Whenever the discussion turns to Long Island real estate, someone is bound to bring up apartment buildings. People are usually for or against them. The same arguments have played out over the past 20 years, with the not-in-my-backyard crowd stoking fears of the imminent “Queensification” of the Island, and developers pointing out all the benefits of multifamily homes. The truth is that the facts, although often obscured, are pretty straightforward.
The right multifamily development supports economic development, provides needed housing for young professionals and empty-nesters, and revitalizes a downtown. Research organizations like the Long Island Index have presented convincing evidence of the social and economic benefits of multifamily housing. The Index has also pointed out that the demand for apartment living is currently far outstripping the number of planned units. Two-thirds of the 104,000 new households expected to form over the next 13 years will favor apartment living, close to downtowns.
But what makes the right multifamily development? Is what’s right for Rockville Centre the same as for Glen Cove or Hempstead? Is there one development model that fits all of Long Island? Long Islanders would probably agree that no single multifamily model can be used across Nassau or Suffolk County. In truth, the only way to build the right multifamily development is to do so in close partnership with the local community, understanding and addressing local needs and concerns.
Facing an unfavorable zoning environment and a vocal NIMBY element, builders must work closely with resident organizations and local government to strike the right balance for new apartment developments. In doing so, it’s surprising to discover that it doesn’t matter that the widely publicized NIMBY arguments against multifamily developments have been clearly disproven. They keep turning up like bad pennies.
Independent studies and actual Long Island experience have shown that apartment developments do not bring higher crime rates, more traffic congestion and intolerable burdens on schools and infrastructure. Yet in our skeptical era of fake news, people often set aside the statistics and facts in favor of unsupported arguments that reflect their own views. Some people don’t want to be confused by the facts. To urban planners, academicians and economists, the NIMBY positions may all be discredited, but local elected officials know that the people who believe them are a force to be reckoned with.
In this context, building apartments that are right for a particular town requires forging a genuine partnership with resident groups and elected officials. Without a mutually beneficial partnership, it becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, to build multifamily dwellings. Developers must understand the community’s hot-button issues, concerns and fears — even if unfounded — and address them honestly and openly.
In Rockville Centre, AvalonBay Communities put this partnership approach into practice. The construction of Avalon Rockville Centre I, completed in 2011, was plagued by NIMBY opposition — even though the developer had cleaned up a major hazardous-waste site. But AvalonBay was intent on forging cooperative relationships with village representatives and community groups. Issue by issue, the community and the developer hammered out common ground and found compromise solutions. The emphasis was on dialogue instead of confrontation.
AvalonBay’s confidence that the new apartment community would be a true asset for the village was eventually shared by a consensus of residents. In 2012, Avalon Rockville Centre I received the Long Island Business News’s award for sustainability and consensus building. When the time came to build another 165 units, called Avalon Rockville Centre II, residents and officials welcomed the news. Mayor Fran Murray worked with AvalonBay, putting his faith in the facts, and the NIMBY voices were muted as the reality of the development sank in.
A similar story could be told about Avalon Great Neck, where a contaminated petroleum oil tank storage site was turned into a beautiful upscale waterfront community. With close consultation among the developer, the mayor and Great Neck residents, the apartment development came to life: mid-rise buildings no higher than the previously existing tallest oil tank, and the transformation of an eyesore into luxury housing consistent with the neighborhood. In a sign of the importance of partnership, Mayor Ralph Kreitzman was very involved in the process, funneling constructive ideas to AvalonBay.
In the end, the key to successful multifamily development on Long Island is partnership. For developers, the formula is simple. Listen to the community. Understand its needs and concerns. Work closely with elected officials to address residents’ issues. Build what you promise to build, and build it on time.
Christopher Capece is vice president for development of the Melville-based AvalonBay Communities Inc. He earned degrees from The George Washington University, London Business School and Columbia University.