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Old Village/New Main Street

The once proud Old Village boasted the first church, first school, first synagogue, first bank, first library, first polling place and first firehouse on the peninsula. Middle Neck Road in the Old Village was a teeming, thriving section of town and Arrandale Avenue was a wide boulevard of stately homes owned by prosperous merchants.

And while Middle Neck Road has some anchor stores and restaurants that are doing well even in these times and the Village Green has seen a recent facelift with its popular new children’s playground and bubbling fountain, no one would argue that sections look a little frayed around the edges with a hodgepodge of storefront facades, mixed signage, litter, empty stores, uninviting pedestrian ways and chaotic, vehicular traffic that borders on the lunatic especially at certain times of day.

Can these problems be turned around? Can the current merchants who are trying to survive there enjoy a flourishing rebirth that draws even more business? Can drivers drive there without mishap or near heart attacks? Can pedestrians and bike riders enjoy being part of a flow of considerate traffic instead of being scared out of their wits?

What are the assets of the Old Village? And what are the issues confronting the village? These are the questions being asked by the architects and planners, Dadras Architects, a firm hired by the village’s board of trustees to help in the dream of revitalizing the Old Village. Mayor Ralph Kreitzman has been introducing the Dadras team to the very people whose ideas on the topic will matter and who will be part of implementing change, the residents and the business people. For the past few weeks, numerous homogeneous focus groups have been pondering these questions and from our brief sample of two such meetings, they have plenty of ideas.

The architectural team of Victor and Robert Dadras, Mayor Kreitzman and Deputy Mayor Mitch Beckerman, have met with school children and teens, seniors at the Senior Housing at 700 Middle Neck Road, merchants, political leaders, artists, historical society members, and park district activists to name a few.

The mayor sketched out a brief summary of things the village can do to spark a re-vitalization such as upgrading municipal parking lots with new fencing, improved drainage, markings and lighting. This spring all of the planters in the medians will be festooned with low-growing, but colorful, plantings finishing the work started last year. And the village is prepared to assist businesses in securing grants for façade improvements that will give uniformity to an agreed upon design approach.

On June 1 at 7:30 p.m. there will be a public meeting at village hall that will give everyone a chance to weigh in on ways to “accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative” as the old song goes.

At the focus group for seniors, there was a strong feeling that the appearance of the village needs to be “perked up,” business windows should “sparkle” and have attractive awnings. Most of the seniors love the Village Green and its latest enhancements, but feel that it should be patrolled better at night when some of them feel unsafe. Many would like to see even more concerts at Steppingstone in the summer.

But, as one resident, Ms. Goldberg said, “You can do all the cosmetic things…that’s good, but you must address pedestrian safety. The crosswalks are a joke. No one stops…” Many heads nodded on this point. Later in the day, at another focus group the Record attended, there was consensus on the topic of making the roadways safer for all…walkers, drivers and bikers.

Folks were asked what kind of stores they would support in the Old Village. Many people would like a bookstore, but they also realize that mom and pop bookstores are not economically viable. No one spoke in favor of big box stores. Some would like a bowling alley and a movie theatre on this side of town. People are still mad that there is no general supermarket, although there are specialty markets that do meet some needs. Some would like more “affordable” or more “upscale” restaurants or sidewalk cafes in the summertime. Most agree that existing businesses should keep their premises litter-free in an effort to discourage more littering. Participants also liked the scale of the village with its stores and apartment buildings at modest heights.

The afternoon focus group was still going strong when the time ran out. Alice Kasten, president of the Great Neck Historical Society, pointed out that there are many buildings in the village of architectural interest and significance. She said, “I would like to see a celebration of the flavor of the era” and uniformity of the signage. Park commissioner Ivar Sigalowitz, a longtime champion of bike paths, said, “We don’t even have bike racks in the village.” And in the spirit of brainstorming for the ideal, he would also like to see a carousel added to the Village Green.

Park district commissioner Robert Lincoln supports the idea of informative historic markers and also would like to see old photographs of former businesses displayed in current business locations. Ruth Tamarin, also a park district commissioner, is in favor of more brick sidewalks on Middle Neck Road.

Regina Gil, representing the arts community, noted that public art adds a great deal of pride to an area. She recounted that a program to display children’s art in empty storefronts in the Plaza had been very successful and added some zest and sparkle to what would have been a depressing sight.

Jerry White, in noting the village’s assets, mentioned that the public works department’s employees should be counted as a plus.

A number of people spoke strongly in favor of a weekly farmer’s market. It was pointed out that although a number of merchants opposed the idea several years ago, studies have shown that there is spillover into existing businesses when people come to such a market. Some residents noted that there is no organic fruit and vegetable market in all of Great Neck. Many travel to Whole Foods in Manhasset or join food cooperatives to meet this need.

Joan Wheeler mentioned a town she visits in Massachusetts that sponsors a “Take It or Leave It” day where people can bring items they wish to give away. A quick Internet search shows that a number of communities here and in Europe are promoting such activities in an effort to recycle, limit landfill dumping and share with one’s neighbors,s especially in hard times.

Come share your ideas about the village assets to be cherished and the problems that need collective solving on Tuesday, June 1 at 7:30 at village hall, 61 Baker Hill Road.