The village of Greenport suffered a deep depression following the closing of two major shipyards at the end of World War II. As with other communities in distress, the ability of the village to deal with these conditions was complicated by an eroding tax base.
The revitalization of Greenport took hold beginning in 1994 following an innovative and aggressive reorganization of village government to lower property taxes and generate funding for public improvements designed to induce private investment.
The centerpiece of the plan involved redevelopment of a severely blighted site known as the Mitchell property as a public park for children and families. Located at the heart of the business district and commercial waterfront, the property had been the site of a successful restaurant and marina business that burned down in 1979 and then sat blighted for the next fifteen years as a monument to the village’s depressed condition.
The Planning Process / Managing Public Debate
The first challenge was to acquire the Mitchell property from a bank that was foreclosing on the prior owner, a developer that had gone bankrupt during the recession of the early 1990s. The village acquired the property in September 1996 for $1 million.
To generate excitement for the project and to inject new ideas and innovative design into the revitalization process, the village undertook an international design competition in 1996 that attracted 500 designs from 26 countries. With a public that had become intensely interested in the outcome, the competition results provoked controversy. The question was ultimately resolved in a 1997 village election that elected a village board majority in support of the winning design. The planning process was also the subject of numerous public hearings and informational meetings at which public input was received.
Following the election, a contract for design was awarded to SHoP Architects, a young firm in New York City. The Greenport project was their first significant public commission, but they have since enjoyed enormous success.
Building and Maintaining Public and Private Support
Ongoing support was essential for a project that took 12 years to complete. Great care was taken to include local and regional public officials at crucial stages of the project and in the extensive media coverage generated by the project. In addition to village funding, the $10 million project was the subject of over two dozen separate grants from county, state, and federal agencies.
In addition to the park, the adopted plan included redevelopment of the shoreline of the property as a transient recreational boating marina and a major deep-water pier to accommodate tall ships and other large visiting vessels. This component was widely viewed by the business community as essential to strengthening the village’s increasingly tourist-based economy.
To maintain community support, programs were organized in the short term to boost the local economy and community pride while the project was being developed. Among the most successful were highly popular but temporary indoor locations to house and operate an antique carousel donated to the village by Northrop Grumman Corporation in 1995 and a series of tall ship festivals that drew on the village’s rich maritime tradition and attracted huge crowds of visitors. These short-term successes demonstrated the value of the project to the business district and the community at-large.
“Build it for the kids and they will come”
Early in the process, the village chose to view the recreational needs of children and families as a lens through which to think about what activities to include in the park. To accomplish this, a youth advisory committee was appointed that identified several priorities: a permanent home for the donated Northrop Grumman carousel; an outdoor ice skating rink; an indoor swimming pool; and a municipal skate park. Given the small size of the redevelopment site, only the carousel and ice rink components could be accommodated in the plan.
To demonstrate the village’s commitment to the youth, it was decided to build a skate park immediately on other village-owned land. Before this, kids were forced to skate in unsafe conditions on public and private property. This created tension between Greenport’s youth and the rest of the community, especially the police.
In 1998, the village dedicated the first municipal skate park on Long Island. The success of this $300,000 project helped resolve the community tensions and cemented youth support for the larger redevelopment plan. Today, the self-regulating skate park remains a magnet for area youth with a remarkable record for safe and responsible use.
Following the success of the carousel, the skate park project cemented Greenport’s vision for programs and activities targeting children and families as a viable strategy for economic growth.
Construction of the park was undertaken in three phases. This approach allowed for continuing fundraising and minimal disruption of the business district.
Phase 1 included a building to permanently house the carousel; an amphitheater for outdoor performances; the first link in a boardwalk across the site; and the first of two piers to support the planned marina.
The project was dedicated as Mitchell Park in a June 2001 ceremony for the grand opening of Phase 1. It was presided over by then-Governor George Pataki and attended by several thousand people.
Construction soon resumed, with Phase 2 in coordination with reconstruction by the New York State Department of Transportation of Front Street (NYS Route 25) through the village. This required careful cooperation to coordinate planning and design, minimize economic disruption, and expedite completion. The success of this collaboration led to enhancement of the state project to include things like cobblestone sidewalks, granite curbs, textured crosswalks, and street tree planting that allowed park design features to spread to the surrounding streetscape.
Phase 2 included an outdoor ice rink, a camera obscura, a mister field, the remaining section of boardwalk, a small beach area, a terminal building for the planned marina, and a deep water pier. It was opened to the public in sections starting in spring 2004, followed by dedication of the ice rink in January 2005.
The camera obscura is a lens and prism technology that projects a spectacular live image from the outside onto a white table in the center of a dark room. An ancient technology, it was written about by DaVinci and used by 17th century painters like Vermeer for its extraordinary clarity. Greenport’s camera lens revolves, thus producing a visual tour of the harbor, park, and streetscape. The innovative design for the building utilized computer programming to allow all parts of the structure to be delivered pre-cut for assembly on-site.
Phase 3 involved installation of a 60-slip floating dock marina to attract visiting recreational vessels for short stays, thereby attracting new visitors without cars. The marina was dedicated in September 2006.
Mitchell Park has had an enormously positive impact on the village. It created a focus for village life at the heart of downtown with public access to the waterfront.
It attracts large crowds of visitors to support the emerging tourist and leisure-based economy. It sets a beautiful and sophisticated standard for design throughout the village. It has induced major private investment, thereby reversing the decline of the village tax base.
Most importantly, Mitchell Park has established a future for Greenport as a place for children and families to visit, recreate, and settle.
The only request of the original 1996 youth committee that the community has not been able to grant is an indoor swimming pool and community center. This facility would fill the need for healthy year-round recreational and social opportunities while further strengthening the business district during the off-season. Fifteen years later, the members of the youth committee are adults. Perhaps they will be able to make this dream a reality for their families.