To the editor,
Because I have written before on the problems facing Croton businesses, several friends have suggested that I put together a detailed analysis of the reasons for the present crisis in Croton’s commercial real estate. Let me begin with a disclaimer: I am not and have never been engaged in the real estate business and do not stand to profit from any comments made here. Accordingly, to paraphrase the Bette Davis line from “All About Eve,” fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Almost everybody in Croton seems to have suggestions about what should be done about the deepening economic crisis revealed by the alarming rise in empty storefronts and other commercial locations. Frankly, I am tired of hearing people in Croton publicly complaining about this situation and bemoaning the failure of this village to attract new ventures. Several very solid reasons account for the alarming disappearance of businesses from Croton. One reason: Through its own legislative decisions, Croton has shown itself to be an unfriendly community to business and to “outsiders.”
I am also tired of hearing people say, “What Croton needs is a _____” or “What we ought to have in Croton is a _____.” (Readers can fill in the blank spaces with their own suggestions.) Although well-intentioned, such spontaneous exhortations are not the product of planning but of emotion. They exhibit little awareness of the hurdles Croton put in the way of entrepreneurs.
Before anybody nominates the kind of business they have decided we need here, I urge them to consider the obstacles that discourage newcomers. Perhaps then they will come to recognize starting a new business is not easy. First and foremost, two crucial events, 40 and 37 years ago, triggered major changes in Croton’s attractiveness to new business.
1. Opening the Expressway in 1967 made Croton a backwater community for business (but a more desirable place to live). Formerly served by the old Albany Post Road, Croton was bypassed by the Croton Expressway that now diverts through traffic away from it and other communities to the north, Montrose, Buchanan and Peekskill. Cars and drivers previously forced to drive through Croton now speed past it. Visitors must now have a reason to leave the Expressway and enter Croton. The bypass has been a controlling factor in the economic development of Croton for 40 years and cannot be ignored.
2. Bankruptcy of the Penn-Central increased Croton’s tax burden on businesses and residents. Until the bankruptcy of Penn-Central on June 21, 1970—then the largest corporate bankruptcy in American history—Croton was what might be called a “company town.” The railroad’s repair shops made it the village’s largest employer; it also paid the lion’s share of village taxes. Metro North still is the largest entity in the village, but pays no taxes. This bankruptcy 37 years ago shifted an unanticipated tax burden to local businesses and residents.
Here are some verities of Croton’s current business situation—or rather its plight:
3. Croton’s penchant for engaging in litigation drains money from its treasury. Need I say more?
4. Service businesses that can subsist on Croton’s trade alone have the best chance of survival. Examples: a pizzeria, delicatessen, barbershop/hairdresser, shoe repair, dry cleaning, beauty parlor, nail salon and coffee house, many of which are already here.
5. Ideally, a new venture’s chances of success in Croton are measurably increased if in addition to attracting local trade it lures motorists off the expressway or draws customers from elsewhere. Examples: an automobile dealership, nationally recognized fast-food restaurant, specialty or ethnic restaurant, and specialty chain store (such as Radio Shack).
Croton’s economic situation was aggravated by passage of the so-called Gateway Law enacted in 2004. Ann Gallelli was the driving force responsible for an initial questionnaire asking Croton citizens to describe the Croton they wanted. She was next responsible for the results of that questionnaire being extrapolated by planning consultants. The firm selected was Buckhurst, Fish & Jacquemart of New York City, a division of the architectural and planning giant, Perkins Eastman.
The present Gateway Law was created with the avowed purpose of “strengthening the visual identity of the village.” This is sheer gobbledygook nonsense, especially since problems of Croton businesses do not stem from an image problem. Although this law was intended to give parts of Croton a facelift, it did nothing to attract new business. In fact, it actually prohibits some businesses from coming here and discourages others by overly ambitious regulation.
6. The major flaw in the Gateway Law lies in its creation of artificial “gateways.” So designated because of their visual impact on persons entering the village, the three “gateways” are Croton Point Avenue and South Riverside Avenue (conveniently excluding the village’s own station parking lot), Municipal Place and Route 9A at the north end of the village.
The law makes the mistake of emphasizing form, not function. Function, not external appearance, is the key to business compatibility and success and lies in affirmative answers to two questions, “Does it fill a need?” and “Is it a good fit with existing businesses?” Because Zeytinia perceived a niche market and took a risk to fill it, some have foolishly suggested that what we need is another Zeytinia. This makes no marketing sense and could result in two business failures in place of one success.
Fanciful gateways aside, Croton has five retail “nodes.” I list them here: (1) the shopping mall clustered at the ShopRite Supermarket enclave; (2) the South Riverside Avenue/Harmon shopping strip; (3) the Maple Street shopping strip; (4) the Grand Street shopping strip making up the so-called Upper Village; and (5) the vestigial shopping strip in what was formerly called the Lower Village at the north end of Croton, a considerable part of which was destroyed in building the Expressway.
How to integrate these separate shopping nodes into a cohesive symbiotic commercial unity should have been the objective of planners. not putting a pretty face on any new development. This still remains the challenge Croton must face.
7. The Gateway Law ignores a major gateway. The concept overlooks the Route 129/Grand Street gateway to Croton’s “upper village,” in effect denying that it is a gateway. Yet the village has erected an elaborate sign welcoming motorists entering the village on Route 129 from Yorktown. Proponents of the gateway concept have never satisfactorily explained the reason for an omission that throws their concept into doubt.
8. The Gateway Law makes the assumption that its three gateway neighborhoods have discernible characters. The Gateway Law reads, “Each of the gateway areas should have a special character.” This is technocrat talk. The exact meaning of this sentence is unclear, and I confess that I cannot parse it. The word should, the past tense of the auxiliary verb shall, is usually used to express (a) obligation or duty; (b) probability or expectation; or (c) conditionality or contingency.
Did the framers of the law mean that each these neighborhoods should have a special character—but that each has yet to have one? Was the intention of the law to create a special character for each neighborhood? We only have to examine the photos of the empty properties in the recently posted “Album of Shame” to know there is little character or architectural uniqueness in any of Croton’s commercial neighborhoods. Surely no planner expects a single new building plunked down among nondescript existing buildings will change the character of any Croton neighborhood. In the massive and encyclopedic work by Frank E. Sanchis on Westchester architecture, not one commercial building in Croton is singled out for mention.
For centuries, Croton was an industrial Hudson River hamlet, progressing from river traffic, brickyards, N.Y. Central Railroad shops to today’s “bedroom” for workers in N.Y. City by the annexation of Harmon in 1932. Half of its street grid reflects its hilly topography and was laid out in the 18th century; the other half (Harmon) has a street grid created in the early 20th century by a developer intent on extracting the greatest profit from a newly acquired parcel of land.
Given such disparate beginnings and developmental patterns, it was unrealistic to demand that selected spots in Croton get a makeover at the expense of incoming new ventures. As the adage warns, “You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Trying to make Croton pretty is not the answer. Croton has great appeal because it is what it is. In computer argot, “What you see is what you get.”
9. The Gateway Law exhibits a strong anti-business bias by listing specifically prohibited businesses. Croton’s policy of excluding certain businesses as undesirable might be understandable if the businesses were topless bars or stores selling pornographic films or books. But to exclude whole classes of legal businesses that most communities would welcome because of their ability to enhance the business climate of a village is short-sighted and foolish. In fact, it is a form of unwarranted discrimination against business that borders on being unconstitutional if not downright un-American.
Controlling the commerce of a community by excluding certain legal businesses smacks more of the planned economy of the former Soviet Union than of free-enterprise America. Proclaiming Croton to be business friendly in the face of its negative attitude is transparently foolish. Banning certain legal businesses makes Croton less attractive to all businesses.
For the record, the businesses specifically prohibited by Croton are: (1) commercial parking lots; (2) automobile or other vehicle dealerships; (3) automobile storage lots; (4) drive-through windows; (5) fast-food restaurants.
Here are my comments keyed to the above numbered prohibitions: (1) Croton operates its own parking lot at the station. Does it fear competition?
(2) Despite the village’s proclaimed antipathy to automobile dealerships and the Mayor’s recent reiteration of this at a public meeting, such usage would be quite appropriate for the former Croton Dodge property since the building is adapted for such use. An upscale agency handling BMW or Mercedes, for example, would bring customers to the village with money to spend jingling in their pockets.
(3) This is a redundant prohibition. The ability to display its inventory of cars for sale is a requisite for an automobile dealership. You can’t have one without the other.
(4) Studies have shown that drive-through windows are efficient and actually reduce the number of parking slots needed.
(5) No one has satisfactorily explained what Croton has against McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s and caused the village to legislate against them, especially since they have broadened their menus to include more healthful meals. Croton prohibits fast-food stores—but aren’t Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway and the many pizzerias “fast-food stores”?
Supporters of the Gateway Law condemn such establishments as “big box stores.” “We kept big box stores out of Croton” is their campaign plank. But these are not big box stores. The evidence is clear that what they have kept out of Croton are new ventures of any kind with the law’s unreasonable requirements.
Studies have shown that the traveling public will search out and patronize nationally known fast food outlets because of their higher standards of cleanliness and consistency in quality. A McDonald’s hamburger tastes the same in Meriden, Mississippi, as it does in Malden, Massachusetts. In my travels, I have come to prefer the consistency of a national chain over the chancy, unknown quality of local “greasy spoons.”
Finally, fast food restaurants are desirable because they offer employment to local young people in contrast to a half-dozen nail salons employing low-wage, tip-remunerated employees whose presence in this country is of dubious legality and who are bussed in and out of Croton every day from parts unknown.
10. Croton also has an aggressively unfriendly policy toward “outsiders.” Croton has no objection to nonresidents paying to park their cars in its parking lot or spending money in its stores. But they are second-class citizens if they try to enter its parks, which are strictly off-limits to “outsiders.” Our society has engaged in bloody struggles over the years to become egalitarian, so it is surprising to find that “apartheid” is alive and well in Croton. How strange that residents do not perceive the connection between exclusionary legislation and empty lots and empty storefronts. A biblical admonition warns, “Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.”
Discrimination of any kind is regrettable, especially in a village with a longstanding liberal tradition. Croton was settled by successive waves of “outsiders”: Irish aqueduct workers, Italian dam workers, bohemian artists and radical writers from New York City’s Greenwich Village. (Note: For reminding me of this welcoming aspect of Croton’s past and providing me with some historical dates, I am grateful to a frequent Crotonblog commenter who now prefers to remain nameless on the Internet.)
11. The Gateway Law is discouragingly repressive and restrictive. It limits developers’ options in its specifications about placement and screening of parking areas, landscaping and beautification, lighting, signage, pedestrian walks, building footprint, open space, and architectural requirements. For example, it says, “In order to discourage [emphasis mine] parking lots in front of buildings, new buildings shall be oriented with the building front facing the street and situated close to the front property line to create a more continuous street wall.” Thus, customer convenience and practicality are sacrificed on the altar of appearance.
The Gateway Law also says, “All off-street parking shall be located along the side and in the rear of buildings.” Again customers are inconvenienced in the name of appearance. Major design changes increase the overhead of new ventures, yet are not incurred by established businesses in Croton. Unequal treatment has the potential of making new ventures uncompetitive and unprofitable.
As an example of the overly intrusive quality of the requirements of the Gateway Law, imagine the reaction of a developer to the following requirement: “To reinforce the area as a major gateway, the Planning Board shall encourage] the design and placement of a distinctive gateway feature [emphases mine], such as a clock or sculpture near the corner of Croton Point Avenue and South Riverside Avenue.”
I called this a “requirement” because, it should be noted, the Planning Board is the body that gives final approval to site plans, thus making the word “encourage” a joke and practically guaranteeing there will be a clock or a sculpture at that corner. But do Planning Board members have the ability to judge the artistic worth of a piece of sculpture or the architectural merits of a street clock? And if the clock should display the incorrect time, can the village be sued by someone who misses a train and an important meeting? The Gateway Law is a classic example of an “everything-including-the-kitchen-sink law.”
12. Casual, slow-as-molasses action by village boards and frequently intrusive nitpicking of applications by these bodies. Please don’t try to tell me that Croton’s processing of applications is not slow or nitpicking. I have been caught in the toils of the slow-grinding mills of Croton government. If Croton were genuinely business friendly, it would speed up and streamline the application process.
13. Lack of a commission or agency created for the sole purpose of attracting new businesses to Croton and failure to budget for a campaign to attract new businesses. This deficiency is so obvious comment is almost unnecessary. With the above-listed hindrances to new businesses and lacking a formal plan to attract them to Croton, is it any wonder that few new businesses have come to Croton? Until the publication on Crotonblog of the photo album showing the large number of empty commercial properties in Croton, few had an idea of the magnitude of the problem. So long as Croton’s restrictive Gateway Law and the village’s regulations denying outsiders access to Croton’s parks, creating a commission or agency charged with attracting new business, and allocating money to attract new business would be futile and wasteful.
There you have it—a baker’s dozen problems Croton must acknowledge and solve. Croton must also abandon its “do as we say, not do as we do” policies that result in the eyesores it tolerates in the village. I refer specifically to the former skate park. In a village whose Planning Board agonizes over color schemes of proposed residences, this village-owned property is a disgrace. Its condition is so unsightly the village should issue itself the citation it would issue if private industry had been responsible.
Another example is its toleration of the illegal parking that takes place at the strip mall at the foot of Maple Street. In addition, many village catch basins need to be cleaned of the debris clogging them.
Village government is supposed to set examples for private industry and citizenry to follow. I regret to say the village has been so busy paying compliments to itself, it has avoided looking at its own visage in the mirror.
What can be done to correct these ills? First and foremost, Croton should stop kidding itself that businesses can be lured to Croton despite Croton’s backwater location, high taxes and the negative qualities of its legislation without offering incentives such as initial tax relief or abatement. The shortsighted Gateway Law looks great on paper, but only to those who have no knowledge of what it takes to attract entrepreneurs willing to risk capital in a new venture.
More than three decades ago, Croton hired Manuel S. Emanuel Planning Associates, of Nyack, N.Y., to review its zoning ordinance and forward planning. One conclusion the planning consultants drew was that too much of Croton was zoned for commercial use. This view was seconded by the late Gabriel S. Frayne, then chairman of the Planning Board. Mr. Emanuel, now living in South Carolina, recalls that Croton never acted on his firm’s recommendation. A quick way to solve the problem of too many commercial properties would be to change the zoning of Croton’s undeveloped commercial property to residential use.
In the 18th century, villages needed little more in the way of shopkeepers than “the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.” Many of Croton’s empty storefronts are in 19th century Victorian residences in which the lower floor was converted for retail use. Another solution would be to allow these to revert to residential use.
Still another solution (and the one least likely to happen because politicians hate to admit that they made a mistake) would be to repeal the Gateway Law or at least to negate its onerously restrictive qualities. The law was enacted on March 15, 2004, with Mayor Robert Elliott and Trustees Georgianna Grant, Leo Wiegman and Gregory Schmidt casting yes votes. Mayor Elliott and Trustees Grant and Wiegman are out of office now, leaving Mayor Schmidt the only affirmative voter still holding office. Trustee Deborah McCarthy (then on the brink of moving from Croton) cast the sole no vote. In the more than three years since the law’s passage, the wisdom of her vote has been borne out.