Riverhead awarded $10 million grant to help revitalize its downtown

As the celebration subsided following Thursday’s announcement of a $10 million grant being awarded to Riverhead Town, the focus quickly shifted to what comes next.

How can Riverhead allocate the $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant awarded by New York State to boost its longstanding goal of a revitalized downtown?

The plans so far extend far beyond the current Town Square project that is already underway.

Dawn Thomas, the town’s community development director, said plans call for a Transportation Oriented Development by the railroad; the expansion of the Suffolk Theater’s performance space; a planetarium at the Long Island Science Center, which will be moving into the former Swezey’s building, and renovations to the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall on Peconic Avenue, among other projects.

Last year, the town established a committee that would select a “master developer” for the TOD project, which Ms. Thomas said will be announced in the next few weeks. A TOD seeks to create more compact, walkable and pedestrian-friendly communities centered around train systems and is pitched as a way to combat climate change by reducing driving and energy consumption.

“That’s going to be a whole other community engagement process,” she said of the TOD. 

The town has yet to select a “master developer” for the TOD as well as for the Town Square.

The TOD would be built on town-owned property across from the train station, which is currently a parking lot. 

The two-acre, town-owned parking lot has 237 parking spaces. It was built in the 1990s, when the Suffolk County courts were threatening to leave Riverhead unless the town provided additional parking. 

But town officials say that parking lot is often less than full and sometimes close to empty.

The TOD would involve building an above-ground parking structure along with stores or offices on the ground level and apartments on the upper level. Another project is already in the works in the area at 205 Osborn that would bring a five-story, mixed-use building to replace the empty Long Island Diagnostic Imaging building. That project has faced some scrutiny from residents concerned about the number of variances sought for it to proceed.

The town also will have to sign a contract with New York State for the grant, Ms. Thomas said, and the next step in the process for the $10 million grant will be to develop a strategic plan through a community-based planning process “that articulates a vision for the revitalization of its downtown and identifies a list of signature projects that have the potential to transform the downtown and leverage further private and public investments,” according to the state. 

The DRI funding will then be awarded for selected projects that have the greatest potential to jumpstart revitalization and realize the community’s vision for the downtown.

The town last year purchased three buildings on East Main Street and demolished two of them in order to create a view from the Suffolk Theater south to the Peconic River. Officials have yet to decide what to do with the third building, which is still open and features an Italian restaurant — Craft’d — and other businesses. 

Ms. Thomas said the town is also considering short-term uses for the lots where the buildings were demolished. A temporary skating rink was suggested, she said. 

“There will be plenty of community engagement here again, as we did in the past,” she said. 

The town has applied for the DRI funds for each of the five years it was offered, and town officials say they were finalists in several of those years. There was no award in 2020 due to COVID-19. 

In the past, the DRI grants were for $10 million in each of ten regions statewide, with Long Island being one of them. 

The state in 2021 was able to offer either one $20 million grant or two $10 million grants. The Village of Amityville was awarded the other $10 million grant, evening the split between Suffolk County and Nassau County among the six total winners since the program started.