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Road to Ronkonkoma
A Long Island suburb fights sprawl.
Redevelopment at the Long Island Railroadds Ronkonkoma Station in Brookhaven will use form-based zoning.
Courtesy Town of Brookhaven

While the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) debates assorted new shapes for suburban density in its new show Foreclosed, Long Island’s Ronkonkoma is just doing it. A redevelopment project at the Long Island Railroad’s Ronkonkoma Station in Brookhaven will use a form-based zoning code overlay. That’s a first on Long Island, and a possible model for growth there.

On February 7, Tritec Real Estate Company of East Setauket was named master developer for the Ronkonkoma Hub Transit-Oriented Development. Now a dispiriting patchwork of parking lots, light industry, and fitfully occupied storefronts, the site will get between 600 and 800 housing units and around 150,000 square feet of retail and offices arrayed across 54 acres.

But mixed-use by itself doesn’t guarantee good placemaking. The zoning overlay’s purpose is to yield “an urban sense of place,” said architect Stephen Gresham of Niles Bolton Associates, who is working on the project with Tritec. “Creating a street frontage, using build-to lines to eliminate huge suburban setbacks, and using architectural form descriptors” will also be part of the code, he added. Brookhaven supervisor Mark Lesko, a project champion, said, “I want that Main Street feel—bars, restaurants, coffee shops—where young folks want to go.”

Eventually, this transit village could be the center of a much larger node. There is a new technology park being planned across the tracks in Islip. In December, Empire State Development awarded $4 million for the design of a regional sewage treatment plant to serve both the technology park and the Ronkonkoma Hub.

Also just across the Islip line is Long Island MacArthur Airport. JetBlue officials, searching for another route point, visited in January. A pedestrian bridge from the train station to a new air terminal has been proposed. Currently, Ronkonkoma Station averages 14,000 passengers a day. With expanded air service within walking distance, there would likely be many more commuters. But not all of populous Long Island would get easy access: LIRR lines run east to west, to and from the city, without north-south links.

Meanwhile, code for the Ronkonkoma Hub is being articulated. “We’re doing massing studies to see where heights might go as high as six or eight stories, and where they have to feather out to the adjoining community of two stories,” said Tullio Bertoli, Brookhaven’s planning commissioner. “Zoning needs to be liberated,” he added. “To make these kinds of vibrant mixed-use communities you’ve got to be really flexible in the kinds of uses. It can’t be Euclidean,” with activities distinctly separated by type. “It’s got to be form-based.”

Jonathan Lerner