For one day, at least, downtown Riverhead had greenhouses, farmers markets, sculpture gardens, apartments, parking garages, grass lawns, woodlands and even a waterfall.
That day was last Wednesday, when students from SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse returned with design plans they’ve been working on since January, when they first visited Riverhead’s beleaguered downtown.
Each year Professors Preston Gilbert and Emanuel Carter choose one location at which their students tackle a redevelopment project in conjunction with the SUNY Center for Brownfield Studies.
In this case, their chosen study area was also Mr. Gilbert’s hometown. He was born and lived in Riverhead until he was about 7 and never returned for over 50 years until about a year ago, when he came here for work on a project in the Calverton Enterprise Park.
The group of approximately 40 students was divided into eight teams, each of which presented a vision for downtown Riverhead in Town Hall.
The students are studying landscape architecture and urban design or environmental engineering.
They presented the Town Board and the public with eight plans for downtown at no cost, and also analyzed all the plans on the basis of construction and maintenance costs, energy efficiency, impact on traffic and parking and impact on surface water quality. The group then actually determined which of the eight plans was best for the town.
The top plan, done by students Ken Gifford, Nick Dodd, Alex Bishop and Xiaohui Wang, showed housing and restaurants along the riverfront, a two-story parking garage, office buildings and greenhouses in what is now the riverfront parking lot, and more housing and retail space along Main Street.
“You guys did a fantastic job,” Supervisor Sean Walter told the students at the end of the presentations.
“I can’t believe the amount of work that went into this.”
The students produced 160 picture boards illustrating their projects, and those boards were left behind for the town, which is hoping to display them in the windows of some of the same vacant downtown buildings that the students’ plans were trying to fill. The plans were required to incorporate certain features, such as a year-round farmers market and a building that would serve as a community center and a demo site for hydroponic farming, Professor Gilbert said. They were also required to emphasize reconnecting Riverhead to the Peconic River, Peconic Bay and pine barrens, and to produce a landscape plan that protects the ecosystem, as well as an economic development plan.
Professor Gilbert said it almost brought tears to his eyes when he returned to Riverhead after 52 years and saw how much Main Street still looked the same.
“This is a gem,” he said. “The main street of this community is untouched from 52 years ago.” He recalled that the Star Confectionery luncheonette looked exactly as he remembered it as a child.
“Time has passed this community by, but it has passed it by in a very good sense,” Professor Gilbert said. “What you have in this community is what the rest of Long Island had 75 years ago, and was lost. Now they are struggling to recapture it and you never lost it.”
He urged town officials, “Forget about your negatives, play up your positives.”