20 years and still smartening up at Vision Long Island

Drawing board: Various downtown do-overs -- including this artist's conception of the Peconic Crossing project in Riverhead -- have passed through Vision Long Island's purview over the last two decades.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

Before downtown redevelopment was cool, there was Vision Long Island.

Today, it seems, everyone is doing it: “Transit-oriented development” is in, Albany doles out $10 million checks to stir the pot and some 40 Long Island downtown districts are in some revivalist phase – a “coalition of the willing,” according to Vision Long Island Director Eric Alexander, who remembers a time not long ago when things were a little different.

“When we started, we simply wanted a couple of downtowns to become better places,” Alexander told Innovate LI. “Nobody was really focused on this. Now, there are 40 downtowns with some form of an approved plan, and probably another 40 or 50 that need one but don’t really have one.

“And that’s OK,” he added. “It’s about what the people in these communities decide they want.”

Hence, the willing. The able comes mostly from private investors and the state, which spices things up with an annual downtown-redevelopment competition awarding $10 million to the best downtown do-over in each of New York’s 10 economic-development zones (Westbury, Hicksville and Central Islip have won on Long Island so far).

Even losers in the annual contest are winners, from the bodies-in-motion perspective. At a minimum, they have a rough plan for how to proceed, likely conceived with a plethora of professional partners.

Certainly, Long Island communities are showing the effects of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative and other redevelopment programs: Alexander counts 13,000 “transit-oriented-development housing units” built or approved on the Island over the last 13 years, just part of the remaking of numerous Island downtowns.

In short, since Vision Long Island formed in 1998, downtown redevelopment has caught on – and that has fundamentally altered the grassroots group’s primary focus.

Smarter than your average host: Vision Long Island Director Eric Alexander holds court at the 2017 Long Island Smart Growth Summit.

“I think the mission has probably been enhanced by all the activity,” Alexander noted. “Now, it’s more about managing the change. It’s not ‘should we build apartments downtown’ or ‘should we have sewers’ or ‘should we invest in traffic-calming’ – that discussion is past.

“Now it’s about ‘how do we do it’ and ‘what is the quality of the work?’”

Vision Long Island will give regional rainmakers and other stakeholders the downtown lowdown Nov. 30 at the 2018 Long Island Smart Growth Summit, a daylong conference assembling a who’s-who of Island officeholders for a series of workshops, panel discussions and presentations.

The 18th annual regional review is slated to kick off with the State of the Towns and Villages Breakfast Panel – featuring nine town supervisors and four village mayors from across Nassau and Suffolk – before branching into 20 workshops, an industry trade show and a youth summit.

Sponsors of the 2018 Long Island Smart Growth Summit include Ruskin Moscou Faltischek, Sahn Ward Coschignano, Hofstra University, NYIT and the Suffolk County IDA, among others. Sponsorship opportunities are available.

The 17th annual installment, back in 2017, drew about 1,300 guests, according to Alexander, who anticipates “our biggest summit ever” this year.

“Our registration is already over 1,000,” he said this week. “It just speaks to the growth of downtown planning and infrastructure planning.

“These are all people-driven things,” Alexander added. “And the people who come to this summit are the developers of those transit-oriented developments, and 70 elected officials, and most importantly the community and business leaders – the chambers of commerce and the small-business owners and the civic associations who are planning their communities.”

Even after 20 years, that part of the Vision Long Island mission hasn’t changed, according to the director: To move the ball, “you need all of those elements together.”

“The private sector with the plans, the municipal leaders who approve things and the community leaders who bring support for downtown plans and infrastructure investments,” he said. “It all works together.

“Long Island is a bottom-up place,” Alexander added. “We decide things from the communities on upward. This summit represents that spirit.”