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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Greyfields, Ghostboxes and Gasoline

Last week, I was trapped on Route 347 in Suffolk County at rush hour. I don’t recommend it. It took the better part of an hour to travel 13.4 miles, passing endless parking lots punctuated by malls, large shopping centers and chain restaurants, differentiated by slightly changing combinations of anchor stores. Some didn’t have a GameStop. NY 347 was strip zoned for commercial properties to spur rapid development. Today, these malls and shopping centers are caught in a cycle of dying and reconstruction, in search of that elusive, survivable combination of box stores and take-out places.

There are smaller versions of this throughout most of Nassau County.

In 2001, even before this ongoing “recession” kicked in, one out of five of America’s 2,000 regional shopping malls were considered to be “dead” (“greyfield”) malls or on their way there, with high vacancy rates and low consumer traffic. Deadmalls.com lists 38 dead or dying malls in New York alone, including The Mall at the Source in Westbury. There are ten distressed malls in the spreading, sprawled suburbs in the Capital District around Albany. Some of these malls were still crowded only a few years ago, until something larger and cooler leapfrogged them further down Route 9.

Ghostboxes or “dark stores” are the large, windowless buildings left behind when a big-box retailer moves out, sometimes to a larger building up the road. Empty hulks of large retailers already dot Long Island, usually without an obvious use. Some retailers will close a box store but continue to lease the empty space just to keep out competitors.

This is more than just a downturn. Some of the most basic assumptions that were behind the recreation of Long Island as an enormous commuter suburb are no longer valid to a new generation of American families and young people.

For example, most potential Long Islanders highly value having “a third place” in their daily lives (home, work and some third place to hang out and be with people in the community). Most of Long Island isn’t built for this.

Long Island has been reinvented several times. This version of Nassau County has lasted some 70 years, and is lagging behind the realities of life and the American family in the 21st century. The more we veer off course, the harder and more painful the inevitable transition will be. Petroleum prices will never be $30 a barrel again, and we will be forced to shift to more walkable, localized communities. If don’t, we may begin to see the widespread blight that many academics and analysts of the 1950s predicted would eventually overtake much of the new Long Island.

Shopping does not have to mean clusters of stores surrounded by a sea of asphalt. The asphalt can be replaced by sidewalks and mixed use structures that connect stores to the surrounding community and bring people together. That creates a buzz, a place people want to check out and see other people, every day. Except for a few village spots, this kind of space does not exist across large swaths of Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

Some suburbs around the country are realizing that they must adapt and retrofit or begin to fade. At this moment, there are at least 40 suburban mall “reinhabitation” projects in progress around the country. It is a new great age of experimentation. Outside of Boston, an old mall is becoming a mixed-use center, with housing, shopping and offices. On the outskirts of Phoenix, real estate advertisements now brag that homes are “within walking distance” of La Grande Orange Groceria, an old box store converted to gourmet markets and restaurant space. Crestwood Mall on the edge of St. Louis is now ArtSpace at Crestwood Court, where artists and cultural groups perform, hold classes and sell their art.

A former K-Mart ghostbox in Austin, Minnesota, is now the successful Spam Museum. Compare that to Nassau County’s own “museum row,” lost deep within a maze of roadways and parking lots.

We don’t have to change everything, but we’re going to have to change some things, or we will be passed by. Long Island can, for once, get in on the ground floor.

 

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net