Heartland Town Square Development Hits Roadblock

By Josh Farber

What now sits as the grounds of an abandoned psychiatric hospital on the sides of the Sagtikos Parkway in Brentwood could become one of Long Island’s biggest developments in history, if developers can overcome a new lawsuit from the Brentwood School District.

The Heartland Town Square, a massive 452 acre site proposed to redevelop the former Pilgrim State Psychiatric Center, would contain more than 9,000 residential units, 3.2 million square feet of office space and 1 million square feet of retail space, according to a project overview presented to the Town of Islip Town Board in March.

With current enrollment levels nearing or exceeding school capacity in the 17 schools operating in the district, the Brentwood School District claims the additional students that the Heartland development would bring would overwhelm their already overcrowded schools

“We are at a max right now,” Richard Loeschner, superintendent of the Brentwood School District, said in a Nov. 3 news conference. “We have 20,000 students. We have 17 school buildings that are bursting at the seams.”

The Heartland Town Square will be aimed at millennials and seniors who either aren’t interested in having kids or have already had school aged children pass through the school system, Jerry Wolkoff, the developer of the project, said. He estimates that no more than 1,800 students will enter the school district from the development, which is expected to take 30 years to fully construct.

This is in contrast to the 7,000 additional students the school district estimates. It does not have any land or money in their budget to build additional schools.

“They’re taking [their numbers] from housing that is federal government housing,” Wolkoff said. “It’s a different type of person living in that housing. They have more children than in the type of development we’re doing.”

Brentwood School District filed a lawsuit against Wolkoff and the Town of Islip on Nov. 2 in Suffolk County Superior Court in order to contest their argument.

“The developer wants us all to believe that the total number of students generated from these apartments will be just over 1,800 students,” Robert Feliciano, president of Brentwood School District Board of Education, said via email. “Even after submitting proof that this massive project will generate over 7,000 students, our concerns were dismissed as unimportant.”

This alleged dismissal from the Town of Islip and Wolkoff is what prompted the school district to move to litigation.

“The school district made the difficult decision to proceed with this litigation after almost a decade of attempting to convey its significant concerns to the Town of Islip and to the developers regarding the significant negative impacts that Heartland will have upon the school district,” Candace J. Gomez, attorney for the Brentwood School District, said in a Nov. 3 news conference.

Officials from the Town of Islip, one of the defendants in the lawsuit, agree with Wolkoff on the number of students that the Heartland development would bring into the district. The town only approved one third of the project so far and officials believe that those with families would be looking elsewhere for housing. 

“If you could only afford $2,500 and you have a wife and two kids, you would not be renting a two bedroom apartment there because you could get a full house in Brentwood for that price,” Steven Flotteron, Islip Town Councilman, said.

The project is bound to bring some added students to the district, but with a huge swath of land that has sat vacant for decades, development is inevitable.

“You have 450 acres of prime developable land that should be revitalized and revamped,” Richard Murdocco, an expert on land use and development on Long Island, said. “The issue is the scale of what is being proposed. It’s truly a mini city.”

The Islip Town Board unanimously voted to approve Phase I of the project in July, which paves the way for developers to begin construction on over 4,000 apartments, 1.38 million square feet of office space and 838,000 square feet of retail space.

“What was the other choice?” Flotteron asked. “Do we let them build on 400 acres, say a thousand homes and have more sprawl? No jobs? Statistically, there would be more kids coming from that and a lot, lot, lot less tax revenue coming to the schools.”

However, the issue of schools isn’t the only roadblock preventing Heartland from moving forward. Even though the project lies completely within the Town of Islip, the Town of Huntington raised objections in August about traffic that they believe would spill over the town line.

“Just as we did two years ago, and five years before that, we continue to ask: Are the public improvements that will be necessary to support this project going to be planned and implemented?” Frank Petrone, Huntington Town Supervisor, asked in a public letter dated August 31 to the Suffolk County Planning Commission. “When will the highway upgrades be designed and built? Will they be built at all? Who will pay for these major upgrades?”

A public meeting to address the concerns of the Town of Huntington, scheduled for Sept. 19, was cancelled because only Petrone signed the letter, instead of the entire Huntington Town Board, according to a Newsday report.

“Huntington’s major issue for many years hasn’t been that we oppose development or that we oppose this type of development, but that as this development is considered, that it is very important when you’re dealing with the scale to look on the effect on the neighboring communities and what needs to be done in terms of mitigation,” A.J. Carter, Public Information Officer for the Town of Huntington, said.

To help mitigate the effects of the Heartland development, Wolkoff says he will commit $25 million to the Town of Islip in stages “to do whatever they see fit” related to the Heartland project, including implementing traffic improvements. However, with the development aimed to be as walkable as possible and with changes in technology like driverless cars on the horizon, Wolkoff doesn’t think many improvements to area roads are necessary.

“Once you’re living here, there is no necessity for a car,” Wolkoff said. “Anywhere else you have to get into your car to go somewhere. You come into Heartland Town Square, you don’t need your car. You walk to restaurants, walk to movies, walk to a clubhouse. You walk and you see people.”

Wolkoff will still build the mandated 1.5 parking spaces per apartment, but expects the vast majority to remain vacant, with residents walking or renting Zipcars to get where they need to go.

At a minimum, the lawsuit from the Brentwood School District will delay the development, which has yet to break ground.

“I think the project will move forward,” Murdocco said. “If you ask the Town of Islip, they’ll say we studied it for 20 years, there’s no need to any more.”

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