To the editor:
The Democratic Committee has invited interested citizens to attend a workshop at the Ottinger Room of the Croton Free Library on Saturday, June 14, at 3:00 p.m.
Who was the genius that selected the date and time—a sunny, summery Saturday afternoon in Croton when anyone with half a brain and a swimsuit will be at Silver Lake or out sailing on the Hudson? The announcement also should have promised snacks and cold refreshments supplied by one of Croton’s delicatessens. Lately, the leaders of Croton’s Democratic Party have shown themselves to be insensitive to the nuances of local politics. Rank amateurs, I’d call them, which is why they are out of power.
Anyway, I won’t be there. These are my reasons:
Firstly, it’s foolish for the Democrats to politicize the issue of Croton’s commercial recession. Now is the time for bi-partisan action, not for trying to scoop up a fumbled ball and run with it. This “workshop” only underscores the political ineptitude of the current leadership of the Democratic Party. They tried the same one-sided approach to a debate during the election campaign and got egg on their face for their pains.
Secondly, until Croton publicly acknowledges a few “facts of life” that affect planning, workshops like this will be fruitless venues at which to try to make coherent plans. These “facts of life” that inevitably will dampen the interest of new businesses in Croton include the following: (1) Having been bypassed by the Croton Expressway, Croton’s attractiveness to business has been reduced because of the diminished customer base. The energy crisis only increases the desirability of businesses that serve narrow local needs. These are the kinds of businesses Croton should be seeking.
(2) Amended in 2004, Croton’s village code abounds with restrictions inimical to new business. At a time when Croton should be doing everything possible to attract new business, its code absolutely prohibits (a) desperately needed parking lots (because they would compete with the village’s own station parking lot?), (b) drive-through windows (which have been shown to speed up transactions and reduce the need for dormant parking space), (c) certain fast-food restaurants (when Croton abounds in fast-food restaurants; the recently opened Mex-to-Go is a fast-food restaurant and opened despite a ban on fast-food restaurants) (d) automobile agencies (the largest empty commercial space in the village housed an automobile agency until recently).
(3) Croton’s commercial/retail shopping district is not one single continuous shopping street, as in Tarrytown or other Hudson Valley villages through which the old Albany Post Road runs as the main thoroughfare. Croton finds itself with five discontinuous “nodes”: (1) the shopping mall clustered at the ShopRite Supermarket enclave; (2) the South Riverside Avenue/Harmon shopping strip; (3) the Van Wyck/Croton Commons facing shopping strips; (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. Each of these poses separate and distinct problems.
Thirdly, it’s useless to hold a workshop to ask residents to describe “the Croton we want” when we don’t even have meaningful data about “the Croton we’ve got.” If you ask most people about what they would like to have in their communities to make them ideal, studies show that they want (1) tourism (to bring dollars); (2) gambling (to do away with long trips to Atlantic City or Indian casinos); and (3) low taxes. When they learn that the community that fits these specifications is Las Vegas, Nevada, they quickly rearrange their priorities.
This points up the inadvisability of asking ordinary citizens to participate in planning. The disastrous 2004 restrictive gateway amendment to the zoning ordinance was the result of asking people for their ideas about “the Croton we want.” Well, they got “the Croton they wanted,” but it was a Croton that no business wanted. In the four years since passage of the amendment, not a single new “gateway” business has ventured into Croton because of the ultra-restrictive nature of the amendment. How much more of a cause-and-effect relationship does Croton need to find in these statistics before action is taken to repeal this onerous law?
Croton’s graphic example of the unwisdom of citizen input is Trustee Tom Brennan’s unlamented and poorly designed questionnaire circulated in 2006 asking citizens to expound on “the community center we want.” When the meager results were in, it was apparent that responders had acted like the proverbial “kid in a candy store” and had asked for the moon. It turned out that the results were all over the map. The questionnaire was an example of the “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride” syndrome. The resultant community center would have resembled the Taj Mahal in size and splendor—and would have cost just as much to build and equip. To make matters worse, the Village spent additional dollars on a consultant firm it hired to analyze the questionnaire results. The consultant firm it hired could draw no significant conclusions about what Croton’s citizens wanted—other than “a little of everything.” The result was predictable, given that the questionnaire made no mention of cost as a consideration.
Village government, which should be a leader in the movement to make Croton more attractive to business, has been laggard in its actions since it awakened to the seriousness of the business recession. The first reaction of the Mayor and the Trustees was as expected. They went out and hired some consultants. Even before consultants were engaged or workshops held, among the more obvious actions that could be taken, the village of Croton has the manpower and means to begin a census of available commercial properties in Croton with the objective of ascertaining: (1) locations; (2) size; (3) rental history and turnover; (4) how long currently vacant; (5) rent/sq.ft.; (6) rental term in years; (7) amenities (gas, electric included?). (Photos of these properties have already appeared on Crotonblog under the rubric of “Croton’s Album of Shame.”)
The statistics on empty properties can then be compared with statistics from other and perhaps more thriving communities. But when Croton itself doesn’t know the parameters or the extent of the problem, how useful can citizen input be? At the same time, in order to interest new businesses, Croton should be taking a census of existing businesses to create a sort of Yellow Pages that could be used to attract businesses able to form a symbiotic relationship with existing Croton businesses. Such a survey would answer a question that has been bothering others and me: Does Croton really have 17 delicatessens and a half-dozen nail salons?
Croton’s problems with empty storefronts are twofold: An immediate problem whose solution might be offering assistance to landlords to fill empty retail properties. and a longer-term problem whose solution might be conversion of some properties to new or multiple uses through zoning changes. Either way, a unilaterally sponsored, politically inspired workshop inviting citizen participation is not the way to go. As I said at the outset, it’s useless to hold a workshop to ask residents to describe “the Croton we want” when we don’t even have meaningful data about “the Croton we’ve got.”