Ideally we’d like to have a performance space,” Maureen Baranov, vice president of the council, said. “In the basement, we would have a black box theatre, and on the main level, studios where we provide classes. Jewelry-making classes, pottery classes, art classes. Just to bring art and culture to the community.”
The Westbury Council for the Arts, founded four years ago, is heavily involved in the revitalization efforts. Peter Cavallaro, the village’s mayor is a founding member of the council. Residents of Westbury “consistently expressed support” for the arts in early DRI informational meetings, according to the strategic investment plan. Money from the state will help build murals and public art along Post Avenue. The council also sponsored, for the first time, an annual farmer’s market at Piazzo Ernesto Strada, a small park in the village.
“We had 16 straight weeks of sun,” Colleen Locascio, one of the arts council board directors, said. “Never any rain. It was an absolute miracle.”
Three miles to the east, the hamlet of Hicksville won the same $10 million grant this year and is in the preliminary stages of determining their distribution of funds. In its application to the state, Hicksville pitched reconstruction efforts along the LIRR station, the busiest outside the city.
“There are 3,000 people that live within walking distance of the station, and they want to see a true downtown there,” Alexander said.
In the meantime, zoning codes are being written by the town of Oyster Bay, which governs Hicksville, state and local officials are coming together to discuss different ways to efficiently use the money, and planning committees are meeting on a weekly basis.
But while Hicksville and Westbury are receiving lump sums of money, most downtowns across Long Island are not so lucky.
The state allocates one state grant to each region of the state, which can become proportionally unfair. Long Island, whose population is 2.86 million (not counting Brooklyn and Queens), had 21 applicant villages in 2017, according to a state DRI official. For comparison, two other regions of New York State, the North Country and the Mohawk Valley, of 428 thousand and 622 thousand people, had three and seven applicants, respectively.
“We pay 21 percent of the state’s taxes, and here we’re getting 10 percent of the payoff,” Alexander said. “It’s kind of in line with most state programs toward Long Island. We’re contribute more to the state than the state contributes to us. That’s just kind of how it is. Having said that, before this grant, there was never any direct state money for Long Island downtowns. So I applaud the governor for that.”
While other villages across Nassau and Suffolk Counties have to wait their turn for government action, Westbury is thrilled at the opportunity to fulfill its own downtown vision.
“I have so much invested in this community. I care very deeply about this community,” Locascio said. “I want to see it soar.”