Why Long Island’s Downtowns Matter


Main Streets are where the best of Long Island comes together in one place: parks and village greens, unique shops, irreplaceable historic buildings, theaters, cultural life. Image courtesy of Middle Country Public Library.


Ask Long Islanders what they love about our region and the answers include our beautiful beaches, open space, and access to the water. But there’s plenty to drive us crazy, too. The big three? No surprise that Long Islanders say high taxes, the high cost of living here and, of course, the traffic.

Is there a way to preserve what we love and change what we don’t? Many worry that there has to be a trade-off—that we can only solve our problems by doing so at the expense of the things we love about our region. But does it have to be that way?

After years of researching challenges on Long Island and closely examining other suburban communities around the country, the Long Island Index has found that a means for resolving our issues is actually much closer at hand than we might have realized—in our downtowns. There, we can envision:

  • A place to concentrate homes at multiple price points, such as rentals, townhouses, and garden apartments, to address the expense of living here while preserving open space outside downtown;
  • A place to create business opportunities for revitalization of our local economies and to house workers to attract new employers. More business leads to more jobs and lower taxes; and
  • A place to build new transportation options and reduce our dependence on cars.

Some Long Islanders say we should stop growing, but even if that were possible, it would not solve the problems we already have. A more direct approach is needed that changes what isn’t working while keeping what we all love about Long Island.

Young People Leaving

More than three in four Long Islanders view young people leaving as a very or extremely serious problem, according to the Long Island Index’s 2012 survey findings.

Almost every Long Islander knows a 20-something who grew up here and never returned. Many of us also know people who are still living with their parents, trying to save for a place of their own, but struggling to do so. Long Islanders’ concerns are well-founded: the region’s share of 25-34 year-olds has been declining since 2000.

Why are young people leaving? The reason is clear: most young adults cannot afford the homes here. Between 2000 and 2011, the share of Long Island households paying at least 35% of their income for housing rose from 27% to 39%.

Few Rentals on Long Island

Here’s a fact to get our competitive juices flowing: Long Island is losing young people faster than our suburban neighbors in the tri-state area. These other communities are providing something essential that we aren’t: a diversity of housing types.

As of 2011, 21% of Long Island’s housing units were rentals, far below the proportion in other suburbs in the New York City region. While only one out of five occupied housing units is a rental household on Long Island, the ratio in the region’s other suburbs is at least one out of three.

Far more housing options are available for young adults in suburban New Jersey and Connecticut, and in suburbs north of New York City, than on Long Island. So while 75% of Long Islanders are worried about young people leaving the region because of high housing costs, only 44% of suburban New Jersey residents and 48% of residents of nearby northern New York and Connecticut suburbs share that concern.

8,300 Acres Available

Opponents of new development worry that we have no space to build other types of housing. However, there is a surprisingly large amount of land available to build new housing on Long Island. We may not have a big city, but we have more than 100 village centers and downtowns with room for growth. Long Island’s downtowns and train station areas have more than 8,300 acres of vacant and underutilized land that could be used for new housing options, as documented in the Long Island Index’s 2010 Places to Grow report.

Moreover, there is pent-up demand for this housing. Recent polling indicates that although the majority of Long Islanders prefer single-family neighborhoods, there are many more who would be interested in living in downtown neighborhoods than live there currently. And it’s the youngest and oldest age groups who are most interested.

Where better to build townhouses, condos, and apartments than Long Island’s downtowns?

Loss of High-paying Jobs

Remember when Long Island was home to high-paying jobs? Unfortunately, that is in our past. Today, the jobs that we are adding tend to be lower-wage, with our highest-paying industries showing job losses. Long Island’s wage advantage over the rest of the nation has decreased in recent years. In 2003, Long Island’s pay per employee was 11.3% higher than the national average, while in 2012, our pay advantage was only 4.6%.

The high-paying jobs found in technology, the bio-sciences, aeronautics, and the like are no longer coming here. Why? When start-ups or companies located elsewhere consider whether or not to come to Long Island, they not only weigh factors such as workforce skills and education, tax incentives, and available commercial/industrial properties, but also whether the region would be an appealing and affordable place to live for their employees. Long Island offers incredible recreational opportunities, many excellent school districts, and close proximity to New York City, but we lack something that is essential to attracting employees: affordable housing. This is particularly problematic for businesses interested in hiring young workers, who may not have the savings, income, or desire to buy a big house with a lawn.

High Taxes on Long Island

Long Islanders’ property tax burden is among the highest in the nation: a 2011 analysis by the nonpartisan Tax Foundation found Nassau County’s median home property taxes #1 in the country, and Suffolk ranked 12th in the U.S.

Taxes on Long Island have been increasing faster than the rate of inflation. Adjusted for inflation, services from all types of local governments on Long Island cost $7,566 per person in 2011—compared to $6,210 in 2000.

Many communities are looking to lower their expenses in order to rein in taxes. The state has implemented a tax cap. But there is another way to address taxes—by attracting more businesses and building the types of housing that bring in more tax revenue without draining resources.

Building new studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments would create more housing options while adding fewer new children to local schools (thus creating more revenues for school districts than construction of single-family homes).

Compared to growth in outlying areas, downtown development lowers the cost of many government services. Building in our existing downtowns costs less than building new roads and extending water and sewer lines into undeveloped areas. And multi-family homes have lower infrastructure costs than single-family homes.

Parks or Parking?

Which will it be? Parks to play in or places to park our cars?

Long Islanders are struggling to meet the goals we’ve set to preserve our remaining open space, and we will be sure to lose the battle if we don’t find places to build new housing away from the open space that remains.

We have room to expand our downtowns while preserving the open space we have. In fact, developing in our existing downtowns, rather than in rural areas at the outskirts of the Island, is more environmentally friendly and will reduce car dependence, with a corresponding decrease in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Building in Long Island’s downtowns would allow us to preserve our natural resources and protect our environment, while growing our economy and accommodating growth—a win-win proposal for the Island.

Community Character

Think about the places that matter most to you, the places where you’ve made the most memories. The Long Island Expressway? A parking lot? A strip mall? More likely, it’s a beautiful place you experience with your family and other Long Islanders: the beach, a ball field, a park, a stroll along Main Street.

The character of a community is built upon all those assets that make a place the place that we love. Our main streets are where the best of Long Island comes together in one place: parks and village greens, unique shops, irreplaceable historic buildings, theaters, cultural life. Many of our downtowns are right by the waterfront, too. Downtown is where we run into people we know, and where we feel connected to people and place. There’s a reason why we hold parades on our main streets: our downtowns are the heart and soul of Long Island’s civic life and communities. And now we have one more thing to cherish about our downtowns: their potential to help solve some of Long Island’s biggest challenges.