A long-dormant effort to transform Melville into an employment-oriented town center has gained new momentum.
First floated nearly a decade ago, the Town of Huntington has held listening sessions in the last few weeks on the Melville Employment Center plan, which is aimed at adding multifamily housing and supporting retail to the area now dominated by office buildings.
In 2015, the town commissioned a study by a team of planning consultants that suggested more mixed-use development is needed so companies could better attract employees who would also live within Melville’s corporate corridor.
Though the plan was primarily posed as a solution to prevent “brain drain,” the idea has new impetus, as rising vacancies in some of the area’s office buildings is presenting new urgency for property owners and town officials.
“My biggest concern is that these office buildings become vacant,” said Huntington Supervisor Ed Smyth. “The town has to do everything we can to ensure that these properties are economically viable, whether that’s office space or mixed-use, or all residential. But what we can’t allow to happen is for this area to have derelict buildings.”
Originally, the first iteration of the Melville Employment Center plan targeted under-utilized parking lots of existing office buildings and other adjacent sites for possible redevelopment into rental apartments. But with increasing vacancy rates for many Class B office properties, some Melville landlords say they are ready to replace office buildings with new mixed-use projects.
Tony Fromer, a principal of The We’re Group, which along with partner Angelo, Gordon & Co., own and manage more than 1.3 million square feet of Melville office space, says the MEC plan would be a “very big positive” for the area.
“I believe that the mix of residential where allowable under this new overlay plan would encourage people to stay in the area and give them the opportunity to live and be able to walk or bike to many of their work locations,” Fromer said. “I think that this plan would breathe a lot of life into that area and also provide some retail where right now people do not have an opportunity other than going to the Walt Whitman mall or just driving a decent distance away to get anything.”
Fromer also points out the changes that the office market has gone through over the last three years that were accelerated by the COVID pandemic.
“Everybody is working from home and even if they’re coming in it’s on a three- or four-day basis,” he said. “Every tenant who’s coming up for renewal right now is either reducing their square footage or just not renewing at all or beating up the landlords big time right in terms of rent, so it’s put a lot of inventory back on the market.”
Another Melville property owner, Larry Levine, of the Levine Organization, says he is also onboard with the redevelopment effort. The company got its start in the early 1960s when Levine’s father purchased several acres of Melville land from local farmers, and with partners now owns and manages about 550,000 square feet of office space in four buildings.
Levine said his firm’s 54,000-square-foot office building at 10 Melville Park Road may be a candidate for redevelopment, since it’s likely to become vacant this year as the lease of its sole tenant, Marcum LLP, is expiring.
“You don’t want to wind up with a bunch of empty office buildings which obviously will be worth very little and wind up not paying a lot of taxes and it’s just not good for the town,” Levine told LIBN.
Smyth says he is well aware of the consequences of that scenario, as the town stands to lose millions in taxes if vacancies at Melville office buildings continue to climb and some become completely empty.
“The quality-of-life issue is that vacant buildings attract problems,” the supervisor said. “The economic impact of it is vacant buildings aren’t worth much and the town loses revenue when they get reassessed so there’s the two-fold problem.”
But Levine is optimistic that the MEC plan is a very viable solution, especially in creating more housing opportunities close by.
“There’s an unfulfilled need on Long Island to get affordable housing for young people which would provide employees for office tenants, so it’s self-fulfilling,” Levine said. “There are a lot of companies that don’t want to locate here because they can’t get young professionals while there’s no place for them to live. Long Island wants to retain that young talent in the worst way, and this helps the office buildings to get that young talent because we’re providing them with a place to start.”
Huntington-based G2D Group, which acquired a 52,000-square-foot office building on 3.8 acres at 560 Broadhollow Road in Nov. 2021, has already pitched a new project for the property that would replace the existing office building with two smaller mixed-use buildings. Company principal Greg DeRosa, whose firm owns about 200,000 square feet of office space in Melville, also supports the redevelopment initiative.
“It’s an opportunity to take some assets that are underutilized and convert them to a more modern-day use,” DeRosa said. “If approved, the MEC provides some flexibility to developers to create more of a live-work-play atmosphere right within Melville which also addresses the housing shortage, one of the primary issues why we’re having a hard time keeping companies on Long Island.”
The initial MEC plan called for the creation of a zoning overlay district in the areas between Walt Whitman Road, Broadhollow Road, Pinelawn Road and Sweet Hollow Road north of Ruland Road. And while it proposed allowing infill development of multifamily housing and “limited small-scale retail and restaurant uses,” planning experts say redevelopment should provide for a more robust town center.
“I definitely think that it needs to be more of a complete community rather than just plopping some housing in the middle of an office park, especially if you know it’s dead after 5 p.m. That’s not a necessarily comfortable place to live,” says Elissa Kyle, director of Placemaking for Vision Long Island. “People who would live there need to go to the grocery store or might want to grab a cup of coffee. If there is just housing without anything else around, all those people are going to have to drive more and cause more traffic.”
Kyle said the redevelopment should be designed to make it walkable and have more of a human scale.
“The plan I saw from 2016 had some of the right ideas, but it was still the big parking lot separating different uses and that’s not exactly the nicest thing to walk past and not really going to encourage anyone to walk rather than drive, she said. “You want to have interesting things to walk past so it’s not just blank facades or crossing 200 feet of parking lot before you get to the next building. You want it to be an interesting place where there are storefronts and different activities going on.”
Though there might not be many live/work/play environments outside of some of Long Island’s downtowns, Kyle said there are several other examples of successful suburban town centers in other states, including Addison Circle outside of Dallas and Legacy Town Center in Plano, Texas, which was redeveloped from an outdated office park.
Don Catalano, broker/owner of iOptimize Realty, who has signed corporate tenants to office space at some of the country’s popular town center developments, says they are the wave of the future and a preferred alternative to traditional suburban office parks.
Catalano brokered a deal for Coca-Cola to lease 115,000 square feet of office space at Sugar Land Town Square, a 1.4 million-square-foot live/work/play development on 32 acres about 20 miles outside of Houston. He said the self-contained suburban development oozed enough charm and amenities that it convinced company officials to relocate and sell its $34 million property in downtown Houston.
One of Coca-Cola’s commercial real estate executives said of the Sugar Land complex: “It’s like Disneyland, but for companies,” Catalano recalled.
“Given the workplace flexibility of the remote revolution, conveniently located commercial spaces are becoming invaluable for companies that prioritize in-person collaboration,” Catalano said. “Think about it: Are employees more likely to commute two hours by public transportation or walk 10 minutes down the street?”
Often, Catalano said, young professionals are drawn to the self-sufficient and cost-effective environment of these new suburban live/work/play developments and end up staying for the community.
“It’s easy to lay down roots and hard to leave,” he said. “As such, they’re a great investment for property owners.”
Mike Florio, the newly minted CEO of the Long Island Builders Institute, said the Melville corridor is a prime candidate for similar mixed-use redevelopment, especially as companies look to shrink their office footprint with more people working remotely.
“The town listening sessions are important for community engagement and to demonstrate how this area can be effectively utilized as a place where people can live, work and play all in one spot,” Florio said.
Huntington Councilman Sal Ferro says the MEC effort can be a game changer for Huntington and for Long Island in general.
“This is a priority for this administration, and we are all united with this being a priority,” Ferro said. “We need to get this done in order to accomplish a lot of things for the future of Huntington. We have our best infrastructure in Melville, with sewers, and roads, and the expressway, and everything else.”
Meanwhile, Smyth says there are still many issues to be considered, especially the need to ensure that the Melville Fire Department and the area’s other first responders can handle the redevelopment that’s expected to add more than 1,000 new apartments and additional businesses.
“We are approaching this with a clean sheet of paper and there is no preconceived notion of what we’re going to do down here or what the zone change is going to be other than something is going to happen,” the supervisor said. “I think it’s something that we have to plan right and methodically and in granular detail before we rush forward.”
Still, Smyth expects to make progress sooner than later.
“I fully anticipate having a fully definitive plan well before the end of the year,” he said.