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Trouble in Paradise: Croton’s Rocky Romance with the Automobile

January 18, 2008

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series on Croton’s planning problems. For Part One, see “The Historical Roots of Croton’s Planning Problems.”

The concept of a marketplace is scarcely new. Ever since the earliest communities of the Middle East, and later in the Greek agora, lively marketplaces have always been public spaces, part of the fabric of life in villages and small towns. But, despite their inviting openness, modern strip malls really aren’t public spaces. Instead, they are private spaces masquerading as public spaces. People are permitted to come and go, and there are no admission fees—but those who do enter are guests of the developer. The mall owner is also entitled to control all activities that go in the parking area and the mall. This means no free speech, no right of public assembly.

American shopping malls were new phenomena of the Automobile Age. They had little in common with the social life of the community in which they were located. They existed in virtual isolation, surrounded by a bleak acre of black asphalt crowded with parked cars and connected to the world outside by a common thread, the ubiquitous automobile. Although ordinarily located at the edges of towns, in Croton shopping malls were permitted to cluster in the heart of the village, taxing an inadequate street grid whose layout predated the American Revolution. The friendly village marketplace of small shops was suddenly displaced by a scattering of impersonal marketplaces in whose vast asphalt deserts automobiles driven by strangers weaved and circled, endlessly searching for a place to park.

Cooler heads among village officials and grocery-chain executives should have seen that the supermarkets anchoring the shopping center strip malls were a concentration too ambitious to be supported by the surrounding population. Moreover, their presence strained Croton’s grid of narrow village streets—thoroughfares more appropriate to horse-drawn wagons. Not only did Croton’s three supermarkets compete with one another for a limited number of customers, their individual specialty departments spelled the doom of old-fashioned stores. Supermarkets sold groceries in competition with grocery stores; they sold meat in competition with meat markets; they sold vegetables in competition with vegetable stores. They even sold newspapers and magazines and forced the neighborhood combinations of candy store-tobacconist-newspaper vendor to close. The stakes were high, and competition was intense.

Despite the damage they did to the village and its traditional way of life, three intensely competing supermarkets in the heart of Croton paradoxically represented a bonanza for consumers. At one time a local consumer group published regular mimeographed bulletins showing the comparative prices for brand-name items at each of the three supermarkets. Eventually, the debilitating effect of market saturation, fierce price wars, and an insufficient, diluted customer base caused the A&P in what is now called Croton Commons to close, followed by the Grand Union in the Van Wyck shopping center.

ShopRite emerged the winner. It was a classic example of the economic survival of the fittest. Superabundant parking facilities and proximity to a superhighway exit ramp undoubtedly played a role in ShopRite’s victory. The A&P on the old Albany Post Road (Route 9A) at the sparsely populated north end of Croton was sufficiently far from the intense competition at the center of the village to be insulated from ShopRite’s cutthroat pricing.

Like a smallpox victim, as a result of the wild abandon with which shopping centers-cum-supermarkets were built, downtown Croton finds its face pocked with seven downtown shopping nodes: (1) the shops along both sides of Grand Street, a node dating from the 18th century, (2) the vestigial node that remained of the Lower Village shopping area, (3) the shops on both sides of a short stretch of South Riverside Avenue in Harmon, (4, 5 and 6) three large strip malls/shopping centers, two of them today without their original supermarket anchors, and (7) the shabby “poor relation” of a strip mall at the foot of Route 129.

Constructed in 1966 as another arm to the original L-shaped Van Wyck strip mall, the Post Office only added to the woes of its inadequate parking area. The woes continue to this day, despite the disappearance of the Grand Union. By default, the Post Office became the anchor of the Van Wyck shopping center. But the traditional need for a post office as a magnet for residents to be in the center of town no longer exists.

The Croton post office is actually a warehouse-type operation, receiving truck-delivered freight on dollies and dispatching a fleet of delivery vehicles to various destinations in the sprawling village. There is absolutely no reason for this space-wasting usage to be at the very center of the village. Moving it to the white-elephant skate park site would be an ideal use of that eyesore and give the post office closer access to the Expressway. The public’s need for a place at which to buy stamps and to make mailings could easily be accommodated by an operation no larger than a UPS store in a storefront. Interestingly, before 1966, the Croton post office was in a storefront on South Highland Avenue next to Gerstein’s hardware store.

The more recent enlargement of the Van Wyck shopping center with an extension to the south approved by the Planning Board only tacked one disaster onto another. With its obviously inadequate parking space and impractical traffic patterns, it was a gross error on the part of the village to give its approval. Traffic is not permitted to exit from this addition and make a left turn, although a half-dozen streets debouch onto Maple Street in the village without such a restriction.

Similarly, the tiny mall at the foot of Route 129 built in the late 1950’s is another long-festering sore so badly executed that the village refuses to punish the frequent egregious parking violations there. In every case of repeated overbuilding with inadequate provision for parking, the Village of Croton welcomed each of the competing supermarket shopping centers with open arms and was complicit in the outcome.

Those residents who go into raptures about how marvelous it is to live in a delightful little village like Croton fail to recognize that the idyllic village of their dreams no longer exists. The village where everybody walked everywhere and knew everybody by first name was raped a half century ago by developers who seduced gullible village administrations by holding out visions of unlimited tax revenues from automobile-friendly downtown strip malls/shopping centers.

The 2004 Amendment
Increasingly aware that planning deficiencies in the past has created a crazy quilt pattern of retail centers, early in the 21st century the village engaged a New York firm of architectural consultants to suggest changes in the zoning ordinance. The consultants decided that the broad-brush solution to Croton’s problem laws was to ignore the seven individual downtown shopping nodes, call the roads leading into the village “gateways,” and make these gateways more attractive with cosmetic changes.

The fault of the 2004 amendment to the zoning code was its failure to recognize that the heart of the problem lay in seven separate shopping nodes where there once had been three. The solution—making new businesses follow new and stricter building requirements that should have been imposed from day one—was naïve since it did nothing about existing businesses. Little will be achieved until the fundamentally unhealthy concentration of motorcars in the heart of Croton is recognized as the problem. Sadly, no consultants are needed; any resident could have told them that. The amendment also totally ignored the ailing Grand Street retailing backbone of the village and did not even note that it needed looking after.

There are other disquieting aspects of this amendment, including the decidedly unfriendly approach it takes toward certain classes of business without any reasonable justification for its animosity. The outspoken aversion of certain xenophobic residents with no experience in marketing is a perfect example of too many cooks spoiling the soup. Some individuals foolishly claim they are preserving Croton’s “small town qualities” by excluding a McDonald’s or Burger King. Croton lost any claim to small town innocence when it welcomed strip malls and giant parking areas to the very center of the village and destroyed businesses along its traditional shopping streets.

These same individuals may think they live in a small town, but the truth is they live in suburbia. Suburbia was created by cheap and abundant oil. Scarce and expensive oil is now on the brink of strangling and killing it.

Defenders of the 2004 amendment seem to pride themselves on being able to say smugly, in a paraphrase of a classic movie line, “We don’t need no stinkin’ big box stores.” What they neglect to add is, ”We don’t need them because we’ve got three stinkin’ and unsightly strip mall shopping centers with their acres of asphalt and cars in the heart of Croton.” That’s one hell of a trade-off. Compared to the strip malls and their huge and unsightly parking lots, keeping out a drive-through McDonald’s or a Burger King is an empty victory.

Still another disquieting aspect of the 2004 amendment is the probable unconstitutionality of its discriminatory prohibitions. The village’s haughty attitudes and the amendment’s restrictions have clearly discouraged new business ventures. The future of Croton’s automobile-dependent strip malls remains cloudy. The conditions that pertained when they were built—cheap energy, cars for everyone, a credit-driven consumer economy, and tax breaks for real estate ventures—are all under threat now.

Watchman, What of the Night?
Croton today is like a patient suffering ill health with mysterious symptoms. Well-intentioned people are coming forward with quickie Band-Aid suggestions when what the patient needs is a comprehensive head-to-toe medical evaluation and treatment in an intensive care unit. The villains of the piece, the three giant strip malls that do not belong in the heart of a small village, are never identified as the culprits. The automobile traffic Croton allowed to invade and clog its downtown area without providing adequate parking is the crux of the problem. Because it is obvious that additional parking cannot be provided at each of the offending giant strip malls—and that would only make them even more unsightly—something drastic will have to be done if Croton is ever to recover its lost small-town charm and innocence.

Suburbia everywhere in the United States mindlessly allowed itself to slip into total dependency on the gas-guzzling automobile, which has now become a Frankenstein monster. There is little consolation in the realization that the problem exists throughout the United States. We have 3 percent of the world’s oil, 5 percent of the world’s population, but we consume 25 percent of the world’s petroleum. We had our first hint in 1973 of what the future may be like when the OPEC retaliatory embargo reduced supplies of petroleum and caused universal panic.

Sadly, we failed to heed that warning. The planet’s petroleum may have already passed its peak. From now on, the future isn’t bright. The cards are stacked against a profligate America. As the supply of available oil diminishes, it will grow increasingly costly to produce. Unless we do something about our suicidal dependency on the automobile and do it soon, we shall all be driving to the poorhouse in our SUVs. What‘s so surprising about the exorbitant prices of gasoline and heating oil is not that they are unconscionable, but the way the American public has supinely accepted them without protest.

As for Croton, the original sin was committed a half-century ago when the first “downtown” strip mall/supermarket combination was permitted to occupy a central location. That sin was compounded by the naïve belief that if one such strip mall/supermarket was a benefit, adding other center-village strip malls/supermarkets would be an even greater good. Unfortunately, village fathers turned a blind eye to the visual blight they unleashed. Many residents still cannot see the automobile slums that blight the heart of Croton, not to mention the near-fatal blow delivered to traditional retailers because of their downtown locations. Curiously, despite the fact that Croton’s three giant strip malls are near or in residential areas, they attract few customers who walk to them. We are still helplessly wedded to our automobiles.

Other communities were fortunate in being able to keep strip malls and shopping centers out of the center of town, thus preserving the economic good health and balance of traditional downtown retail establishments. Would that Croton had done the same. We should stop kidding ourselves into thinking that Croton is anything like the village it could have been if village fathers had only had the planning foresight to say to developers, “No thanks, we like our downtown just the way it is. Go find some open land at the edge of the village on which to build your shopping centers.”

— Businessperson

On January 18, 2008 9:52 PM, Stu said:

Business person makes a very good case for the deliterious effect the automobile orientation of past commercial development has had on Croton and most other suburbia. I largely agree with him. On the positive side, in my view, is that, more recently, the Gateway concept has recognized what business person is saying and provided a different vision for the main commercial areas. Bringing this concept to reality requires a real effort by the Village to refine the laws to make the areas attractive to new businesses. In any case, it seems we are agreed that these areas need to be more pedestrian friendly and attractive and less automobile oriented. The Gateway concept is right on but it probably still needs to be tuned to attract prospective businesses.



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