Since 2000, Jean Celender has served as mayor of Great Neck Plaza, an incorporated village located in Nassau County on Long Island. Celender also works as a planning and environmental consultant, specializing in community development, public participation, and transportation planning. We spoke in summer 2014 about how Great Neck Plaza has succeeded in making its downtown so vibrant.
Great Neck Plaza is one of the most densely populated communities on Long Island. Yet as you say, “You really don’t feel the density.” Why not?
Jean Celender: The Village of Great Neck Plaza is attractive, historic, and charming, with a unique sense of place. We’ve developed “up” in multi-story buildings, typically no more than 5 to 6 stories, rather than “out,” so we’re not encouraging sprawl. The density has been well-planned through zoning and building regulations that made smart growth possible. Our buildings are of varied heights, widths, scales, and periods of construction, including historic structures that date back to 1913 and the Gold Coast era of Long Island. We are predominantly comprised of multi-family apartment buildings, offering a range of housing types for a mix of ages and income levels, with good access to transit, beautiful parks, safe neighborhoods, excellent public schools, and a walkable downtown with over 260 boutique stores, restaurants, and service establishments. In addition, we have a developed infrastructure to support the density (sewers, water, roadways, etc.).
The Village’s long history may be surprising to readers from elsewhere in the country, who perhaps solely associate Long Island with suburban sprawl. What role has historic preservation played in giving your downtown a unique sense of place?
Celender: Historic preservation has played a vital role in economic development and downtown revitalization through the retention and reuse of historic structures and districts. It adds to the downtown and our unique sense of place. A number of buildings from the early 1900s remain and are well-preserved, providing current inhabitants with the history of that time and telling the story of our forebears. People have rediscovered the value, craftsmanship, and history found in the downtown—in contrast to the cookie-cutter and big box design of commercial malls and strip retail development. We are proud of our Historic Preservation Commission and preservation efforts in the downtown, with more than a dozen designated buildings and a historic district that celebrates and preserves our local history.
Great Neck Plaza also has a history in the arts, and you’re known as a community that values its cultural assets. How has the Village succeeded in bringing public art to your downtown? Why have you focused on the arts?
Celender: Public art and providing creative artwork in the downtown has been an important initiative in my administration. We surveyed our existing buildings and found many locations where plain walls existed that could be transformed into beautiful works of art, integrating fine art into the streetscape. The Board of Trustees gave me the charge that the work shouldn’t be done at the expense of taxpayers or an impact fee on development, which is how many other communities provide for public art. Instead, they required the creation of our trompe l’oeil murals and other public art through private and corporate donations. We raised the requisite monies for two [works of art]. The first is William Cochran’s “A Handful of Keys,” which was installed in 2005 on Maple Drive. The second is a mosaic tile landscape artwork, “Sunset on the Sound,” by Jane Du Rand and Galia Gluckman, by the Great Neck train station; this was part of our rehabilitation of that area in 2011.
In a 2011 survey, the Long Island Index found that a surprisingly small number of jurisdictions in our region make use of transit-oriented districts to encourage development near train stations. Great Neck Plaza has been a pioneer in implementing transit-oriented zoning (TOD zoning) in your downtown/train station area. Why are you encouraging development of more residences near your train station?
Celender: The Plaza is only 1/3 of a square mile in size and the majority of our properties are located within 1/2 mile of the Great Neck train station; we have the benefit of offering excellent access to mass transit and public transportation services—commuter trains, buses, taxis. The TOD zoning was enacted because the Board of Trustees was desirous of additional sustainable development—projects that don’t overburden existing facilities, but allow for some growth, and enable property taxes to remain stable. We want more residential development in the downtown so people can utilize services, stores, and restaurants, and so we’ll have a vibrant nightlife, without changing the look of the Village or making it too dense. A larger resident population will provide us with more shoppers to frequent our stores, restaurants, and other businesses, thereby promoting business activity. The aim is to stimulate economic revitalization in the downtown and to encourage mixed-use development, including retail on the ground level, and residential, office, civic, and other complementary uses on the floors above, and to make investments into these properties, such as façade and other building improvements. We believe TOD zoning is a win-win for our community. We looked at places around the country where TOD zoning was being instituted, and felt this was the right modification at this time to make to our Business District zoning.
Was there community opposition to the proposed TOD zoning?
Celender: There wasn’t opposition to the TOD zoning because we had many meetings and [extensive] community engagement during the planning process and code revision stages. We did receive a number of questions and concerns from our residents and interested persons when we held public meetings on the planning study, and later when we proposed the changes to the zoning code. Concerns focused on the worst-case scenarios in the study. Residents perceived that the rezoning might trigger a wave of new development. However, the Board wasn’t concerned with that possibility, knowing our existing developments and the list of potential underdeveloped sites that could take advantage of the new zoning. Rather, the Board felt that such new development would be slow, occurring over many years, and on a project-by-project basis. We also can track the effects of these new projects and modify the zoning [if need be].
The TOD zoning increased allowable building heights. Why? How did the Village decide what was appropriate in terms of community character?
Celender: We’re already a transit-oriented downtown ideally suited for mixed-use development. We allowed building heights to increase to a maximum height of 35 feet to allow for first-floor retail, and second and third floors of residential. The height limitation was based upon reviewing existing developments in the downtown. [When we adopted the zoning], more than 10 buildings were already mixed-use structures, but considered non-conforming. A 35-foot height limitation would be compatible with the character of the community, and allow single-story commercial taxpayers to expand above existing retail, permitting 2 or 3 floors of apartments.
In 2005, Great Neck Plaza adopted legislation establishing an inclusionary affordable housing program. How many units have been built as a result of this legislation? What impact has this had on your community?
Celender: Under the Village’s affordable (workforce) housing program adopted in 2005, one multi-family apartment building has been constructed, containing 93 units, at 255 Great Neck Road. The building includes 9 affordable units subject to our local legislation. There are also an additional 10 units that the developer set aside as affordable units under the terms of a County financing agreement. Currently, we continue to require developers to set aside affordable units as required under the Long Island Workforce Housing Law adopted in 2008, which superseded Village law. In January 2014, the Board approved a mixed-use project at 5–9 Grace Avenue, to be known as “Grace Plaza,” with retail on the ground floor and 30 apartments in 3 floors above, which will contain 3 affordable housing units. Inclusionary affordable housing has had a positive impact on the community because it has helped us retain young professionals, volunteer firefighters, Village and government employees, veterans, and others in rental housing that is affordable.
A few years ago, the Village completed a retail strategy study with the objective of increasing sales for existing downtown businesses, attracting new businesses, and boosting employment. What steps has Great Neck Plaza taken to keep downtown vacancy rates low and keep the local economy humming?
Celender: In 2011, the Mayor and Board of Trustees launched a proactive multi-faceted plan for downtown revitalization and business recruitment to address retail vacancies and the impact of the Great Recession on the local economy.
- We’ve engaged stakeholders in a dialogue about what’s needed for downtown revitalization, soliciting ideas for business retention and recruitment to fill our vacant stores, and ideas for adding more events and for promotion and marketing to create a buzz in our downtown. I formed a Mayor’s Downtown Committee comprised of property owners, retailers, and residents looking to develop strategies for improving the downtown. We formed a Parking Subcommittee, which revamped the Village’s Parking Brochure, redid the Business Improvement District’s Parking Direction Signs to make them more eye-catching, and installed new signs to direct motorists to public parking lots and garages. We worked on developing a list of stores to recruit here, based on visiting other downtowns on Long Island and in Connecticut and Westchester County (specifically Greenwich and White Plains) to observe the types and mix of stores in other communities.
- The Village hired a part-time economic development consultant to work with property owners and the brokerage community to help fill vacancies, and coordinate with the Mayor’s Office on downtown revitalization activities. We produce a monthly e-newsletter highlighting our downtown stores and events, with free advertising for our businesses.
- We prepared a Marketing Brochure, which highlights facts and figures, and answers the question, “Why open a business or be in Great Neck Plaza?” The brochure has been effective in soliciting prospective tenants, especially national chains that might not be familiar with the community, and assists in recruitment of retailers. We’ve made copies available to property owners, real estate brokers, retailers, and other community members.
- As I mentioned earlier, we adopted zoning modifications to our “B” Business District after working with property owners and soliciting public input. The changes encourage additional infill development of residences above first-floor retail, to encourage mixed-use and mixed-income development at an appropriate scale and density that will maintain the character and charm of the Plaza’s downtown. We believe these apartments, when constructed, will attract young professionals and empty-nesters, adding vitality to the downtown and providing more shoppers for our merchants.
The Long Island Index recently sponsored the ParkingPLUS Design Challenge, which generated new ideas for parking in Long Island’s downtowns and train station areas. Which of the designs do you think is most relevant to Great Neck Plaza? Why?
Celender: The most relevant design for Great Neck Plaza would be Main Street Brackets. We’re fortunate that our downtown already has 2 multi-level parking garages to accommodate shared parking and serve the downtown, plus additional surface parking lots and on-street parking. That being said, we’re challenged with getting the word out and educating the public about where to park, the rules and regulations pertaining to parking, and making it easier to find available parking. The perception of the lack of parking by the layperson or shopper is something we contend with daily. With 1,662 parking spaces in Great Neck Plaza, we believe we have an adequate number of parking spaces; however, we can always look to improve the efficiency of existing municipal parking, helping to alleviate shopper frustration and the feeling of having to drive around downtown blocks in search of an available space. [A concept like] Main Street Brackets could provide for pedestrian pathways to our parking areas, automated signage, and additional improvements to assist in finding parking more easily in the Plaza.
How does your community currently manage downtown parking?
Celender: The Village of Great Neck Plaza manages our downtown parking by designating different areas and allocating time limitations to encourage turnover of available spaces and maximum utilization. We have 2-hour on-street meters, and 4-hour meters and muni-meter stations in our 4 surface parking lots. Our 2 municipal garages, Plaza Centre and Maple Drive, which are located on side streets off of Middle Neck Road (Great Neck Plaza’s “Main Street”) and are the [most remote] parking spaces, are designated for permit parking for merchants, their employees, and office workers in the Plaza. These garages also have a limited number of metered spaces in the lower levels for overflow shopper parking. Plaza Centre also has some seasonal long-term meters (8 hours-plus) on the rooftop to accommodate part-time, temporary workers in businesses that have crunch periods and hire extra help, such as during the holidays or tax season. Both parking garages are free after 3 p.m. on weekdays and all day on Saturdays and Sundays, to encourage parking in these more remote locations during off-peak times. This helps promote more turnover, freeing up prime spaces in the lots and on-street.
How have you made your downtown safer and more welcoming for pedestrians?
Celender: We’ve undertaken and completed a comprehensive program of traffic-calming initiatives over the past decade. We’ve worked hard to re-orient our streets to favor pedestrians and bicyclists, as opposed to motorists, and to make our downtown more walkable, incorporating Complete Streets and smart growth principles. As our population is aging and maturing, we realize that our streets and sidewalks need to accommodate people of all ages and capabilities, especially slower moving senior citizens. We’ve been fortunate to have been awarded a number of transportation grants through the New York State Department of Transportation to assist in these efforts. Through these state reimbursement grants, we’ve constructed 5 significant projects, including a modern roundabout at Barstow Road, a “road diet” eliminating a lane of travel on Great Neck Road, bulb-out crosswalk extensions on Bond Street, roadway channelizations and pedestrian improvements at Barstow Road and Linden Place, and pedestrian and bicyclist safety enhancements at the Great Neck train station. We’ve also modified our site plan procedures to incorporate New Urbanist standards for improved walkability and connectivity. For example, new sidewalks in front of developments in the downtown are required to maintain the same material throughout to provide continuity and a cue alerting motorists to the presence of pedestrians. Previously, driveways and features built of other materials were allowed to interrupt and break up pedestrian walkways.
On Long Island, the number of jurisdictions and layers of review make downtown development more challenging and complicated than in suburbs elsewhere. In an article in the Great Neck Record, you said, “I have developed valuable working relationships with neighboring villages and municipalities, as well as county and state governments.” How have these relationships benefited your community and downtown?
Celender: In my experience, I’ve found that to successfully accomplish projects to improve safety and walkability, and to become more vibrant and prosperous, it often takes community engagement and partnering with other levels of government. Long Island’s myriad of 900 different taxing jurisdictions, with multiple layers of governmental entities, including federal, state, county, town, city, village, school districts and special districts, requires experienced leaders who are knowledgeable about how things work (or don’t work), whom to go to, and how to get projects completed. Funding capital projects is also a huge issue for municipalities with limited resources that are dealing with unfunded state mandates imposed upon us. Seeking federal and state grants to leverage village monies is critical to being able to undertake expensive vehicular and pedestrian safety improvements and downtown walkability projects.
If you could give one piece of advice to other Long Island communities looking to make the most of their downtown and train station areas, what would it be?
Celender: My one piece of advice would be to encourage Long Island communities to be proactive despite the challenges. It is well worth the time and money spent analyzing [potential] changes to your zoning and policy initiatives to make your downtown better integrated with transit, provide additional economic development, and create amenities for the new Millennial generation. The changes don’t have to be extreme; communities can make modifications and tweak their zoning codes to encourage smart growth and more exciting developments without compromising the character of the community. There are many planners and experts in smart growth and sustainable community development who are available to assist communities in achieving their goals.
Interview has been condensed and edited.