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Port Washington Voice Holds First Meeting of 2012

Stakeholders in Model Blocks proposal struggle to find common ground

In welcoming attendees to the first meeting for 2012 of Port Washington Voice (PWV), Laura Shabe began by explaining the genesis of the core group of approximately 10 people who have come together over the last few years to address issues of specific concern to residents living in the “downtown” area of Port Washington. Downtown usually refers to Main Street and the surrounding blocks. It is this group that reached out to the downtown community to form Port Washington Voice in response to the Model Blocks Proposal for upper Main Street.

The meeting on Saturday, Jan. 14 at the Flower Hill Fire Company was intended as an opportunity for community residents to engage in a dialogue about the Model Blocks Project, which is supported in concept by Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington (Residents), the Port Washington Business Improvement District (BID) and the Town of North Hempstead (TONH). PWV set aside the meeting to allow representatives of Residents to make a presentation to the people who live downtown. Among the attendees were representatives from Residents, Town Councilwoman Dina DeGiorgio, representatives of the police and fire departments, members of Port Washington Voice and Main Street business owners.

Mindy Germaine, executive director of Residents, and Dan Donatelli, a co-president of the group, made a modified presentation of the Model Blocks Proposal that was originally presented to the community during a public meeting in November. The presentation was an attempt to address feedback about the proposal from the general community and specifically from the members of PWV.

During the discussion that followed the presentation it was clear that there are two fundamental differences in perspective between the two organizations: The process by which the Model Blocks Proposal was developed and the re-zoning of Main Street.

Residents, and to some extent the town, sees the Model Blocks proposal as the culmination of a project that Residents has been working on for several years beginning at the end of the TONH sponsored Visioning Project that took place in 2005. Rick Krainin, co-president of Residents said, “During the last few years we have met with local business people and community organizations. The last piece of this process was supposed to be the public meeting in November to solicit the input of and begin a dialogue with local residents throughout Port Washington.”

Unfortunately, PWV was not a formal organization until recently so as Residents and other stakeholders such as the BID moved forward in their process, people living in downtown Port Washington were lacking an organized voice. Downtown residents perceive the proposal presented at the November meeting as an initiative that was shaped without local input and without thought as to what is best for people currently living in and around the four-block area of the suggested Model Blocks initiative running from Port Boulevard to Irma Avenue including the train station. Therefore, the members of PWV intended to make their voices heard and have their questions answered, particularly regarding the re-zoning aspect of the proposal.

Most in attendance at the meeting seemed to support the beautification aspects of the proposal. However, PWV members strenuously object to a key part of the proposal, re-zoning the area in question from B, business district, to multi-use. Members of the downtown community repeatedly said that the Main Street area in Port Washington is one of the densest downtown areas in Nassau County and is already multi-use with residential space above the storefronts. They question if the four-block target area is in “such bad shape” since there are only three storefront vacancies. They responded to comments that public grant funding is only available to proposals that encompass transit hubs such as the train station and multi-use zoning areas surrounding them by saying that “funding should and could come from other sources than public grants.”

Roy Smithheimer, head of the BID, and Scott Weil, the owner of two buildings on Main Street, made impassioned pleas for the re-zoning aspects of the project. The issue of the re-zoning is not a simple one, but it is clear that building owners on Main Street find themselves in a catch 22. Although there may not be an abundance of empty storefronts in the target area, there is an over abundance of empty second and third stories which building owners cannot presently upgrade. Many of these buildings were constructed before there was a town building code. As a result, when building codes were written and the existing structures were grandfathered in, the seeds of today’s problems were sown. Landlords cannot sell their buildings or refinance them because they are non-compliant with current building codes. The matter was further complicated when the entire area was zoned B for business district, totally ignoring the fact that Main Street was already what we call a multi-use area with a number of apartments in the existing buildings. Essentially, we already have a multi-use downtown, it just is not sanctioned by the current zoning code.

Opponents of the change in zoning say that the changes will encourage more apartments on Main Street further exacerbating limited parking and traffic congestion. Scott Weil responded by telling the group that commercial clients in second and third floors of buildings bring more congestion than apartment dwellers. Not only do multiple employees have to be accommodated but also customers. More importantly, he said that given the glut of office space in Port Washington and the surrounding communities, second and third floors on Main Street are at a distinct disadvantage in the competition, again because owners cannot get financing to make necessary improvements because buildings are non-compliant with code. Upscale residential units aimed at empty nesters and young people starting out make more economic sense for landlords.

 But, the need for re-zoning to incentivize building owners to make improvements continues to be a major source of dissatisfaction for downtown residents. Laura Shabe, who has a background in city planning, said more than once during the meeting, “I’m just not getting the leap to re-zoning from B to multi-use as a condition for the beautification process.”

Councilwoman DeGiorgio said in her remarks that in the absence of public leadership in addressing the issues on Main Street, garbage, decaying sidewalks, traffic, parking, uprooted trees and empty commercial space, Residents voluntarily and at their own expense took on the responsibility of moving forward with the outcomes of the visioning process. She commended Residents for spearheading the project when the town government had failed to step up to the challenge. She also said that although Residents had made every effort to engage all community organizations in the dialogue, it really was not their responsibility to do so. “It is government’s responsibility to involve the community and I am committed to this process,” she said.

She stressed that there could be no change in the zoning without public hearings, further study and a subsequent vote and passage by the town council. “Local residents will be consulted and heard throughout the process. The end result is not assured,” she said.

She urged a civil and respectful discourse on the issues because we have the same goal: “a vibrant, healthy economic climate on Main Street.”

While most of the discussion was courteous and respectful tempers flared at the end of the meeting, Joel Katz, an active community member, said that it is not the community’s responsibility to solve the problems of businessmen. His parting salvo, “You are in business figure it out” brought moans from the audience. Weil responded, “A dying Main Street will affect the entire town.”

One thing is clear, if the project is to move ahead there will need to be compromise.