David Sabatino is founder of Envision Valley Stream, a community organization that engages residents, businesses, and local government in making downtown Valley Stream more vibrant. He co-owns a coffee shop in downtown Valley Stream, Sip This. Valley Stream is an incorporated Village located just east of Queens on Long Island’s South Shore. We spoke about the founding of Envision Valley Stream, its current initiatives, and his perspective as a downtown business owner in spring 2014.
Why did you start Envision Valley Stream?
David Sabatino: At the time, in 2009, I was going through graduate school [at New York University] learning from such inspiring people in the fields of urban planning, design, and transportation. I was reading about communities that took ideas and brought them into reality. I didn’t see why the same couldn’t happen in my hometown.
Envision Valley Stream launched the first Valley Stream Community Fest in 2012, and held the street festival again in 2013, attracting a lively turnout. Why did you start this annual event?
Sabatino: An incredible attribute of Valley Stream is its diversity: people, businesses, organizations, and opportunities. We were brainstorming about a way to connect the people of our community with the downtown. The Vice President of Envision Valley Stream, James Giordano, came up with the idea for a community festival that would feature and celebrate our diversity. We created a committee with representatives from different organizations and institutions to help craft and implement a fun day for Valley Streamers and visitors from other communities.
Tell me more about the Pipeline—a proposed pedestrian/bicycle trail along Sunrise Highway. What are you hoping to accomplish with this project?
Sabatino: We’re very excited about this project. We recognize we are not New York City and we don’t aim to recreate the High Line, but it helped inspire this idea and it just so happens they sound alike. The Pipeline is a huge part of Valley Stream’s history. It refers to an underground aqueduct that was part of the Brooklyn Water Works. The pipe runs through Valley Stream and was built to carry water from our streams and ponds to Brooklyn (before and after incorporation with New York City) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The underground pipe actually went as far as Massapequa and our research shows that portions of the pipe as well as some of the pump houses remain. The right-of-way for the pipe remains mostly vacant and is located just north of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) tracks, which run along Sunrise Highway. It’s our vision to use the right-of-way both north and south of the LIRR tracks to plan, design, and implement a pedestrian/cyclist trail, which would feature cultural, artistic, and historic components (the number of historic connections along this route is incredible!). In addition to the recreational benefits the trail would provide, we’ve also recognized the economic benefits of further connecting our residential areas to Green Acres Mall and our downtown, and the transportation benefits of linking our current north-south alignment of parks and paths to a safe, exciting, and engaging east-west route.
Valley Stream’s Village Board adopted a Complete Streets Policy in September 2013—aiming to make the Village’s streets friendly to all users, from pedestrians and bicyclists to transit riders and motorists. How did Envision Valley Stream advocate for this legislation? What are your next steps to make this policy reality?
Sabatino: Envision Valley Stream helped organize a working group interested in having a Complete Streets policy adopted and implemented. We began by developing a Facebook page to introduce people to the concept, providing a place for them to suggest improvements to our street network. We then focused our efforts on outreach—getting several PTAs, local and national organizations, and communities that had already adopted Complete Streets policies to sign on to our effort. We also assembled an informational packet and met with officials from the Village of Valley Stream.
The next step is to work with community members to identify areas of need. We want to begin in high priority locations where the policy will have the greatest impact. For example, many schools in our community are having problems with automobile and pedestrian safety during student drop-off and pickup. We believe the Complete Streets policy gives us a way of addressing those issues. The hard part is finding the funding.
You write that the future of Valley Stream “rests upon the participation of the community.” Why is community participation so important to Valley Stream’s future? What have you found to be the most successful ways to engage people in thinking about Valley Stream’s future?
Sabatino: Community participation is important because it creates buy-in. I believe when you invite people to be part of a cause, in this case for the benefit of an entire community, their sense of pride and drive to see [the mission] fulfilled is greater. Also, participation improves our ability to gauge what our community values and what they would like to see change. Sometimes our ideas might not be what our community wants or is ready for.
The most successful way to engage people in thinking about the future of Valley Stream is to frequently provide people with information and ideas. It makes people think about how those green streets, bulb-outs, pocket parks, [and similar ideas] could work in our community. The ideas stick with them and lead to getting active in the community.
Envision Valley Stream has created partnerships between a variety of people and organizations. How have you formed such a broad coalition?
Sabatino: Slowly. We have built a coalition through years of bringing our cause to people via Facebook, local news articles, community events and meetings, presentations, and outreach. It hasn’t been easy and this is something we constantly work on.
Nassau County is working on an exciting study focusing on the future of downtown Valley Stream. What are some of the best ideas that have come out of the study?
Sabatino: The study has supported the need for structured parking at our train station. The idea has been floating around in conversation for a long time, but to see the structure as part of a professional recommendation was important. The parking structure would open up space for multi-family residential development around our train station.
You mention that the parking structure would open up space for new housing by your train station. The Long Island Index’s ParkingPLUS Design Challenge includes design proposals for structured parking in downtown and train station areas, which include “PLUSes” (additional uses and amenities). What other kinds of PLUSes could a parking structure by your train station have?
Sabatino: I envision the “PLUS” of our parking structure would be its green attributes: a combination of solar panels and wind turbines to power the lighting, and rainwater retention for use in vertical farming on the side the structure. Situated next to our Village Green and part of our north-south chain of parks, the parking structure could feature a bike sharing and storage component where people could get off the train and traverse Valley Stream on a bicycle. Residents who ride to the station would have a safe space to store their bicycle. Ideally, the parking structure and train station would be a part of the programming of our Pipeline project.
Coffee shops function as “third places”—they have been characterized as places that are essential to local democracy! Do you see your coffeehouse as a living room for the community?
Sabatino: I do. It has been a goal of my business partner and me to have our coffeehouse be a “third place” for people. I think that sitting with someone over a cup of coffee or tea is disarming. Whether you are coming with a friend to catch up on life or you are meeting for a job interview, you can feel welcomed by the comfort and casualness of a coffeehouse. Our events—open mic, poetry, magic, art shows, vinyl night, comedy, trivia—also help create the atmosphere of learning, discussion, and fun.
Why did you choose to open your business in a downtown setting?
Sabatino: We chose a downtown setting because we saw the potential of being part of a fabric of businesses. By fabric I mean the time, money, commitment, diversity, and established relationships other businesses have invested in and developed. We also placed value on the downtown being a destination.
Interview has been condensed and edited.