Written by John Owens, firstname.lastname@example.org Friday, 22 February 2013 00:00
This year’s contest for Nassau County Executive is not going to be a battle of Big Ideas. It’s a pretty safe bet that the campaigns will not be waged along the lines of the Federalists vs. the Democratic Republicans, with Ed Mangano cast as Alexander Hamilton, and Tom Suozzi or Jon Kaiman or Adam Haber in a Jeffersonian role. Or maybe the other way around.
Instead, this will be an election about spending, taxing, home assessing and the big ugly reality that one of the wealthiest places on this planet is a financial basket case.The direction the election is destined to take is totally understandable. But among the many issues and subtleties that will be lost is a sense of what kind of future the candidates see for the county. And when Suozzi recently sat down with the editors of the Anton Community Newspapers at our Mineola office, the conversation swerved off tax caps and assessment grievances to what Suozzi called “cool downtowns.”
He was referring to the idea of pockets of urban-style housing blended with bustling commercial districts. We’ve heard it before; in fact, Suozzi waxed on this topic during his previous terms as County Executive before his 2009 defeat at the hands of Mangano. The incumbent, too, has been a booster of downtown redevelopment from one end of the county to the other. And though it is unlikely to be a campaign issue, I find this “new urbanism” quite resonant and compelling—almost necessary—to embrace for the county’s future.
Basically, the idea is developing vibrant downtowns by encouraging businesses to be a in a tight cluster. That “encouragement” could come in the form of zoning—no stores, restaurants or offices outside this restricted area. On top of these businesses and around them would be condos, apartments and maybe townhouses filled with young people commuting to Manhattan and empty-nesters who might still be working in the city, or at least want all of Manhattan within a train ride that’s just a short walk from home. I know, it sounds like a class project for Urban Planning 101. But there is a lot of appeal to this, and proof that it works.
“Look at Great Neck, Garden City and Rockville Centre,” said Suozzi, pointing to communities that long have provided precisely this lifestyle. In Suffolk County, efforts are underway to develop Ronkonkoma along these lines. In Nassau, Hicksville and Bethpage have these sorts of plans on the drawing boards. Elsewhere in the county, Suozzi sees it as a way to revitalize areas that are in pretty bad shape. Hempstead and Freeport are two obvious candidates, he said. “We should do it wherever there is a railroad station,” he told the editors.
But don’t get the idea that Nassau is about to become a city. As Suozzi puts it, 99 percent of the county would maintain the suburban lifestyle we’re accustomed to, and only concentrated areas would be developed this way. With less expensive housing than conventional, freestanding suburban homes, young people and retirees might not be so quick to flee the Island for places with lower costs of living. And with a high concentration of shops, restaurants and offices, not only would the residents have urban-style convenience, but also people from around the county could come for entertainment and shopping.
“It’s creating a lifestyle,” Suozzi said. “Creating places people want to be and people want to live.”
Building such communities will be major, expensive projects. Private developers are unlikely to take the huge risks without at least some government help and backing. Nassau, of course, is broke, with neither credit nor cash to spare. And whoever wins the election will have much more immediate concerns than this Big Idea as he faces the county’s Big Problems.