New York Times – From Convertibles to Rentals

THERE are about 30 vacant car dealerships creating swaths of blight along certain corridors in many Long Island towns — thanks to the recent recession — but the former Ramp Corvette dealership along Route 112 here may be the first to turn the tide. After standing vacant for two years, surrounded by eight acres of cracked asphalt, it is now the planned site of a multifamily housing development called Jefferson Meadows.
Jim Tsunis, owner and managing member of the Northwind Group in Hauppauge, envisions 96 two-bedroom one-and-a-half-bath units over 1,200 square feet, spread out in eight two-story buildings designed with a “contemporary flair.”

Mr. Tsunis’s application is the first to be submitted under the “Blight to Light” program of the Town of Brookhaven, instituted last year to help clean up derelict sites. Because his project seeks to remake just such an area, it will effectively be placed on the fast track for approval. Mr. Tsunis will be allowed to go straight to the Brookhaven planning board, bypassing the usual first stop at the town board. (In fact, the planning board hearing is scheduled for Monday afternoon at Brookhaven Town Hall.) And although the property is commercially zoned, he is hoping to receive a special use permit for multifamily residential and commercial.

NYT-From Convertibles to Rentals-BuildingEight two-story buildings, with a total of 96 apartments, are planned on the site of the former Ramp Corvette dealership.
The permit would allow him to renovate the dealership’s two-story stucco showroom to match the residential units and retrofit it as a health club, open to the public, with a recreational room and billiards room. An ice cream concession is also planned for the first floor, with office space upstairs. A tennis court and playgrounds with swing sets would be on the grounds. Two buildings long abandoned and boarded up, which a decade ago housed a landscaping business, would be razed.

Mr. Tsunis estimates that Blight to Light will probably save him “a good year” out of a costly and lengthy approvals process typically choked with red tape. And Mark Lesko, the Brookhaven supervisor, expressed the hope that Mr. Tsunis’s project would inspire others, on at least a dozen vacant car dealerships in the town — “monuments to blight,” where “now you have the weeds growing and graffiti.” Many dealerships and other businesses were shuttered from 2007 to 2009, as the recession widened. The abandoned spaces are particularly prevalent on Routes 25 and 112 in Selden, Coram, Terryville and Port Jefferson Station.

An abandoned gas station sits next door to the Corvette dealership that is the Jefferson Meadows site. Across the road is a shuttered Lumber 84 store; half a mile up is an empty motorcycle and auto dealership. Yet at the same time the dealership is a half-mile walk from a refurbished shopping center with a new Uncle Giuseppe’s food market, a six-screen multiplex theater and a redone CVS store. Mr. Lesko envisions the new development as helping spark life in the “sprawl area” in between, where residents are trying to create a walkable “pedestrian-oriented community.”

The apartment complex would provide housing affordable to young people interested in staying on the Island — a feasible rental alternative to living with their parents or in a basement apartment. Mr. Tsunis said he was working with the Long Island Housing Partnership to market the development and limit rentals to those earning 80 percent of median area income, which for a family of two in Suffolk County is $67,900. Rents at Jefferson Meadows are expected to be in the $1,500-a-month range.

Diana Weir, the executive vice president of the Long Island Housing Partnership, said this kind of work-force housing was not age restricted. “It bodes well for Long Island that we will have this kind of housing,” Ms. Weir said, adding, “The stars have aligned,” with “developers more willing to build rentals and civic groups less resistant.”

The former Ramp Corvette dealership. CreditKathy Kmonicek for The New York Times
The former Ramp Corvette dealership. CreditKathy Kmonicek for The New York Times

Mr. Lesko said the town was also working with Sustainable Long Island, a nonprofit advocacy group, which recently received a $45,000 grant to help identify redevelopment opportunities and community priorities for shuttered dealerships in four low- to moderate-income communities.
Scott Woodson, communications coordinator for Sustainable Long Island, said that at the end of last year the group had counted 30 to 35 closed car dealerships on the Island, 25 percent of them in clusters along commercial strips. “The reuse of these closed car lots can jump-start community revitalization for the community itself and surrounding areas,” Mr. Woodson said. Left to decay, they “can turn into brownfields if there is contamination.” Plans for each abandoned site will be different.

In recent years, Mr. Lesko said, Brookhaven has been plagued with empty lots, empty buildings and “squatting all over the town,” which he described as “a bit shocking in a suburban community.”

While acknowledging concerns about overburdened schools and infrastructure, Laurie Green, the vice president of the Port Jefferson Station Terryville Civic Association, said that if Jefferson Meadows “pans out the way it is supposed to, it will be an added bonus and a welcome addition to the community.” She added, “It is going to attract working people who otherwise can’t afford to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a house.”
Mr. Tsunis said the development would connect to a sewage treatment plant at a nearby nursing home. (Inadequate sewers often present a major impediment to multifamily construction in Suffolk County.)

Mr. Tsunis’s lawyer, J. Timothy Shea of Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman, described the fast-tracked project as a catalyst for improving other such properties. With Route 112 being repaved and new sidewalks and bike lanes under construction, Mr. Shea said, “other landowners are going to look to redevelop their properties.”

By MARCELLE S. FISCHLER – AUG. 19, 2011