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Shopping centers emptied by COVID should become rental housing, experts say

Monday, December 7, 2020

Big-box stores and shopping centers that are now vacant because of the coronavirus pandemic should be replaced by apartments, experts said Friday.

With consumers bypassing brick-and-mortar stores to shop online, landlords are having trouble securing retail tenants. At the same time, there’s a scarcity of vacant land in Nassau and Suffolk counties for rental housing, which is in great demand, said Mitchell Pally, CEO of the developers’ group Long Island Builders Institute.

"We have a lot of shopping centers, big-box stores and other retail spaces that are going to need redevelopment," he said during a virtual conference organized by the planning group Vision Long Island. "The ability to redevelop those sites for mixed-use projects, including rental [apartments] and condos, is going to be very important."

However, for that to occur, land-use regulations must be amended in many towns. For example, Brookhaven Town is weighing a zoning change that would allow for buildings with a mix of apartments, offices and retail stores to be constructed where strip plazas now stand.

Pally was among five experts who discussed how and when the economy will shake off the coronavirus-induced recession. Construction, wind farms and information technology are seen as sources of future growth.

Pally said wind-farm companies Orsted and Eversource, which have two projects off Montauk Point, and Equinor, with a project south of Jones Beach, should do more hiring and component manufacturing on the Island. "If they are going to take our wind and make our electricity, they should give us jobs," he said.

Last month, Orsted/Eversource announced plans for an operations center in East Setauket and a service vessel in Port Jefferson, with a combined workforce of 100 people. A spokeswoman for the companies said Friday they will open another operations center in Montauk.

"These are just the first of many major investments in jobs and infrastructure we’ll be making on Long Island," the Orsted/Eversource spokeswoman said, adding components for the wind farms will be produced in Albany.

Nassau County is lobbying Equinor for an operations center. An Equinor spokeswoman didn't respond to an email requesting comment.

Roger Clayman, executive director of the Long Island Federation of Labor, said more jobs and some component manufacturing will come. He’s been working with Orsted/Eversource to open a national training center on the Island.

"It's only a matter of time before it's economically necessary that they're built here," Clayman said, referring to wind-farm components.

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