David Viana and Karen Montalbano are president and vice president, respectively, of the Baldwin Civic Association (BCA), a community organization working to revitalize downtown Baldwin. Baldwin is a hamlet in the Town of Hempstead on Long Island’s South Shore. David and Karen talked about their dreams for Baldwin’s future—and how they’ll get there—in spring 2014.
The BCA made headlines earlier this year by demonstrating against a proposal to develop a stand-alone drive-through drugstore in your downtown. Your group rallied “to express the community’s desire for transit-oriented, mixed-use development that incorporates a walkable downtown.” Why have you embraced a different development model than we’re used to seeing on Long Island?
David Viana and Karen Montalbano: As we’ve read about what’s happening in other Long Island communities, we’ve come to the realization that Baldwin has “good bones” for transit-oriented and mixed-use development. Baldwin has a Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) station located in the center of town, connecting it with frequent peak and off-peak service to Manhattan and Jamaica, in addition to several eastern Long Island towns. Baldwin also has three bus routes, one that runs north-south, and two that run east-west. We need to take advantage of this transportation network when building new developments.
As is common throughout most of Long Island, Baldwin lacks sufficient rental housing, which our young adult population consistently looks for. Many of the properties along Grand Avenue [Baldwin’s “Main Street”] already have small-scale mixed-use development, with one floor of apartments above ground-level retail. However, there are rarely any rentals available in town. We must provide additional housing options; otherwise, our youth will continue to move out of town.
And the available land in town is unsuitable for big-box development, which means we must use our land wisely and efficiently. Future developments need to be more compact in design, to promote a walkable business district. Getting a smart growth development project in Baldwin will help jumpstart the local economy and attract further investment.
What has your biggest challenge been in working to improve downtown Baldwin?
Viana and Montalbano: One of the biggest challenges Baldwin has faced is a lack of voice and representation from our elected officials. Baldwin is a hamlet situated between the incorporated villages of Freeport and Rockville Centre, which have mayors and councils focused on what’s happening in their communities. Baldwin, on the other hand, is represented by two Nassau County legislators and two council members on the Town of Hempstead Board. These elected officials all represent other communities in addition to Baldwin, making it more difficult for them to focus on Baldwin’s economic development.
David, you wrote in a letter to Newsday, “Baldwin has been waiting for more than 15 years for [the Grand Avenue and Merrick Road area] to be redeveloped into a thriving, desirable center of town.” You’re 20 years old now, which means you’ve been waiting most of your life to see this change. Why the long wait? Are you still optimistic?
Viana: There are multiple factors that have prevented this project from getting off the ground. Initially, the project was being pursued by Nassau County and was going to include a brand new police precinct and a restored Nunley’s Carousel. When that project fell through, the Town of Hempstead decided to take on the task of revitalizing downtown Baldwin. Unfortunately, the project continued to face an uphill battle, with a variety of issues delaying the project.
Despite the long wait and numerous setbacks, we are still optimistic about Baldwin’s future. Within the last two years, Baldwin has been involved in the LIRR Infill Redevelopment Study, the New York Rising Community Reconstruction Program, and the Rebuild by Design program. All of these projects are identifying ways that the Baldwin community and region as a whole can work together on revitalization and storm resiliency projects.
When you re-formed the BCA in 2011, you found that interest and involvement in the organization quickly grew. As David told the Herald, “People were really excited to come together and discuss the things that they wanted for Baldwin—things they missed from when they were children, things that changed over the years.” Why do you think the issues you’re tackling have resonated so much with community members?
Viana and Montalbano: The people who live in Baldwin know how wonderful a community it is. Many of them have been here for decades or their whole life and remember when you could bicycle or walk everywhere, stop in a bakery for a treat, or shop for clothing at one of the local stores. Those who move in realize that there are many beautiful homes in town, and that their neighbors are great people. All are invested in the community and want to make it the best place possible. They want to be able to eat, play, and shop in Baldwin.
David, you created the Facebook page “Baldwin Needs Revitalization,” (now known as “Baldwin Civic Association”). The page currently has more than 1,400 followers. How have you used social media to further the efforts of your organization?
Viana: Social media has played a major role in the success of the BCA. The Facebook page was a catalyst to motivate people to do something about Baldwin’s lack of revitalization. The page has also become a central place to share information and gather input from the community. Our organization also uses Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, VolunteerMatch and the Petition Site to get the word out about our efforts.
Tell me more about your Empty Storefronts Committee and Economic Development Committee, of which Karen is chair. What steps are these committees taking to make downtown Baldwin a better place to live and do business?
Montalbano: The goal of the Empty Storefronts Committee is simple: fill empty storefront windows with attractive artwork. The committee members catalogued the empty spaces in town and worked with the Baldwin School District to involve students in the project. The elementary school art classes included the project in their curriculum, which allowed all of the art students to participate. Pictures of the project can be viewed on our Facebook page.
The Economic Development Committee has had a more uphill battle. The first initiative was to gather statistics for the community. Baldwin has a median income of over $100,000 per year and over 40 percent of the population over the age of 25 holds a college degree, which is similar to or higher than most nearby communities. The committee has been looking for ways to get that information out to businesses and people, as well as gathering information about economic development programs and initiatives that could work for Baldwin.
The BCA’s homepage describes your community as “wonderfully diverse.” What role does your downtown play in fostering diversity?
Viana and Montalbano: The diversity of the community shows in the diversity of the stores. Along Atlantic Avenue, you can find a Mediterranean restaurant, a Caribbean Bakery, a Japanese restaurant and a new Indian restaurant. Elsewhere, we have an Irish pub, and an excellent place for ribs and Southern food, as well as several Italian restaurants. We’re working to build on these and the other interests in our community to create a multicultural downtown area.
Earlier in our conversation, you referenced the LIRR Infill Redevelopment Study, which includes a pilot project in Baldwin. What are some of the best ideas that have come out of the study? Do you think they’ll be realized?
Viana and Montalbano: The study is focusing on traffic patterns around the LIRR station, especially along the main north-south route of Grand Avenue. The preliminary study shows that with the right traffic pattern, which would have more of a “Main Street” feel, our local economy could improve dramatically.
The study recommends that Grand Avenue be redesigned with Complete Streets. The goal of Complete Streets would be to promote multi-modal transportation through dedicated bike lanes, improved bus stops, and widened sidewalks, among other improvements. The County is currently working on a traffic study, which they hope to complete in the spring of 2014. After this is completed, the data will be analyzed and used in planning the redesign of Grand Avenue.
The Infill Study also looks at the potential for mixed-use development on sites adjacent to the Baldwin train station. This goes in line with the BCA’s recent efforts to promote smart growth development in our downtown area.
What role do you see the train station playing in the future of your downtown?
Viana and Montalbano: The train station is one of Baldwin’s biggest assets. As we look to make Baldwin a more sustainable community, we must develop in ways that reduce our longstanding dependency on cars. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) reported that the Baldwin station averaged 2,744 riders on westbound peak trains in 2006 [the most recent year for which data is available]. While we have a significant number of people utilizing our train station, the surrounding downtown area does not reflect this. In the future, Baldwin should focus on development around the station, with shops and stores that will thrive off of the pedestrian traffic.
The Long Island Index’s ParkingPLUS Design Challenge includes design proposals for structured parking in Long Island’s downtown and train station areas. Could you envision a parking structure by your train station? What kinds of “PLUS” uses might it have?
Viana and Montalbano: It’s easy to picture many of the ideas from those designs being incorporated into a project at the Baldwin train station. As a neighbor to Rockville Centre, we share some of the same needs that they have, especially with respect to parking. We were very interested in the living walls and open spaces that were a part of the Rockville Centre design. Patchogue’s design was great because it used automated signage to indicate parking availabilities. We also enjoyed Westbury’s creative Train Terraces concept.
A parking structure would certainly help provide needed parking for commuters at the Baldwin station. The parking would not only serve LIRR riders, but would also provide additional parking for potential businesses, stores, and even housing in the downtown area.
Regarding “PLUS” uses of the parking structure, Baldwin is very keen on the idea of outdoor farmers’ markets and fairs. Creating an open civic space on top of the parking garage would be of great use to our community.
You’ve been meeting with leaders from other Long Island communities that have successfully revitalized their downtowns. Are there key themes that have emerged from your conversations?
Viana and Montalbano: Many of the communities that have successfully revitalized their downtowns have dedicated elected officials who work hard to get projects done. These elected officials have clear visions and plans for the communities they represent, and are aware of the issues going on locally and regionally. In addition, these officials encourage community input in the development of solid plans for the future. The most successful projects involve partnerships between the local government, local community, and private sector.
Successful local municipalities also realize that revitalizing a downtown typically involves more than one project. Patchogue is one example of a community that has pursued multiple developments to revitalize their downtown.
Additionally, municipalities should amend their zoning codes to encourage progressive mixed-use and smart growth projects.
What’s your personal stake in improving downtown Baldwin? Are you doing this for your families? Some other reason?
Viana and Montalbano: This is the community we live in and spend our free time in. Anything that improves the community makes Baldwin a better place for our families and friends to live in. Don’t we all want to live in a place that reaches its fullest potential?
Interview has been condensed and edited.