The storefronts and apartments on Main Street between Irma and Herbert were almost completely made vacant for a proposed mixed use development. The Vintage Group has abandoned those plans and has put the buildings up for sale.
For over a year, the buildings on the block between Irma and Herbert across from the railroad station have been vacant, pending development of the site. Many Port Washington residents have expressed curiosity about the future plans for this site. A May 12, 2005 Port News article described the developer's concept for mixed use (housing above storefronts). Now, however the lead developer, Sam Suzuki of the Vintage Group, said that the buildings have been put up for sale. Although no official application or formal plans were presented to town officials, Suzuki was not encouraged by the informal feedback that he got. He said, "The visioning process is just not moving fast enough." He added, "When I saw the plan unveiled, I didn't really see mixed use." Suzuki said that, in the interim, he may lease the existing storefronts and apartments. In addition to the lost income from the vacancies, Suzuki said that there has been vandalism at the site.
Mixed use is popular with proponents of "smart growth" because it provides more affordable housing, encourages walking to shopping and public transportation, and lends charm and a feeling of community. The Town of North Hempstead building code prohibits such use, as do many housing codes. The current units were "grandfathered" in, but if there is new development or a major renovation, new zoning regulation - either a change of zoning, an "overlay," or a variance -- would be required.
Town Supervisor Jon Kaiman said that there was some support for mixed use in the visioning process, but added that some residents are concerned about too much density. "Someone needs to present a project," he said. "We can't have community discussion in the abstract." Councilman Fred Pollack, Port's representative to the town board, agreed that the board would need to see plans before making a final decision. He said, "I have no problem with mixed use - we have that now on Main Street. We have to find a way to modernize the buildings that have been grandfathered in. The restaurants and stores need young people coming in." Regarding the Vintage Group's original proposal, Pollack said, "What they wanted was much too large and inappropriate for Main Street." Roy Smitheimer, executive director of the Port Washington Business Improvement District (BID), said that he and the BID board feel that we need to continue the mixed use that we currently have in town. He said, "It is part of our heritage. We do have a discernible downtown. But, people feel that the concept that was presented was too massive." He added that the BID is working with the town on the possibility of creating an "overlay planning district" that would follow the boundaries of the BID. That could be set up, he said, so that zoning capability (for example, providing for mixed use) might be created for the overlay district, and it would not have any impact on other parts of the town. (As an example, he said that Port Washington generally supports mixed use, while New Hyde Park is "dead set against it.")
The BID is working with the town around the railroad station to make the area more attractive. The improvements include landscaping, paving, benches, street signs and crosswalks. Smitheimer said that the improvements are funded through a Business Improvement Bond and charged against the funds raised by the BID through commercial property taxes. In addition, Smitheimer and Pollack told the Port News that the town board has authorized the hiring of an engineering firm to develop a master plan for the rehabilitation of all the Port Washington parking district facilities, including those at the railroad station. Pollack assured this reporter that the parking study would also include the impact that any additional parking would have on Main Street traffic.
In the May 12 article, the Port News also described a proposal for a small hotel on lower Main Street. At this time, informal discussions continue among the developers, various community groups, and town officials. Supervisor Kaiman and Councilman Pollack both agreed that they need to see a formal application with final plans before they are willing to take a definitive position. They also concurred that a public hearing needs to take place to give the community an opportunity to be heard prior to any decision being made regarding the proposal. Pollack said, "The community doesn't need to comment on a general concept; we need to see the specific plans." He added, "Conceptually, we need something like that. The questions are the location of the site, the size of the facility, and the traffic and parking issues." Kaiman said, "There might be some need for such a facility, as long as the plan is not overzealous. There was a general feeling in the community [during the visioning process] that some type of hotel might be needed, but the questions are where and how big. If it were a small bed and breakfast, I think that there would be universal support. As plans get larger, support diminishes."
The Port Washington BID has been coordinating the liaison between the developers and the community, working with Joe D'Alonzo of Cow Bay Contracting, one of the contractors. Smitheimer said that the BID has facilitated a number of meetings to get input from various community groups. He said, "The [BID] board as a whole is very supportive of this proposal. I and the others on the BID believe that if this is done properly it will become a downtown anchor which people will benefit from. It is consistent with the general goals developed during the visioning process: creating a more active connection with the waterfront, capitalizing on Port's amenities, and enhancing the Town Dock." Smitheimer and D'Alonzo echoed the previous comments that the community's major concerns are traffic and parking. One way in which they are addressing the traffic issue is by providing a jitney shuttle to take guests from the hotel to the station and back. D'Alonzo added that they have hired a traffic consultant to advise them. He said "We understand the community's concerns. I live in Port Washington, and there is no way I would want to do anything that would hurt this community. But, I need to point out that this use generates far less traffic than alternative uses, say, a retail store or a professional office." Regarding parking, currently the plan is for underground parking. [Note: The developers have opened a contest to the public for the design of the jitney with a first prize of $1,000. Submit your entry to Matt Daguanno (another of the principals in this development) c/o CPC Pools at Port Washington Boulevard, e-mail email@example.com.
The developers describe their concept as a "boutique" hotel of approximately 50 rooms. It will include space for meetings, conferences, or family events such as weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, graduations, and the like. There will be no restaurant - events would need to be catered. The Wingate Inn - Garden City has been brought in as a managing partner; they will operate the hotel when and if it is built. Robert Salvatico, general manager of the Garden City Wingate, located at 821 Stewart Avenue, said that the hotel would be similar in character to the Inn at Great Neck or the Roslyn Claremont. He concurred with the other developers that it is important to meet the community concerns. He said, "If we're not sensitive to community concerns, we won't succeed. The last thing we would want to do is anything that would not be beneficial to the community." He added that his company, which is family-owned, prides itself on being good community citizens in Garden City and in Riverhead, where they own two other hotels. [Editors note: Although the Wingate brand name is international, according to their website, the hotels are independently owned and operated.]
Smitheimer said that the BID is still in discussion with the utility companies to bury the utility wires on lower Main Street (Port Washington News April 21, 2005). At issue is the question of who will pay to re-hook the businesses to the network - LIPA wants the businesses to pay; the BID has taken the position that it should cost the businesses nothing. "I don't know if anything is going to happen," said Smitheimer.
The Port Washington News will continue to keep our readers informed of these and other projects in Port's main commercial corridors.