July 12, 2006

Rebirth From Blight Revitalization For Riverside

Cracked sidewalks littered with debris. Dead-end street corners draped with slouching clusters of disenfranchised kids. Boarded-up houses and blighted land.

Welcome to Riverside. An urban stain just minutes away from the ultra-hip heart of the Hamptons. A place where few dare to tread, frightened off by regularly documented police reports of drug busts and prostitution. A neighborhood marred by futility and fear.

At first glance, last Thursday night seemed like so many other summer nights in Riverside. A soft summer breeze sent fast food wrappers swirling down residential streets dotted with weeds and stripped of domesticity.

But that same breeze might very well have signaled the winds of change, as a steady stream of cars headed into the parking lot at the Phillips Avenue Elementary School for a public meeting to discuss a new Overall Concept Plan aimed at revitalizing Riverside.

The meeting was conducted by Southampton Housing Director John White, White Plains-based planning development consultant David Schiff of Saccardi & Schiff, Inc., and Jefferson Murphee, Southampton Town planning administrator. It was attended by several public officials, including Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi, Councilwoman Linda Kabot and newly elected Southampton Village Trustee Bonnie Cannon, as well of scores of concerned residents seeking solutions.

The preliminary concept plan, said Schiff, seeks to improve Riverside's deteriorated housing conditions, underutilized land and community isolation.

The concept plan was presented hand in hand with a Riverside Study Action Plan, which identified eight tasks that could be utilized to implement the plan's recommendations in each of nine sub-areas, including rezonings, delineation and designation of blight areas, creation of an urban renewal plan to be adopted by Southampton Town, acquisition and clearance of lands and buildings, assembly of individual properties into parcels for redevelopment sites, improving and rehabilitating private properties, improvements to public facilities and undertaking additional studies.

"We've seen devastation to date in the private sector," said White, pointing out Riverside has been hit hard by drugs, crime, illicit acts and dumping. Urban renewal, he said, "will give us the opportunity to take control."

Also missing from the area, said White, is a sense of pride, coupled with a cohesive community. "That needs to come back."

His sentiments were shared by scores of residents who packed the auditorium to listen intently as a step-by-step plan geared toward making Riverside a thriving community was presented.

Schiff explained changes in each of the nine sub-areas, including rezoning. Much of Riverside is currently zoned R-15 — residential use with a minimum lot size of 15,000 square feet. Other existing zoning includes village business (VB) and highway business (HB).

The goal in certain areas would be to rezone from VB to R-15, to prevent strictly commercial uses in residential neighborhoods.

Also applied would be the HO/HC, or hamlet office/hamlet commercial zoning, which was included in Southampton Town's Comprehensive Plan, updated in 1999. Such a rezoning would also remove "outdated" VB zoning to prevent strictly commercial future uses. In addition, HO/HC would remove inappropriate highway business uses and promote commercial and residential mixed uses.

The plan also calls for construction of sidewalks on Riverleigh Avenue, which would facilitate increased pedestrian use. The area, currently unsafe for strolling, would see streetscape improvements under the new plan, as well as improved vehicular circulation.

Other highlights of the plan include the creation of a "gateway" at the intersection of an extended Pine Street and Old Quogue Road, as well as the design and construction of a roundabout at the same intersection, and redevelopment of the parcels surrounding the new gateway.

A gateway, said Schiff, would serve as a focal point, featuring mixed use development and a community center, and help to transform Riverside into a destination, rather than just a community left behind by those journeying elsewhere.

Finally, one of the key proposals to the plan is for the area east of the community gateway, which would be rezoned from R-15 to a senior citizen zone (SC-44), to prepare for a potential medium senior housing development. According to the concept plan, designation of the parcel as blighted is necessary in order to develop the 7-acre site for approximately 40 units of senior housing.

Plans were also presented to connect the hamlet center with Pine Street.

Many residents expressed concerns about increased density and the impact on already heavy traffic conditions in the area. Others pointed out the potential danger increased traffic would have on area schoolchildren.

"The intent is not to substantially increase density," Schiff offered, but instead, to improve and revitalize much of the area's existing housing stock.

But, said White, if acquisition and relocation are necessary, the town won't hesitate. "If it takes acquisition to make this happen; that's what it will be," he said. White assured, however, that the plan is based on retention of residents in the area, and providing comparable, but safer, housing opportunities.

Providing a vital hamlet center is crucial to creating a cohesive community, White continued. Currently, he said, in Riverside "there are not enough places to get milk, or they're not decent." The goal is to create safe sidewalks and walking paths so kids can walk to school.

White reminded that all ideas are only concept plans at this point, and more opportunities for public input will be available throughout the entire process.

"It's like a block of marble," said Schiff. "We're chiseling away."

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