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Suffolk Closeup: Suffolk is suffocating

COURTESY PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone at a recent press conference
COURTESY PHOTO | Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone at a recent press conference

County Executive Steve Bellone is promoting development that would transform Suffolk County by intensifying density here. “A New Suburbia is Coming to Long Island,” was the title of an essay by Mr. Bellone recently published in Long Island Business News.

He advanced a vision for Suffolk not welcomed by one planning expert or in online comments by a good number of readers. However, Mr. Bellone’s approach is supported by pro-development interests along with the Long Island Federation of Labor and Building Trades Council of Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

“Long Island is in the midst of historic change,” wrote Mr. Bellone. “Today, a new suburbia is on the horizon, and Suffolk County is leading the way … This is about protecting the suburban communities that we love by adapting to the transformative change happening in our world.”

Mr. Bellone pointed to building projects he’s championing, led by “the $650 million Ronkonkoma Hub mixed-use project. When this project is fully built out, it will deliver a true walkable downtown and create 18,000 jobs.”

As described in Newsday, based on a presentation to the Long Island Regional Planning Council in November by Robert Lozcalzo, CEO of Tritec, an East Setauket real estate firm developing the Ronkonkoma Hub project for Suffolk County, “when completed, the hub is expected to encompass about 50 acres, with 1,450 apartments and 545,000 square feet of retail and office space.” It would be, he said, the “Gateway to Eastern Long Island.”

There’s no question that Ronkonkoma — north of Long Island MacArthur Airport and where the terminus of the electrified central branch of the Long Island Rail Road is located — is ripe to be a commuter hub. But to create a new small city on top of that is something else.

Then, last month, the county executive’s office announced it has accepted a proposal to build on 40 acres of county land just south of the core of Ronkonkoma Hub, a complex involving a 17,500-seat sports and entertainment arena, a 500-room hotel, two ice rinks, 160,000 square feet of medical research space, and 90,000 square feet of retail stores and restaurants — a $1 billion project.

A push in recent years by Suffolk County executives for development is not new. Mr. Bellone’s predecessor, Steve Levy, a decade ago promoted a $400 million project in which an arena, hotel, restaurants, retail stores and 1,215 housing units would be built on 225 acres of county land in rural Yaphank. The scheme, dubbed “Levyland,” went nowhere. Perhaps the Ronkonkoma Hub and the adjoining major development might be dubbed “Belloneyland.”

“Getting Dense with Development Doesn’t Make Sense” was the title of an essay countering Mr. Bellone by Richard Murdocco, who studied under longtime Suffolk County Planning Director Lee Koppelman at Stony Brook University. He is on the American Planning Association’s Long Island Section Steering Committee.

As Mr. Bellone “touts his record of suburban transformation,” wrote Mr. Murdocco on his “The Foggiest Idea” blog, “Long Island continues to slowly suffocate under its own weight. It’s not surprising that the county’s chief policymaker who has prioritized economic development over sound community-driven and environmental planning efforts might be a bit too quick to take a victory lap.”

Mr. Bellone’s “new suburbia … may not be the panacea so often touted when it actually arrives. Our groundwaters are increasingly being tainted by new pollutants, and the Sound and the sea are increasingly at risk … Real estate development, when allowed recklessly, can amplify these impacts even further. In recent years, the traditional model of suburban sprawl is being replaced with merely a new variant: just higher densities and rentals shoehorned in between the existing poorly planned subdivisions and worn-out shopping centers.”

Critical comments on the Long Island Business News website about Mr. Bellone’s essay included a reader complaining about “too, too much density. All over the place. Everyone else will suffer except the business elites and the politicians.” Another reader wrote: “This is not a vision of suburbia; this is creating urban centers, crowding, pollution and congestion.” More development, yet another reader said, will ruin the “natural beauty of the area and why people originally came to Long Island.”

Suffolk’s first county executive, H. Lee Dennison, five years after he left office after 12 years, called for steps to “strongly limit” Suffolk’s population to 1.5 million people. This was in 1978 when there were 1.28 million people here. Now we are at 1.5 million. More than that, Mr. Dennison said, would be “too many people for the resources we have … fresh water, air and space.”

More next week — including implications for the East End.