The problem with the many solutions being offered to solve Croton’s declining attractiveness to retail enterprises is that all fail to recognize that the suggestions propose to treat individual neighborhoods piecemeal instead of treating Croton as a whole.
Croton originally had two retail neighborhoods. One was located along Grand Street in the Upper Village, and dated from stagecoach days in the 18th century. The second, clustered around Croton North Station and the “landings” (docks) in the Lower Village, had been spawned by sloop, steamboat and railroad traffic in the 19th century. Each was firmly entrenched within a residential area.
In the early part of the 20th century, another retail strip sprang up along a short portion of South Riverside Avenue to serve Clifford Harmon’s burgeoning new Harmon-on-Hudson community created in 1907. By then-existing standards, linear parking on village streets was adequate. Although Harmon was absorbed by Croton in 1932, it managed to retain a surprising amount of separate identification, even having its own Harmon post office until the 1960’s.
Croton’s Population Growth
First, let’s examine Croton’s growth patterns. The following table portrays the growth of Croton’s population during the 20th century:
1920: 2,286 (+753, 49.12%)*
1940: 3,843 (+1,657, 72.48%)**
1960: 6,812 (+2,969, 77.26%)***
1980: 6,889 (+77, 1.13%)
1990: 7,018 (+129, 1.87%)
2000: 7,606 (+588, 8.38%)
*Attributable to the electrification of the Hudson Division of the NY
Central and the opening of the Croton yards and shops in 1913.
**Attributable in part to the acquisition by Croton-on-Hudson of Harmon and Mt. Airy.
***Attributable to the post-World War II building boom.
The year 1960 represents a watershed date. In the sixty years between 1900 and 1960, the population of Croton grew by 344 percent. In the forty years between 1960 and 2000, its population grew by less than 12 percent. This shows near saturation in population.
The Birth of Suburbia
In 1900, most of the American population lived on farms. American culture was still imbued with rural values, and a powerful sentimental tilt toward country living ruled the national imagination. After the Second World War, the United States made two major decisions: First, it resumed the suburbanization begun in the 1920s that had been halted by the Great Depression and the war. America’s industrial cities were overcrowded and dirty, and the air was polluted. There was plenty of cheap, open rural land to build on outside the cities. That the resulting suburbia of look-alike Levittowns turned out to be a disappointing cartoon of country living and not the real thing is a tribute to the optimistic Americans’ desire to view the world as they hope it to be, not as it is.
Second was the political decision in the 1950s by President Eisenhower to build the interstate highway system, the largest public works project in the history of the nation, if not the world. One of its basic purposes was to be able to move troops and evacuate cities should a future nuclear conflict erupt. It was also envisioned as an economic stimulus program to get the country moving forward. Gasoline was cheap and oil reserves were abundant. It seemed like a profusion that would go on forever.
No one anticipated that interstate superhighways would lead to an explosion in motorcar use or a catastrophic disinvestment in American cities. And no one foresaw the debasement of the suburban landscape with strip malls, shopping centers, supermarkets, and office parks springing up at freeway off-ramps. Who could fail to notice them with their gigantic parking areas a kaleidoscopic sea of parked cars in every direction as far as the eye could see? The automobile was now king.
Croton’s First Fatal Mistake
Starting in the 1950’s, Croton approved a developer’s plan for the construction of a strip mall that brought something new and dangerous to traditional patterns of the community. The plan called for the strip mall to be constructed in the very population center of the village, instead of at its periphery. The Van Wyck shopping center was an L-shaped strip of retail stores set back from the street, anchored by a Grand Union supermarket, and fronted by a vast asphalted open space with nary a tree or even a blade of grass—a virtual parking garage.
A major fault in its design was the inadequate unloading access provided behind it. How the drivers of huge eighteen-wheeler tractor-trailer combinations manage to back them into that narrow alley is a feat that never ceases to amaze. Although the area devoted to parking met the requirements of the zoning ordinance and seemed generous, it quickly turned out to be barely adequate. Interestingly, this was not Grand Union’s first foray into the village. Earlier, a much smaller Grand Union occupied the Elliott building on Old Post Road North.
Why did the village fathers allow this first strip mall to be built? The reason was simple: Its open plaza concept complied with its new zoning ordinance. Such zoning ordinances were typically devised by engineering firms and packaged and had been sold to municipalities for decades, eliminating the need for authorities to consider local design issues. This is why strip malls in Croton have the same cookie-cutter look as those in Illinois or California.
Croton’s packaged zoning law embodied several attitudes widespread in suburban communities at the time. One was that an “old-fashioned” downtown now had little value, especially when compared with the value of easily available parking. Driving around to purchase the necessities of everyday life didn’t seem like a bad idea. Gasoline was inexpensive. No one gave a thought to the possibility that someday oil wells would begin to run dry or that the price of gasoline would rise astronomically. Driving to a supermarket to do one’s shopping at a single location was immeasurably more attractive than tramping from downtown store to downtown store, and carrying bundles home on foot.
Almost simultaneously, the only portion of Governor Rockefeller’s ambitious superhighway paralleling the Hudson to be constructed. Now called the Croton Expressway, it effectively obliterated the former Lower Village shopping area at Croton North Station. A vestige remains along the east side of South Riverside Avenue.
Superimposed on the traditional pattern of village life in which residents had walked everywhere, the new pattern of adding strip malls would turn out to be a disaster. The historic pattern of small town life was also damaged by a new notion that people—even the store owners—should not live over a delicatessen or a dairy or a hardware store, nor should milk or hardware or newspapers be sold in a residential area, as is done in cities. Thus was born the new look of suburbia. Dwellings above stores were the historic version of “affordable housing.” We no longer build living spaces over individual stores, and this is one reason for the need to build affordable housing in older communities in Westchester.
Croton closed its eyes to the fact that a supermarket-anchored shopping center in the heart of the village vastly increased automobile traffic in a centuries-old street grid ill-suited to handle large volumes of traffic. Little did Croton know a truism they were to learn belatedly: Shopping centers are more properly located near the outskirts of small communities. The downtowns of small communities are the wrong location for such automobile magnets.
Aggravating the Error
Most communities would have been happy with one shopping mall with its associated ugly parking lot holding a sea of cars—but on the outskirts of town. In quick succession, other developers proposed to build additional multi-store strip malls within Croton, each anchored by a large supermarket of a major grocery chain. Approval came swiftly. Before residents knew what had happened, two additional strip malls, anchored by supermarkets and with associated parking lots, had blossomed in downtown Croton.
Across Maple Street from the Van Wyck shopping center a second strip mall was built, anchored by an A&P supermarket. One still risks life and limb in trying to go from one these malls to another by crossing busy Route 129. (A pedestrian may cross at the Municipal Place light—but there is no sidewalk on the north side of Maple Street here.) This was followed by still another strip mall. Anchored by a ShopRite supermarket, it was built at the south end of South Riverside Avenue on the site of a drive-in movie that closed in 1966. It was less than a mile away from the other two strip malls.
Another A&P-anchored strip mall would follow later at the north end of the village along the old Albany Post Road (Route 9A), as well as a tiny strip mall called Cortlandt Plaza. In each case, the strip mall was set back from the road and separated from it by a large, unsightly parking area. Sometimes arranged in right angle L- or Z-patterns, the malls were nevertheless strip malls, Village fathers were so busy congratulating themselves on their good fortune in attracting abundant revenues to village coffers from commercial taxpayers, they never paused to count the cost in ugliness and impracticality. In effect, Croton did what even animals won’t do. It soiled its own nest
A visitor from outer space arriving to study Croton’s culture and customs could easily get the impression that residents must belong to a cult of car worshippers. Otherwise, why would they create so many places for highly polished and chromed vehicles to be parked in the village and in the railroad station parking lot, if not to be admired or revered? An astute outer space visitor with a sense of aesthetics and good taste would see it differently: It was obvious that Croton had allowed parts of the village to become nothing more than automobile “slums.”
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series on Croton’s planning problems. For Part Two, see “Trouble in Paradise: Croton’s Rocky Romance with the Automobile.”