Series: First Suburbs

Extreme Makeover: Nassau

Robert Puentes and Bruce Katz

LIKE some television reality show, Nassau County, home to Levittown and other pioneering suburban developments, is in for a supreme makeover in the coming decade. The county’s plans for the so-called Nassau Hub, which stretches from EAB Plaza to Roosevelt Field and encompasses the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum site in Uniondale, represent one of the boldest efforts anywhere for reinventing the outdated form of development that is the American suburb.

Yet this makeover will not come easy. Because of the usual controversies over scale and scope, Nassau’s vision for stronger downtowns, diverse neighborhoods, next-generation housing, open space and expanded public transit will be difficult to achieve. (Already, the county executive, Thomas Suozzi, has put off a decision that was expected this month on which of the four coliseum site proposals he will approve.)

The brutal fact, however, is that Nassau County and many other older, inner-ring “first” suburbs built after the end of World War II have little choice economically and physically if they want to survive and thrive.

Currently, many first suburbs, which are collectively home to about 20 percent of the nation’s population, are struggling to attract and retain younger residents. Meanwhile, many of these suburbs share an economic and physical landscape that is unsustainable: low densities, a car-dependent culture and housing restricted to single-family residences.

Nassau reflects these realities. And the question for Nassau residents is this: Do you want a future of higher taxes, lower services and a noncompetitive economy? Because that is what the county faces unless it can reverse decades of stagnation and begin to attract and retain entry-level workers.

Once one of the nation’s fastest-growing areas, Nassau is now down to about 1.33 million people, according to the 2000 census, about 95,000 below its population peak in 1970. The number of elderly residents is more than twice what it was in 1960, while the number of children has fallen sharply.

In addition to these challenging demographic trends, the tax rate in Nassau remains very high; Nassau is tied with Suffolk for having the second-highest tax rate in the state. And because of restrictive land use regulations coupled with close proximity to New York City, Nassau joins places like Westchester, New Jersey’s Bergen and Fairfield in Connecticut as counties with some of the most expensive housing in the nation. The average housing value in each of these counties is more than double the national average.

No wonder young residents are fleeing these places in search of housing that is affordable. (In Nassau, the median house price is more than $400,000. That’s nearly five times the average income, and housing experts recommend 2.5 times as the limit for affordability.)

For first suburbs like those in Nassau to flourish, they need to reinvent themselves.

At a minimum, they should focus on plans that identify important pockets and corridors of urbanity where they can encourage growth. By substantially increasing densities in appropriate places, first suburbs can create an environment where transit and greater housing options thrive.

Arlington County in Virginia, just outside Washington, provides a clear illustration for how a first suburb can regenerate itself and remain healthy and vital, yet preserve its suburban style. Arlington has concentrated development along its Metro rail system in a way that avoids many of the problems of conventional suburban growth. For instance, Arlington’s Metro riders generally walk to the stations, averting the traffic jams that result when commuters’ only choice is to park and ride.

And despite the costs that additional development brings, Arlington’s classic suburban neighborhoods have been well served by this urban experiment. For instance, the increase in tax-generating properties means that a third of the county’s real estate revenue comes from just 8 percent of its land area. Arlington’s tax rate is the lowest in the region.

Arlington is not alone in remaking itself for high value growth. Lakewood, Colo.; Washington’s King County; and Dallas County in Texas have all embraced transit-oriented development as a means to economic prosperity and quality communities.

Interested civic, corporate and political leaders in Nassau should drive south down Interstate 95 to Arlington. There they will see firsthand the tangible benefits that can accrue to a place that embraces a plan for remaking itself and sticks to it. Critics will note that Arlington is not a cluster of local jurisdictions, as is the case in Nassau. But that is precisely why a countywide vision is so important.

Remaking first suburbs will not happen overnight. It will require a new generation of government and business leaders who are willing to risk political and private capital. It will also demand a rethinking of obsolete, outdated suburban attitudes toward density, urbanity and diversity.

So the message to Nassau: you have no time to waste. Pick a proposal for the coliseum site, embrace the new vision and get the Hub and Nassau moving again.