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.

Written by James Brako-McComb

17 Comments

Millie hayes

We need a c v s proudly build it. You have my vote. Yes !!!!! I have lived in St James for 30 years I cannot see it being detrimental To the town -or-over crowded .

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G. Stanis

Its a town controlled by old money that doesn’t support the local business there. The bottom line is surrounding towns support St James business more than its residents. The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t care anymore. They only want there $200 for St. James day. St James residents shop elsewhere. They like to tell you that they support the town but the bottom line is they don’t. It is a dying town that in the end will bring more riff raft into the town

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D ryan

I’ve said this for years. Going on 20 years in St James and we bought because of the small town feel you can have the best of both worlds. Build a small cvs and require them to design it to fit into a small town theme. Look at town like Sayville and Hanpton Bays to name a few.

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Ding

I sent a list of these empty stores to Pat Vechhio asking him what the plan was for rejuvenating Lake Ave. After some phone tag and never getting eachother, I gave up. I will forward this one too.

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L Kaufmann

As a resident of St.James, bringing CVS to our town will only add more large truck traffic and crime. These facts I know because I was a store manager of CVS. Our town needs more mom and pop shops, the idea of a St James branch of the library in the old Capital One is ideal. Save the town. Don’t make it hazardous to walk the streets.

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Joe Smithtown

If there are 3 CVS already in Smithtown, then you clearly don’t need another, shop at Spages. Increasing rents have a lot to do with the desimation of “main streets,” but I can’t intelligently say that’s the case in St. James. If you shop small and shop local, then businesses in town like St. James have a chance. If you opt for a $1-3 cheaper (big box) or delivered to your front (Amazon)…this is what you’re gonna get. It’s sad to see small town America go away, but if you want to keep it, you gotta support it, passionately!!

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Susan Gabriel

Omg…Spages is still there? I grew up in St James (move away in 1971). Still miss that town all these years later.

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Kim for CVS

Saint James needs an anchor store like a CVS. I was always for it, and hope that they try again and get approval this time.

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Celina

That corner lots has sat vacant and overgrown for the entire time I have been a St. James resident which is 11 years! We have watched as rapidly every “Mom and Pop” store has gone under and left dirty vacant, overgrown buildings in it’s wake. Only to pop up another nail salon, and a Vap shop. So many amazing walkable towns on Long Island have a CVS and Starbucks nestled among their great Mom and Pop stores. For example Sayville and Port Jefferson. Both towns are thriving, walkable communities. I really wish photos of Lake Ave’s vacant buildings accompanied this blog post because you could truly see the demise of the epicenter of the town. A lot has to do with our own residents, speeding at 50 miles per hour down Lake Ave and NEVER stopping when someone is in the crosswalk. You simply step foot in the road in Patchogue, Sayville and Port Jeff all cars halt. It makes it difficult to create a walkable downtown when pedestrian’s lives seem in danger simply crossing the road. Anyone who lives in the “Grid” can attest to this. Give me CvS, give me Starbucks (make them look great like they do in these thriving towns). Create jobs for St. James youth and allow other businesses to have a reason to flock here. Patchogue completely reinvented itself making its streets safe to walk and encouraging amazing restaurants to land there. If they can do it so can we with the right leadership.

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Diane R

I totally agree. It’s impossible to get people onboard. Dont think they realize that a CVS would benefit our community. Months ago when all these people apposed it i was for it and was shot down. Now we have a Vape shop and a foot massage instead. Wake up people

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Deborah Powers

As a local business owner on Lake Avenue, I agree that rent is too high and a deterrent for new businesses that are looking to help revitalize our town. Although parking is free, which is a great amenity for customers, it also causes an issue when people park their cars on the street for hours at a time, but are not shopping in the stores. I have this issue with my own storefront.
Local business owners need to be involved in local events such as St. James Day. The event has been taken over by vendors from all over Long Island, not just St. James. We need to bring the focus back to the business owners in the town, the way it was in the past. Business owners need to step up, greet residents and create relationships to keep the town prosperous and keep the feeling of home.
Large box stores are not the answer to revitalization, as I have seen, first hand, what they can do to small businesses, and it is disgraceful. Small business is what made this country and it should stay that way.

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Danny

My Allstate office is located next to the abonded homes on lake. Grass is rarely cut and is a complete eye sore. For myself and the 3 other small business owners in my small shopping center a CVS would be great for our stores. It would drive more people to our stores.
It seems that every month another store goes out of business and is becoming very sad to see.
I feel like residents are not worried about shopping locally . From my experience Insurance agencies used to be all about the neighborhood and taking care of the local families which is what I love but even if we are a few dollars less or the same price residents stay with the 1-800 type insurance companies.
The personal touch and having the ” family insurance guy” seems to be less important these days. I love all of
My customers and would not change anything but would be nice to see the surrounding businesses thrive and bring some life back to Lake Ave.
No matter how much you do for the town people just do not care anymore. Little by little the town is becoming ghost like. Also has a lot to do with the very high rent. All the building owners are Increasing the very high rent to begin with every year. Very sad to see since I love this town so much.

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K

CVS would be a nice addition to the town, but the location is a bit hazardous– don’t you think?

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Helen Werner Mustapich

I have lived in St James for 50 plus years. My children and grandchildren live here in town. My father, brothers and nephews owned Werner Glass which is now a nail salon. How can we have retail stores when the is no parking? Lake Avenue is a nightmare to drive on, ask Dowling Brothers how many rear view mirrors and car doors they have had to repair or replace. My grandchildren are afraid to walk uptown because of the traffic. Lake Avenue is too narrow for parking. Walk?? People don’t want to walk anymore. My family thinks I am crazy because I like to walk. As far as the crosswalks go, what a joke! You might as well have a target on your back, I walk to the post office and king kullen, l have almost been run down and the drivers blow their horn at you and give you the finger. We used capital one bank, a man was hit right in front of the bank while using the crosswalk. Why would they put the crosswalk away from the corner. There was a crosswalk on the corner of Lake and 7th Street that was eliminated. We need a total revitalization program and a coming together of the community. Take some pride in our town, be considerate of your neighbors. I have written a letter to our local paper and approached another publication about this topic, but they said they didn’t want to put anything negative about the town in their paper. Speak up people, let the town of smithtown know how you feel, that is the only way things will get done.

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MAD9370

My grandmother has lived in Saint James 104 years; her entire life. She is not only the oldest town resident, she is the oldest resident alive in Smithtown township. I asked her about this issue and her immediate answer was, “BECAUSE TAXES ARE TOO DAMN HIGH!”. Her first yearly property tax bill was $48.00. And what has she gotten since 1933?? A streetlight in front of her house. Besides that Saint James is off the beaten path.

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Alice

It really is the fault of the greedy owners of the storefronts. They charge so much rent but when the the renters have to give up, the owners get tax-breaks because the store is empty. They win either way. Find out who owns most of the buildings and you will solve the problem!!!!!

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