The memory of the smell of fried clam strips and hot fudge sundaes was resurrected Thursday morning, August 16, as about 30 government officials and members of the community gathered at the former Howard Johnson across from the traffic circle in Riverside to celebrate breaking ground on a medical complex planned for the site.
Considered an eyesore for the past 15 years, though once a beloved part of Southampton Town — the highlight of downtown Riverhead visits for many a child growing up — the property has been tapped for redevelopment into a medical complex that could contain retail and apartment space in the future.
“It’s altogether appropriate that revitalization starts here,” said state Assemblyman Fred Thiele, reminiscing about how when he was growing up, he would look forward to eating ice cream on the long drive from Sag Harbor to visit Riverhead with his parents.
Other revitalization plans for the Riverside area that are in the works now include a boutique motel at the site of the former Peconic Paddler, upgrades for Ludlam Avenue Park, and the David W. Crohan Community Center. A park is also planned for an undeveloped parcel of land near McDonald’s. It will feature a boardwalk spanning the length of the Peconic River to Route 104.
“It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for — forward progress in an area that we love in Riverside. We’ve been dreaming of revitalization of this area and we have been putting the pieces together for a long time to make this happen,” said Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. Before being torn down last month, the building at the Ho-Jo’s site served as the home of the Riverboat Diner and, more recently, an Italian restaurant.
The dilapidated building had been unoccupied for the past 15 years. It was boarded up to cover broken windows and graffiti, and over the years had morphed from a family eatery into a nuisance, often the bane of local police for drawing the attention of prostitutes and drug dealers.
Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens–Smith said she believes that most people don’t know whether the parcel of land is part of Southampton or Riverhead, when they drive past it. “And, that is the way that it should be. I think that Southampton’s success is our success, and I think that the success for both of these areas is a success for the community. So, I am very proud to be here and standing with Southampton as they begin this project,” she said, noting the parcel has been long-considered a blight to the area.
“It really does begin the new chapter in what we are looking forward to as we develop our communities,” she said. “This is just the beginning and I am really excited to see what is to come.”
Residents will soon see workers digging a foundation, then raising steel beams at the site, which will support a three-story building with a parking area located to the rear. Once complete, only two floors will be used. The addition of a sewage treatment plant nearby in the town’s Enterprise Zone in Flanders would allow for retail uses of the building, as well as the possibility of apartments on the third floor, Schneiderman said.
“We are working really hard to get sewering into this area. That will get us past some of the restrictions of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, and allow a little bit more development,” he said.
Owner Paul Pawlowski, who was able to obtain a Restore New York grant to fund the demolition of the building, said it was a “blessing” that allowed him to focus on constructing a nicer building than he originally envisioned for the site. He credited the serendipity of the scenario to both community members and government officials for their vision.
For lack of better words, he explained, all stakeholders involved “rolled out the red carpet.”
“From the get-go, both sides had the same vision, and that’s always really helpful, but just with the planning everyone really jumped in and got to work, instead of thinking about this, just got it done,” he said.