By Danny Schrafel
Commitments to addressing infrastructure improvements and traffic concerns must be made before shovels go into the ground for the ambitious Heartland Town Square mini-city concept, Huntington elected officials told the Islip Planning Board April 16.
Developer Jerry Wolkoff and his son, David, are proposing to build 9,000 residential units, 1 million square feet of retail space, 3,239,500 square feet of office space and 215,500 square feet of civic space on a 452 acres of the Pilgrim State Hospital in nearby Brentwood, which the Wolkoffs bought in 2002 after the property was decommissioned by the state.
However, Huntington town officials, represented by Councilwoman Susan Berland at an April 16 public hearing on a zone change to accommodate the project, argue current infrastructure can’t handle the ambitious project, which would be situated near the Dix Hills and Commack borders.
She also accused the Town of Islip of throwing the Town of Huntington a curveball on the topic.
The finalized general environmental impact statement (GEIS) calls for full road access from the development to Commack Road – a big change that will negatively impact Huntington residents and all commuters on Commack Road, Berland said.
“The Islip Town Board adopted the final GEIS, gave short shrift to Huntington’s objections and left critical questions unanswered,” Berland said, referring namely to whether infrastructure improvements will come, when they will be built and who will pay for them.
Berland said Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone flagged the issue five years ago when he told the Suffolk County Planning Commission that a consensus must be reached on infrastructure improvements, and that those must begin before Islip decides on Heartland.
That has not happened, and until it does – and direct access to Commack Road is eliminated – Islip should not act, Berland said.
The Islip Planning Board will ultimately make a recommendation on a proposed zone change for the project to Islip’s Town Board. The planning board voted to reserve a decision following the four-and-a-half-hour hearing.
The Wolkoff organization has argued that concerns over traffic are misplaced. They said the development is planned so cars won’t be necessary for every trip. People will be able to walk, ride bikes and take mass transit within the complex or connect to outside mass transit such as the Long Island Rail Road’s Deer Park station, they said.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has said that because the development model breaks the project down into several phases, that will give municipalities ample time to improve roadways and mass transit. The Wolkoffs estimate infrastructure costs within the complex, including roads and sewers, will cost hundreds of millions of dollars out of pocket.
Outside of the complex, the state held two planning meetings last week to seek public input on plans for future improvements to the Sagtikos Parkway, and Suffolk County is addressing improvements to Crooked Hill Road.
But attorney Joseph Fritz, a former Islip Planning Board member, argued it is inappropriate for municipalities to pick up the bill for the Heartland infrastructure projects.
“It represents an effort by the developer to foist development on the community at the government’s cost and expense,” he said.
According to Commack’s Nancy Gamby, any outside infrastructure improvements that do come will make little difference. Already, traffic is unbearable across the town line, she said, adding that she has had to sit through three light cycles at the intersection of Commack Road and the Long Island Expressway service road “more times than I can count,” and traffic on Sagtikos is already badly snarled.
A development of Heartland’s size will only add to the trouble, she added.
“The notion that 20,000 new residents… won’t make it worse is crazy,” Gamby said. “Even if another lane is added on the Sagtikos Parkway, there is no way that area can support that much traffic.”
Huntington Groups, Residents Weigh In
If approved by the Islip Town Board, Heartland Town Square would be built in three phases.
The first calls for 626,000 square feet of office space, 560,000 square feet of retail space, 105,000 square feet of civic space and 3,504 residential units.
Phase two would bring 1,602,322 square feet of office space, 391,930 square feet of retail space, 5,000 square feet of civic space and 3,472 units of residential space.
The final phase would bring 1,011,178 square feet of office space, 48,070 square feet of retail space, 105,000 square feet of civic space and 2,024 residential units.
Jerry Wolkoff has said the project will take at least 25 years to build out to completion. His son David argued the project, which has been weaving its way through Islip Town Hall for over a decade, will help usher Long Island boldly into the 21st century and help end the flight of young and old from Long Island.
“Those of you who know us know our commitment to Long Island,” said David Wolkoff. “Heartland Town Square continues that commitment – for the betterment of Brentwood, the Town of Islip and the Long Island region.”
Huntington’s Bill Hubbs, a representative of the Commack-based Long Island Builders Institute (LIBI), argued the impact could be transformative for the region.
In Heartland, Islip has a “significant new dimension to our regional lifestyle and economy,” like Levittown did in the 1950s, Roosevelt Field did in the 1960s and the Hauppauge Industrial Park did in the 1970s, he said.
Eric Alexander, executive director of the Northport-based smart-growth advocacy group Vision Long Island called for more bike lanes and greater diversity of housing, but said the organization “supports the concept and supports the direction” of the development.
While town officials in Huntington have raised concerns, county leadership has been largely supportive of the Heartland vision. The mini-city is being factored in as a driver of County Executive Bellone’s Connect Long Island proposal, which aims to fight the brain-drain by tying together regional assets, such as universities, job centers, labs and parks through mass transit enhancements and creating vibrant, walkable, transit-oriented downtowns.
“This is an opportunity to act,” Sheila Kelly, an aide for Bellone, said. “It’s time to stop talking and start doing.”
Melville’s Philip Shwom said he believes the development would be a boon for young and aging Long Islanders.
“This community will provide an attractive destination so that when my children graduate college, they want to stay on Long Island,” he said. “When my wife and I downsize from our home, we will have a great and vibrant place to live. This is what Long Island needs.”