Westbury project furthers Long Island transit development thrust

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A project at Westbury's commuter rail station marks the latest transit-oriented development on Long Island.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has issued a request for proposals to build on the commuter parking lot on the south side of the Long Island Rail Road station. LIRR, an MTA unit, owns the lot.

Proposed development on south side of Long Island Rail Road's Westbury station.

“Transit-oriented development is a very, very big aspect of the development in [Nassau County] right now,” said Mitchell Pally, chief executive of the Long Island Builders Institute, an association of building industry professionals.

“More and more people understand that people like living in his kind of arrangement,” said Pally, a former MTA board member. “We are tremendously supportive of the project and I think you’ll see a number of responses to the RFP without a doubt.”

The site is available because the MTA is building a four-level, 683-space parking structure on the north side of the station as part of the LIRR expansion project, commonly called the third track project, scheduled to open next year.

RFP proposals are due Nov. 20.

Westbury is rezoning its downtown, armed with a $10 million grant as part of New York State’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative. The 15,000-population village, 15 miles east of New York City, is about a 45-minute ride from Penn Station on the LIRR.

“It’s multicultural with a lot of young families,” said Eric Alexander, director of the downtown planning group Vision Long Island. “It’s kind of up and coming.

“Long Island is a community of centers, a lot of local villages and districts.”

Westbury officials hope the new TOD district will encourage residential development around the station, which served about 4,000 daily riders before the pandemic.

Mayor Peter Cavallaro called the undertaking “a keystone project in our continuing next-level downtown revitalization.”

The MTA is offering a 99-year ground lease on 1.6 acres of property. The project could raise millions of dollars for the authority throughout the lease, in addition to generating revenue for the village by creating jobs and enlarging the tax base.

The development, which may include mixed-use multifamily residential and public open space with retail or commercial elements, would build off the $2 billion LIRR expansion project to add a third track to its main line.

Plans call for an additional track between the Floral Park and Hicksville stations, including Westbury, to enable additional reverse-peak service and reduce traffic congestion. Earlier this month, officials said the project was ahead of schedule and under budget.

The LIRR expansion project "will improve service for our customers and also make the communities we serve even more attractive places to live and work,” MTA capital construction chief Janno Lieber said.

Transit-oriented development has been an increasing trend in public finance.

“The concept of people living near transit has been an attraction pre-COVID,” said Alexander, who worked on the Westbury rezoning and calls his Northport-based organization “hyperlocal.”

The pandemic, according to Alexander and Pally, has not stunted interest despite warnings from MTA officials of severe service cuts while it seeks up to $12 billion in coronavirus rescue funding from the federal government.

“You have some of the population that will go into Manhattan two days a week or not at all instead of five, but what’s also happened is more island-to-island transportation,” Pally said. “So COVID has not deterred this type of investment.”

A more headlined example of real estate value capture is Hudson Yards, for which former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg shepherded a rezoning that enabled a financing plan using special purpose bonds repaid from development-generated revenue streams and other sources, including payments in lieu of taxes.

About $6 billion in subsidies included more than $2 billion for extension of the No. 7 subway line 1.5 miles westward from Times Square. The station opened in September 2015.

Looking nationally, Pally cited development around transit expansions in Maryland and Virginia.

Even older systems such as the state-run Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Greater Boston — the “T” to locals — have caught on.

“In Boston, every place the T goes, development follows,” Pally said.

Some areas that people consider "suburban" are actually quite dense and ripe for this kind of development, said Christof Spieler, author of the book "Trains, Buses, People: An Illustrated Atlas of U.S. Transit."

"Despite the claims of some anti-transit think tanks, mixed use around transit is the result of market demand, not a plot led by city planners," he wrote.

TOD could also spur growth in last-frontier areas previously barren. A case in point is the MTA’s plan to add four Metro-North commuter rail stations in the East Bronx, a capital project that could face delays because of the authority’s pandemic-related fiscal crisis.

LIRR operations, according to Alexander, have vastly improved under Phillip Eng, its president since April 2018. Eng, a Long Island native, is the MTA’s former chief operating officer.

“He’s a legit guy,” Alexander said. “He’s a commuter. He’s a Long Islander.”

Westbury's aggressive rezoning also gave the MTA a running start. The village is also strategic on several fronts.

“It’s on the main line so a number of trains go through the community,” Pally said. “It’s got a large downtown with a theater and many other things that people have enjoyed. And it’s got very good political leadership on this issue.”

This Long Island train station parking lot may be replaced with mixed-use multifamily residential and public open space with retail or commercial elements.

The latter, according to Pally, can help offset NIMBYism. NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my backyard,” referring to neighborhood obstruction. “When a village leader takes the ball and runs with it, that takes to take argument away from the NIMBYs a little bit, though not completely," Pally said.

While Westbury is following other Nassau County communities such as Mineola and Farmingdale, the project could also provide a blueprint for development in Hicksville, about five miles east.

Demographics, said Pally, favor this type of development.

“About 40% of everybody in the 18 to 30 age group is living with their parents. That’s a very large number of people,” Pally said. “I assume many of them would like to have their own place at some point. That’s an opportunity. You also have seniors who don’t want to maintain their own place any more but don’t want to live off the island.”

Think tank Regional Plan Association, in a report titled “New York’s Next Comeback,” warned against falling into a common trap -- thinking of city and suburb as a zero-sum game.

“If the COVID-19 epidemic has proven anything, it’s that the fates of New York City and the cities, towns, and villages in northern New Jersey, Long Island, the Mid-Hudson Valley, and Connecticut are intertwined,” RPA said.

“From Manhattan’s office and residential towers to thriving urban neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, smaller cities like Stamford, Yonkers, or New Brunswick, and a growing number of transit-oriented downtowns on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley, New Jersey, and Connecticut, the region offers more types of places to live and work than any other region.”

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