The big show on Heartland
Hundreds packed Town Hall West last week at a hearing for the proposed Heartland development.

IB/Chalifoux

The big show on Heartland

Story By: RICK CHALIFOUX
5/4/2017


ISLIP TOWN—The Islip Town Board held a crowded public hearing last Thursday evening regarding the controversial proposed Heartland Town Square Project that lasted hours and drew a crowd of hundreds to Islip Town Hall West that included residents, elected officials, union members and local community leaders.

The massive $4 billion plan seeks to transform Brentwood’s former Pilgrim State Hospital into 9,000-plus apartments, 1 million square feet of retail space, and 3 million square feet of offices – amounting to the construction of 15.5 million square feet of development over the next three decades.

Developer Jerry Wolkoff purchased the 450 acres of land for $20 million and laid out a blueprint for the mini-city back in 2002. The proposal ultimately requires approval from the Islip Town Board to change the zoning from the current Residential AAA District, create a Pilgrim State Planned Redevelopment District (PSPRD), and authorize Heartland’s master plan. 

Over a 100 people registered to comment at the hearing – with arguments both for and against the proposal. Those who spoke in favor felt that the project would have a positive impact on the community and offer attractive opportunities for young people to stay on Long Island. Meanwhile, those against it cited concerns ranging from increased traffic issues in an already congested space to an unwarranted shift away from Long Island’s suburban character. There were also many requests for Wolkoff to commit to utilizing local union laborers.

Kevin Law – president of the Long Island Association, co-chair of the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, and chairman of the Long Island Housing Partnership – based his support on an economic development and pro-jobs perspective. 

“A project of this size requires a collaborative partnership approach among all levels of government,” said Law. “Affordable housing is certainly a challenge here on Long Island. Most of the progress that has been made over the last two decades has been incremental in nature, and here is an opportunity to do something significant and transformative.”

West Sayville resident Bob French – a council representative from the Carpenters Union – said that while he was in favor of the project, he would like to see a community benefits agreement introduced.

“A community benefits agreement is a legally binding contract negotiated by a developer and a coalition representing a broad spectrum of community members impacted by the development,” said French. “In exchange for community members’ support for the project, the developer agrees to provide certain benefits. [These include] affordable housing, open space, card check neutrality for workers who choose organized unions, and living wage goals for workers employed at the development.

“Residents would also have a say in shaping the development projects in the neighborhood to minimize the disruption they may cause and to ensure that they contribute to the local quality of life,” added French. “Business owners can give input on how best to increase local traffic, to minimize disruptions while making sure that newcomers are not given an unfair competitive advantage over existing businesses through public subsidies without any strings attached.

“And lastly, for unions to expand opportunities for existing members and to ensure that unorganized workers can exercise their right to join [them],” concluded French. “I also urge the board to consider following with the Suffolk County requirement that apprenticeship language be included.”

“I believe that if Mr. Wolkoff remains true to his vision, that this [development] will benefit the Brentwood community greatly,” said Bay Shore resident Camille Serrano. “Brentwood is a jewel in my eyes, and I can tell that [Wolkoff] is a true visionary. I’m excited about the project, and I’ve spoken to many parents in my district that are also very excited. I urge you to support the project and make this dream come to fruition.”

Developer David Wolkoff – Jerry Wolkoff’s son – lauded the project and its projected benefits before the board.

“This board will have the legacy of enriching the lives of thousands of its residents, as well as in the county and the region,” he said.

On the other hand, Brentwood resident Marie Rivera – who works in the Brentwood School District – expressed concerns regarding the project. 

“Brentwood School District is the largest school district on Long Island, with 19,000 students,” said Rivera. “My concern is how are we going to accommodate the amount of children that will come from Heartland? We are not getting the funding from the state that we should get, and we have to provide an education for every child that lives in Brentwood.

“I have not gotten any answers [regarding] if they are going to build a new school,” added Rivera. “Because $35 million is not going to help the Brentwood School District. We are exploding and busting [at the seams]. If you happen to approve it, I of course am a union supporter and I [request] that the local unions get the jobs.”

Brentwood resident Paula Moore – a member of the Brentwood School District Board of Trustees – also spoke out against the project.

“We cannot expand our facilities, nor do we have the land mass to build another school in the Brentwood community proper,” said Moore. “We ask that the town board refrain from determining this application until the impact of the project on the school district and its taxpayers are fully and carefully examined and resolved.” 

Susan Berland – councilwoman from the Town of Huntington – cited serious traffic concerns along Commack Road, Crooked Hill Road and Sagtikos Parkway, which she referred to as “roads already at or beyond capacity.”

“[Islip has failed] to require a commitment, a plan, a guarantee, or a consensus for the necessary road and public infrastructure improvements that need to be in place before beginning the most ambitious developments of Heartland,” said Berland. “Can anyone really expect us to wait until Heartland phase one is nearly finished before any road improvements are planned or built?

“Please, close the access to Commack Road, require the building of internal roads from the project to the south service road, and require the public improvements in infrastructure necessary to build Heartland [before] it’s first planned and implemented,” she added.

A stark, outspoken opponent to the project was Islip resident Greg Pepe, who expressed his complete rejection of the proposal. 

“You’re going to have a total [traffic] nightmare with all this influx of vehicles,” said Pepe. “It’s going to be a disgrace. We left the city to come out here for country and rural living. If they want to make a city…go back to Brooklyn or go back to Queens. We don’t need it. 

“The union guys are going to get shortchanged,” added Pepe. “These guys are going to go on the cheap and hire whoever [submits] the lowest bid. It’s just a mirage. You’re going to destroy the look of Long Island – the rural community that it is – and the local businesses are going to be devastated by this project. You’ll be destroying Long Island, and I’ll be the first to move [away].”

The Suffolk County Planning Commission – which reviewed and ultimately recommended the zoning change back in January – requested that the town take another look at the tax impacts on the Brentwood School District, while also considering the reservation of land for a possible new school. The commission also asked that the town continue to monitor traffic issues as the project proceeds, establish periodic milestone reviews beginning at 50 percent occupancy, and further investigate the feasibility of LIRR passenger rail connection to the site.

Meanwhile, the Islip Town Planning Board voted last year to approve a scaled-back version of the project, with a preliminary construction phase on 133 acres to be overseen by the town for any potential traffic and infrastructure impacts. Planning also stated that while the height of any building should not exceed five stories, the applicant/owner retains the ability to request site plan review and approval from the planning board for any taller buildings in the future. In addition, planning required the applicant to contribute $25 million toward traffic improvements, while also allotting 10 percent of all residential units to be set aside as workforce (affordable) housing for families earning between 60 and 80 percent of the area median income. If the project’s calculated sewage flow exceeds 1.6 million gallons per day, the applicant will be required to purchase additional flow from the Suffolk County Sewer Agency prior to further issuance of building permits.

The Islip Town Board is set to make a final vote on the item at an unspecified future date.