The owner of the Walt Whitman Mall calls its 1,029,000 s.f. mall “Long Island’s premier shopping destination.” The mall has nearly 100 retailers, including Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, along with such unusual stores as Ann Taylor, Banana Republic, Brooks Brothers, Cole Haan, Williams-Sonoma, J. Crew, Pottery Barn, etc. As the Simon Property Group says, “you’re sure to find everything you desire!” The Simon Property Group is a big player: an S&P 500 company, the largest public U.S. real estate company, which owns or has an interest in 261 million square feet of malls in North America, Europe and Asia. Headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, Simon has more than 5,000 employees worldwide. In the late 1990s, Simon ran afoul of unhappy citizens in the small Long Island Community of Huntington Station, New York. After what the Long Island Business News called “a protracted battle” the company was forced to cut back on its plans to grow the Walt Whitman mall even bigger. Simon ended up pledging not to try to expand this mall for a decade. But eight years later, in April of 2006, the media was reporting that Simon was back at the table with officials in Huntington Station, and local residents are not happy about it. Simon reportedly wants to add more than 200,000 s.f. to the mall — about a 20% add-on. Instead of building out, Simon wants to build up, by adding a second story with as many as 40 new stores. At the time town supervisor Frank Petrone said he was “looking forward” to getting formal plans from Simon. “The time is coming close now where the mall can expand,” Petrone told the L.I. Business News. “Certainly I believe there’s a need.” Town Councilor Susan Berland, who has been in discussions with Simon for at least two years, says she told the developer to meet with neighborhood groups this time. “Getting feedback from civic groups before laying out plans is a smart move,” Berland told the Business News. “The first thing they need to do is reach out to civic groups. If groups have problems with a proposal, you see what you can do to accommodate them, so things work smoothly for everyone. Where developers run into problems is when they try to ram ideas down communities’ throats.” The Walt Whitman mall has been a source of contention for at least 14 years. In 1994, citizens organized through the Triangle-Melville Civic Association Inc., sued the first owner of the mall, and after years of wrangling, a smaller footprint was accepted. Simon bought the mall in 1998. The real estate company began discussions with leaders of the Triangle-Melville Civic Association. Residents say they learned of recent meetings between Simon and Councilwoman Susan Berland via a phone call from Berland and information from her staff. They were told that Simon wants to build a 2 story parking garage, plus a facelift for the side of the mall that faces Route 110. “We are sure that there is more,” one resident wrote to Sprawl-Busters. “Simon has been very secretive in dealing with the community directly. Roughly eleven years ago (1997), several business owners, along with residents in Huntington Station, began a fight against the expansion of the Whitman Mall Through the help of attorneys, environmentalists and planning experts we were able to defeat this expansion plan. Our assertion was that expansion of the mall would not only create significant and unwanted traffic but that it would also cause a threat to the existing environment including wetlands, etc. We found out that Simon had failed to follow each of the necessary steps in due diligence towards putting the plan forward. Many residents were not notified while others were simply ‘looked over’ by having their concerns ignored by Simon. Luckily, the town government held our concerns to heart and a moratorium was put in place restricting development on the site until 2007. Just this past week we learned that Simon has been secretly holding meetings with Town Councilwoman Susan Berland in an effort to determine opposition among residents and business owners alike. We are attempting to force Simon’s expansion plans in the gutter once again as we do not want the detrimental effects of more big box development in our community. We would also much rather see support for our locally owned businesses instead of the town government working to help the big fortune 500 companies like Macy’s and Sak’s Fifith Avenue.” It looks like Simon’s expansion won’t be that simple, unless town officials agree to do whatever Simon Says.
Many residents in Huntington Station feel that one million square feet is big enough for any mall. Walt Whitman mall today could fit 5 Wal-Mart supercenters. They know that they are up against a well-heeled developer — but not much has changed in that regard since their battle ten years ago. The moratorium on the site is over — but that does not mean that common sense is over. Huntington Station is actually the birthplace of poet Walt Whitman. His home is now used as a museum, and across from the museum is the Walt Whitman mall. A more inappropriate memorial to his life’s work and message, the mall no doubt would have driven Whitman from his home. One of the poet’s most enduriing works, Leaves of Grass, was first printed in a very small edition, collecting only twelve unnamed poems in 95 pages. Whitman reportedly said he intended his book to be small enough to be carried in a pocket. “That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air: I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air.” Now Walt Whitman’s open air has become filled with the auto exhaust from thousands of cars that swarm across his one-time home to the mall that inappropriately carries his name. Whitman no doubt would have scorned town officials for tying his good name to that barbarous mall. A field of wildflowers, a quiet stream or santuary perhaps — but a monsterous mall? Readers are urged to email Councilwoman Susan Berland of the Huntington Station Town Council at [email protected] with the following message: “Councilor Berland, Walt Whitman himself, if he were able to speak to you across the years, would tell you to remove his name from the mall that carries it. The poet who celebrated ‘the sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-colored sea rocks, and of the hay in the barn,’ would tell you today that the Walt Whitman Mall has become grotesque to him beyond proportion, and must not grow more, nor take one more measure of the earth into its asphalt hands. This mall, at more that one million square feet, has grown large enough, yet its owner cannot keep from trying to force it larger. But remember what Whitman said was the essence of his soul: “The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag… the song of me rushing from bed.” Before you consider this unwanted expansion, hear the voice of the poet who has been buried in concrete: ‘Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much?’ Before this project proceeds, put a cap on the size of expansions of existing malls, to require that no existing mall be allowed to include more than five hundred thousands square feet of leasable area — and then grandfather in this monster of a mall that can grow no more.”