Suburban Renewal

Though best known as America’s first suburb, Long Island was a well-threaded tapestry of farm and fishing villages, baronial estates and defense plants long before William Levitt roughed out his first cul de sac in 1947. The Long Island Rail Road was a century old by then, and the region had already built – and lost – significant whaling, resort and film industries.

Though geographically segregated, Native Americans, African Americans and Dutch, English and other European immigrants all contributed to the region’s economic harmony.

Suburbia – especially Levitt’s whites-preferred version – would change all that, introducing growth-by-subdivision and the cascade of government entities, school districts, fire, sewer and water authorities that fractured communities and created the heavy tax burden we continue to shoulder today. Almost all of Long Island’s current social ills can be traced to the way and speed with which the region grew after World War II.

Long Island’s future, then, may rely on finding ways back to its past. How well the region reunites its communities and builds new ones, how it re-embraces public transportation and celebrates diversity, may very well predict its success going forward. Join us in considering the possibilities.

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The Economy: A long, and still sputtering, transition

Long Island’s post-World War II prosperity was driven by two powerful economic forces. One was the region’s manufacturing sector, led by defense and aerospace, which at its peak employed tens of thousands of local residents across every income level.

Less heralded, but still a vital underpinning, was Long Island’s commuting workforce, which once brought home a third of the region’s personal wealth from better-paying jobs in New York City.

Map of Long Islanders Employed in Manufacturing Jobs: 1970 to 2010

Commuters still quietly make a significant contribution to the local economy – about $24 billion annually – although that share is now less than a fourth of total personal income. But Post-Cold War cuts in defense spending forced much more dramatic changes in the on-Island workforce, which is now dominated by education, health care and the low-wage retail and recreation sectors. The Island’s corporate face has also been changing, as some of its most-storied companies move out as the result of sales, mergers or cost saving efforts.

Overall, the Long Island economy has shown tepid growth in the past decade, and wages have stalled. Baby boomer retirements, coupled with a steady out-migration of young people, are already challenging the local workforce, and finding qualified workers will get tougher in the years ahead.

Biomedical jobs, which are well paying and expanding, are a bright spot that warrants future investment.

Long Island by the numbers

Long Island’s previous economic booms were centered on our manufacturing and technology sectors. Growth in today’s economy is more dependent on the biomedical sector, education and health services.

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Population: Growing diversity, but growing older

Although often considered ethnically uniform – that is, overwhelmingly white – Long Island is significantly more diverse than imagined, with Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians and other non-Caucasian heritages making up nearly a third of the population. The pace of that diversity has quickened over the past 20 years, with the number of Hispanic and Asian residents more than doubling since 1990, while the white population declined by 11 percent.

In fact, the number of foreign-born Long Islanders grew by almost 70 percent during that period, led by large influxes of new residents from Latin America and Asia.

Diversity, however, has not had much of an impact on the graying of the Long Island population, the result of a large baby boomer population and the steady loss of young residents leaving to find better and more affordable opportunities elsewhere. The Island’s share of young adults dipped by 12 percent between 2000 and 2010, even as their numbers grew in New York City and the United States as a whole.

And the problem will continue. The number of Long Islanders aged 70 and older is expected to increase by more than 220,000 over the next 25 years, while those aged 15-30 will decrease by 80,000. Long Island’s 55+ population is growing more than six times faster than the overall population.

Another demographic change that planners must consider: There are now more single-person and single-parent households on Long Island than there are couples with children.

Historical Census Map: age 55-84, 1970 to 2010
Map of people living alone: 1970 to 2010

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Housing: Decisions made in the 1950s haunt the region’s future

Long Island’s focus on single-family housing served it well for the first few decades following World War II, as tens of thousands of city dwellers came seeking modest suburban capes and ranches in which to raise the baby boom generation.

As the Island’s prosperity grew, those houses became ever larger and more expensive, gobbling up open space while abandoning once-vibrant downtowns and leaving behind pockets of impoverishment for minorities and the financially unfortunate. Today, even middle class Long Islanders struggle with the high cost of housing. Lower wage earners, obviously, shoulder an even greater housing burden.

Today, six in 10 Long Islanders say they have some difficulty paying their rent or mortgage.

Over the years, residents also fought back efforts to diversify the Island’s housing stock with apartments and higher-density development that neighboring suburban areas welcomed. As a result, Long Island has a critical shortage of affordable multifamily units for both young residents and for retirees looking to downsize. While the region has recently begun to address the crisis, it will take decades to catch up.

Map of renter-occupied homes: 1970 to 2010

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Downtowns: Oh, the things that could happen on Main Street

Regional planners worry about Long Island’s shrinking open space and how to best accommodate the housing needs of future residents. One obvious answer lies in the Island’s 100+ downtowns and the thousands of acres of available space surrounding Long Island Rail Road stations.

Collectively, this ready-for-the-future space totals more than 8,000 acres – about the same as the half of Manhattan south of 50th Street. In fact, downtowns and rail station areas have the capacity to produce as much housing as all of Long Island’s remaining never-developed open space.

Long Island by the numbers: The Power of 8,300

Long Island has 8,300 acres of underutilized properties in our downtowns and around our rail stations. These acres represent an untapped potential that could begin to address our housing challenges- offering the next gen and aging boomers a place to live.

Redeveloping just 50 percent of the available surface parking, vacant land and other space in downtown areas could produce 90,000 units of new housing, enough to accommodate over 200,000 new residents. And that doesn’t even consider all of the underutilized industrial properties and abandoned shopping centers that also dot the Long Island landscape.

Almost a quarter of all Long Island residents already live within a half-mile of a downtown or LIRR station, and many – 45 percent in a recent survey – imagine themselves living in walkable, mixed- income communities near public transit. The percentage is highest among young adults, but empty nesters and others looking for greater community and a less car-dependent way of life are obvious additions.

We’ve made a modest start in communities like Patchogue and Wyandanch, but there remains tremendous potential for additional mixed-use, transit-oriented communities that would help keep young people on Long Island, create jobs and attract workers from elsewhere.

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Transportation: Better tracking Long Island’s future

For the 100 years leading up to World War II, the Long Island Rail Road was the region’s mother road, the primary mover of people and goods around the Island and to and from New York City.

That changed as post-war housing developers strayed ever farther afield from the LIRR’s tracks, creating a new transportation paradigm in which the car was king. As train ridership slowed, investment followed suit, leaving us with a transit system that is better equipped for the first half of the 20th Century than the start of the 21st.

Today, the LIRR’s main line sports only two tracks to Hicksville and just one to Ronkonkoma, creating significant bottlenecks for commuters heading into New York City and then home again. That outdated capacity also limits reverse commuters who might fill the growing number of technology-related job vacancies on the Island, hampering our economic growth.

By comparison, the Metro-North’s addition of a third track on its Harlem Line has led to an economic renaissance fueled by reverse commuters who happily travel to new jobs by rail.

When completed in 2023, the LIRR’s East Side Access project will open up Grand Central Station to thousands of Long Islanders, trimming as much as 40 minutes from their commute. But the transit system’s vital Third Track proposal, which would clear rail congestion between Floral Park and Hicksville and make peak-time reverse commuting possible, remains unbudgeted.

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Education: Still learning from past mistakes

Regions with the highest education levels have the greatest productivity and the highest incomes.

That economic truth is plainly evident on Long Island, where a wealth of skilled, educated workers have helped drive the innovation economy, from the engineers and technicians of the defense era to the scientists, software writers and health professionals of today.

Today, almost 40 percent of Long Islanders aged 25 to 64 have graduated from college, a third more than the national average and well ahead of the residents of New York City. Seventeen percent of Long Island adults also hold graduate degrees, versus 11 percent nationwide.

While 35 percent of Long Island high school students have a high degree of college readiness, compared to 22 percent for the state as a whole, there are wide disparities depending on the neighborhoods they serve. In particular, schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods have much lower scores than the average, and only 15 percent of those students are considered college ready, compared to 52 percent in schools with low poverty. Since Blacks and Hispanics are concentrated in high-poverty schools, the system tends to perpetuate the economic disparities among racial and ethnic groups.

Cost is another consideration. Supporting the Island’s 125+ school districts, including the superior pay and benefits offered local teachers – in many cases double that of the average Long Islander – has led to some of the highest, and least sustainable, property taxes in the nation.

In terms of race and ethnicity, Long Island's schools are some of the most segregated in the country

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Governance: By and for the people ... who can still afford it

Long Island’s two counties, 13 towns, two cities, 96 incorporated villages and hundreds of special districts and authorities contribute mightily to the high cost of living and doing business here, and they significantly impede collaboration and regional planning.

In the last decade, local government expenditures jumped by 57 percent and tax levies by 64 percent, even as inflation totaled just 30 percent over the 10 years and the population grew by a tiny 3 percent. Spending by school districts climbed the most in that period, with a rise of 70 percent. However, special districts like libraries, water, garbage and fire departments were not far behind, with an increase of 66 percent.

Local governments – county, town, city and village – spent between 36 and 54 percent more, all above the rate of inflation.

Cost aside, those many levels of government, and their varying rules and regulations, also slow the planning and development process and make it harder to move forward on the key issues impacting the region.

As a result, developers find it far easier to replicate the automobile-dependent, single-purpose suburb of the past than to create the mixed-use, transit-oriented and walkable downtowns the region needs for the future – and which young Long Islanders demand.

One promising new addition to all that governance: The Long Island Regional Economic Development Council, which has competed successfully for state funding for a concerted approach to local planning and development.

Long Island Service Providers

That’s how many governmental agencies are involved in setting our taxes, managing our services and planning for the future. Sometimes it’s not that mysterious why our taxes are so high.

Who determines my property taxes?

Long Islanders have some of the highest property taxes in the country and they are increasing at a much faster rate than inflation. Our taxes are determined by county, town and multiple local districts. And every neighborhood is different depending on the districts in their community.

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Environment: Saving our region’s natural beauty from us

As Long Island ponders its social, political and economic future, it would do well to consider the environment, too.

Though decades of reckless development and industrial pollution have been largely checked, the Island continues to suffer the wear and tear of 3 million people, 2 million cars and 400,000 septic tanks.

The region’s aquifers, which supply 138 billion gallons of fresh water a year to residents, are showing real signs of distress, with rising nitrogen levels from wastewater and storm runoff laced with lawn and farm fertilizers and other chemicals. New pollutants, from pharmaceutical and personal care products, have also been detected.

With more than 1,100 miles of coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, the region must also prepare for the rising sea levels related to climate change and the fact that the East Coast’s landmass is sinking. Rising tides and storm surges will begin to threaten beaches, salt water marshes and homes in the coming decade, and low-lying spots like Freeport and Mastic could be uninhabitable by the end of the century, scientists warn.

Lastly, regional leaders should continue their efforts to save the Island’s open space, which enjoyed a respite from development during the Great Recession. Only a quarter of the Island remains undeveloped, and just half of that space is currently protected.

Additional public transit, more sewers and the development of multifamily housing on already commercialized land are just a few of the ways Long Island can ease the strain on Mother Nature.

Saving Our Open Space

Long Island has had a goal of preserving 1/10th of our total land mass for open space. Why focus on maintaining open space? Preserved lands protect the Island’s drinking water, provide critical habitat for wildlife, ensure the viability of the Island’s farming industry and maintain the strength of our tourism sector.

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