News
03.17.2010
Editorial> Up From Nowhere
Thorny questions lie ahead as Long Island's downtowns contemplate a new wave of density as the answer to suburban ills, writes Jeff Byles.

In recent years, we’ve heard a drumbeat of support for density as the answer to urban ills: Build up, build big, build smart—and the future will follow. And as this issue’s feature shows, density is becoming an unlikely mantra even on Long Island as towns face the fact that if they don’t grow, they’re dead. This is surprising news for a place that long defined single-family sprawl. But thorny questions lie ahead as developers set about building up the suburbs.

To begin with, Long Island’s marquee project—the Lighthouse, a new community around the Nassau Coliseum—makes an odd beacon for smart growth, centering on a sports arena like Brooklyn’s troubled Atlantic Yards and sited on a former airfield that’s bereft of a rail stop. While the project has been backed by planning groups who applaud its promise of walkable urban design, new housing, and jobs, renderings may make it look like a gated enclave for affluent hockey aficionados, and not part of an important effort to support the area’s changing population.

For Long Island is no longer a bastion of the privileged. Poverty there increased 22 percent between 2003 and 2007, like other suburbs across the nation that are now home to the fastest-growing populations of the poor. While many new developments include some portion of workforce housing, better coordination at both local and national levels is needed to reckon with the gulf between low-income residents and employment opportunities.

Fine-tuning the housing mix is no simple matter. The health industry, for example, is Long Island’s largest employer, but is hampered by high turnover because nursing staffers can’t afford to purchase homes in the area. Much attention has been focused on attracting the “echo boomer” generation of young professionals, but offering more rental options for middle-income residents should be another bedrock strategy. Stronger federal support for suburban infrastructure investments, whether it’s wastewater treatment plants or new light-rail lines, would also help the burbs cope with the growing burden of basic services.

Because counties can’t—or won’t—do it themselves. The new Nassau County executive, Edward Mangano, has been slashing spending in what is one of the highest-taxed counties in the nation, and one where voters are averse to redevelopment. “There is a big fear that any type of new housing development is going to increase school property taxes,” said Christopher Jones, vice president for research at the Regional Plan Association, who adds that most multifamily developments—especially those built around train stations—do the opposite. Clearly, officials must get the word out about density’s bottom line.

Long Island needs investment at all scales to survive, but politicians should think through the implications before hitching their suburbs to huge developments like the Lighthouse and its brethren. As much as megaprojects, we would do well to promote the more fine-grained retrofitting under way across the region, a sensible strategy of incremental urbanism focused on one infill building, one renovated library, one reviving hamlet at a time.

Jeff Byles