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Why Saint James, New York is at an Important Crossroads

Preface:

Before you read the article, I want to make it clear that St. James is a cute little town that has a great community of residents – something many areas of Long Island are without. Between the vacant stores are a healthy variety of small businesses, eateries and offices. I absolutely do not mean to say that St. James is falling apart – just that it needs some good ol’ TLC!

Saint James, New York is a small hamlet of Smithtown seemingly isolated from the many noisy, congested streets of Suffolk County. Those who find themselves driving down the main strip on Lake Avenue are often among neighbors, not passersby. Here you’ll find many small town charms, namely rows of local businesses, free parking and a number of yearly events and festivals. So why am I writing an article about its struggles?

Look a little deeper and you might notice that many of its charming stores are sitting, vacant. How many?

As of July, 2016, the following properties are empty:

Beside these vacancies are properties at risk of or are becoming vacant through the sale of the building they occupy or the end of their lease terms:

To give a better idea of how many buildings I’m talking about, see the map on the left. Green is occupied and not for sale, yellow is either for lease or for sale (some occupied, some not) and red is vacant.

Note: I did the research for this article in early July 2016, these vacancies could be filled in time. It’ll make my article a little less valid, but hey – if there’s more green – I’m not complaining!

Unfortunately, many residents of Saint James are seemingly so resistant to corporate business that they’re willing to let their town fall to high vacancy rates that are double the average for Long Island (four times as high if you include the buildings for sale/lease since many of them are already vacant and will become vacant in the near future.) I even included municipal buildings (post office, train station, school, etc.) in the storefront count to help make the vacancy rate lower.

And that’s just Lake Avenue; a quick search will show that there are 11 other properties within St. James that are currently vacant and for sale/lease. Properties include a closed bank, other small free standing stores, a farm, a masonry store, a Chinese food restaurant, or if you just want to see the most active listings, click here and search 11780.

So, then, with so many stores leaving St. James, why would residents so strongly oppose new business development? A fantastic case study is the opposition to the building of a CVS on the corner of Lake and Woodlawn. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the situation, CVS Pharmacy has made two attempts to build a store in St. James over the past two years and twice have they been denied after townsfolk fought over their right to build.

Here’s a summary of the reasons why townsfolk opposed the development that I gathered from these sources: (1,2,3,4,5) along with my response to each concern:

  • Congestion will increase.
    • More volume to St. James means more exposure for the town’s beloved local businesses. I’m not saying everyone will like that, but it would definitely help the local businesses gain exposure.
  • Property values will go down.
    • Since when does increasing amenities to a town decrease property values?
  • There are three CVS’s in Smithtown.
    • Damn right there are! You all shop at them so much that they want to build another. Free market economy; vote with your money. I’m not saying they should build another one with so many around, but if a major corporation that absolutely conducts a great deal of market research concludes that there’s enough potential demand for one, they should have the right to build another.
  • Mom and Pop stores are put at risk when large corporate stores move in:
    • Yes, they are. However, if the townspeople prefer a pharmacy owned by a man who lives in Queens, they should have no problem keeping it open. Like I said: vote with your money.
  • The property is too small for a CVS and there’s not enough parking for one.
    • Not according to CVS. Plus, with a smaller parking lot proposed, maybe they’re hoping to promote walking to the store over driving.
  • It would destroy the character of the neighborhood.
    • This one is my favorites. Buildings in St. James are a mish-mosh of 70’s shopping centers, bungalows, residential homes turned commercial, and small storefronts. There’s no “theme” or unity among the town’s buildings other than the fact that they’re all different from one another. CVS would just be another out of place building like the rest of them.

CVS, or another corporation, will make an attempt to become a part of the St. James community again – especially with the closing of Capital One (which has ample parking for a larger store already). These corporate stores can act as an anchor institution for the town, bringing in people (and their money) and boosting the local economy.

If the residents of St. James want their commercial district to thrive, they must create a friendly environment for businesses (small and large) to come and join their community – be that through a Downtown Revitalization Program, Business Improvement District (BID) or other grassroots community effort.

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St. James has not seen any major improvements to its streets since around 2011 when the town put in brick crosswalks on select crossings along Lake Avenue through a Downtown Revitalization Grant. Those crosswalks are hardly used, as, residents generally prefer using their cars to travel.

Recently, I drove down Lake and saw someone waiting at a crosswalk for an opening between the car traffic to cross. I stopped and she waved thank you but she still had to wait for a few more cars to pass on the other side before she could cross because no one expects pedestrians in this town. Go to Patchogue and walk into the street. Cars will immediately stop for you. Additionally, the crosswalk signs are entirely missing on Woodlawn and Lake but the buttons remain. Walkability needs to be improved to promote shopper “browsing.”

On top of that, the community has few organized events, a chamber of commerce that could do so much more and no supplemental beautification/sanitation services. Finally, as residents watched when Patio Pizza was forced out of its long standing home, rents are just too high for many small businesses to survive. Pair that with limited foot traffic + limited business resources and you have businesses failing not because of their business plan but because the town just isn’t doing enough for them.

Many of these same arguments can be made about other towns on Long Island. Local communities seem to support big box retail centers over downtown community. Smithtown, Nesconset, Kings Park, Huntington, Northport, Stony Brook, Port Jefferson, Sayville and Patchogue have made great attempts to recreate the downtown communities that Long Island was built on. Those towns were able to mix corporate and local businesses to create a successful downtown core. Communities like St. James are at a crossroads: attempt to rebuild the downtown or let it slip back into residential homes with no community center to boot.

Oddly, amidst all this NIMBY-ism, I’ve yet to come across a St. James resident that considers the latter an option. But standing by idly will only fast-track the former.

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