A reopening rail station promotes retrofit of Long Island workplace hub

The redevelopment of a 500,000 square foot suburban strip mall in Farmingdale, NY, is New Urban Network’s May 2011 Plan of the Month.

A 500,000 square foot suburban strip mall in Farmingdale, NY, which lies at the nexus of Long Island’s largest workplace corridor and its main population centers, is slated to be redeveloped as a walkable, mixed-use town center and transit-oriented development (TOD).

The 120-acre greyfield redevelopment will feature a reopened Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) station, named the Republic Station, and a planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor. The mall is currently surrounded by underutilized industrial sites and a private airport.

The new plan, drafted by Speck and Associates, seeks to transform the area into a mixed-use TOD including an additional 300,000 sq. ft. of new retail, 200,000 sq. ft. of new industrial/office space, 1,750,000 sq. ft. of new residential/hotel space, and 300,000 sq. ft. of sports arena/convention center. The current owners of the existing big box retail center are on board with the redevelopment plan and while further negotiations will have to be made by the selected developer after the RFQ and RFP process, most of the existing 500,000 sq. ft. of retail is expected to remain.

Both the TOD and the BRT line are contingent upon reopening the Republic Train Station, however, the MTA has demonstrated substantial interest in doing so. The Town of Babylon has been working on preliminary planning for the East Farmingdale TOD since 2002. In addition to the redevelopment and regulating plan, a Phase 1 BRT study, which identifies potential operating routes and determines feasibility, has been completed. It is hoped that the regulating plan will be adopted and coded by the end of June, with a developer selected by the close of 2011.

This redevelopment plan is no small feat. Sprawl repair is often more difficult than greenfield development because you are not working with a blank slate. Challenges in this greyfield redevelopment include a high-volume highway, airport-mandated development ceilings, contaminated industrial lots, and the parking demands of existing big box retailers. The highway is addressed utilizing traffic calming features, a pedestrian bridge, and the introduction of multi-modal transportation to ease congestion. The Entrance Court to the Park & Ride lot, a primary auto-draw to the site, is removed from the highway and integrated into the development to avoid back-ups on the busy road. A unique pedestrian bridge that is integrated with arcades along the facades of the flanking buildings is used to complete pedestrian connections across Highway 110.

Big box parking, contamination and the development ceilings are thwarted with one fell swoop by placing larger arena parking on the contaminated areas on the periphery of the site, which happen to be in the flight paths. Parking is also addressed in other, more innovative ways. The Arena Plaza, one of many focal points in the development, is shielded from its surface parking lot by small mixed-use buildings that calm traffic on the state highway. The lower-density neighbors to the west of the site are protected from the new arena parking by a screen of evergreens. The ground floor of the new parking structure to the east of the Central Square introduces retail continuity between two existing big box buildings.

As the drafters of this plan, Speck and Associates, have noted, “You can’t eliminate stadium parking in the suburbs, but you can reduce it dramatically.” In some cases they were able to reduce parking requests from developers by more than half by integrating multi-modal transit service and shared parking off site. These spaces are shared at least in part by a complimentary weekday land use placed at the opposite end of the parking lot.

The planning effort engaged the Long Island community through presentations and listening sessions, two site visits, and a public design workshop at which three tables of local residents and merchants made proposals for the redevelopment of the study area. More than fifteen specific design recommendations from these proposals found their way into the final plan. In addition to giving the public a voice, the plan also creates ten public spaces spread out through the development. These include an Arena Plaza, two entry squares, two Station Plazas, a cinema plaza, a central square, an eastern green, and two turbine plazas.

The final product is accompanied by a regulating plan, similar to a site-specific code, that guides development on the site. It identifies six different street types with individual design guidelines: small square, main street, high volume street, standard street, access street and truck bypass. It also sets additional guidelines for development such as frontage lines and building heights. The plan calls for primarily mixed-use buildings of 3-5 stories, with retail at the base and housing above. The intensity of development is mostly regulated by number of stories. The intended uses on the site include but are not limited to: retail, residential, commercial, hotel, and sports arena/convention center.

These guidelines, and the plan as a whole, will enliven the once sprawling strip mall with human scale development. One of these important human-scale elements is the Station Plaza, which rises gently to ease access to the train platform, but maintains a flat central area for summer markets and winter skating. Another such element is two new streets that aim at the existing cinema marquee, now enfronted with a small plaza, giving new civic significance to this place of gathering as a community anchor and vista termination.

The Town of Babylon Design Director, Ekta Naik-Gupta, has indicated that this project, along with the Wyandanch Rising TOD about one mile away, “ is a good sign that communities on Long Island are embracing TODs.” If development on Long Island continues in this fashion, the peninsula may be able to shed itself of its status as the suburban stepchild of New York City.