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What's Wrong with the Harmon Plan?

August 3, 2009

To the editor:

Note: The following is the text of my letter to The Gazette of July 16, 2009:

Can a community be subjected to too much planning? “You betcha,” as soon-to-be ex-Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin would say in her folksy style. The poor woman is a prime example of the too much, too soon syndrome.

The Harmon Plan made simple. Croton residents are collectively being urged to buy a pig in a poke. The current proposal involves making changes in the 2004 Gateway Law, now part of the Zoning Code. But the gateway concept is based on the erroneous principle that Croton should be made attractive—not to Crotonites—but to visitors presumably coming here to shop. This law defines a gateway as “the roads and surrounding properties a motorist or pedestrian encounters when first entering the Village. These areas create a sense of arrival and connection to the Village, and establish an image and initial impression of the community.”

Had researchers with clipboards been positioned at two exits from the Expressway for a single day to question arriving motorists about their destinations, the fallacy of that premise would have been revealed. Aside from those going directly to ShopRite from the Expressway’s Croton Point Avenue exit, few are headed to local shops or businesses. Most drivers entering Croton are either residents or are transients headed to Yorktown and points east.

The Gateway Law is straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Pretending to attract business, it declares various legitimate and socially acceptable enterprises, including automobile dealerships and fast-food restaurants, to be illegal. In its five years on the books, this law has not brought a single new business to Croton. Among the law’s other unreasonable anti-business provisions is its mindless ban on drive-through windows. Studies show that these can actually reduce the need for parking spaces.

One wonders how Croton can ban fast-food establishments with a straight face when it has pizza parlors up the kazoo. Gateway Law framers freely acknowledge that the law was directed against national food chains. Yet we have a Dunkin Donuts and a Subway sandwich shop. The ban on fast food restaurants has been an empty deterrent.

Ever since the Expressway opened in 1967, Croton has been a backwater community cut off from the traffic stream. Although most residents welcomed the change, isolation comes at a price. Because of its isolation and small customer base, Croton is a poor prospect for capital investment in retail space—a reality that will haunt any Harmon redevelopment. The only way to bring about change is to ask NY State to re-route traffic through Croton as before. Fat chance.

Consultants. Croton also has a penchant for hiring consultants to support local planners’ shaky concepts. Such experts always lack any sense of the history and continuity of the village. A case in point is the contractor, Danth, Inc. On the basis of two brief visits, its report lists the ideal types of “niche” businesses Croton should target: “a cell phone store, a pet shop, stores offering knitting, women’s clothing, prepared meals, and full- and limited-service restaurants.” Unfortunately, every one of these businesses has been tried here and either failed or closed. The consultant obviously never bothered to read Croton’s zoning code. Its report, which can be read on the Village’s website, offers suggestions about the best locations in Croton for national chain fast-food restaurants! For these examples of the fallibility of advice from quickie consultants unfamiliar with Croton, the Village paid out $15,000 of our tax dollars.

That “eyesore.” The Dodge dealership has been a thriving fixture in Croton since the 1920s. With its punitive prohibition against automobile dealerships, the Gateway Law drastically diminished the value of the business and the owner’s ability to sell it to zero. Understandably, the owner did what any sensible businessperson would do. He closed the dealership, leaving the buildings empty—but still paying taxes.

Elsewhere in the Hudson Valley, new uses are regularly found for existing empty commercial buildings—but not in Croton. Proponents of the Harmon Plan now call the empty dealership an eyesore and the rest of the Harmon shopping area “blighted.” Having caused a viable business to close, they now clamor for the removal of the eyesore they themselves created. This reminds me of the teenager who murdered his parents and then begged the judge for leniency because he was an orphan.

Reminiscent of the recent real estate bubble, extravagant pie-in-the-sky promises are being voiced about the Harmon Plan. Beautification of the Harmon shopping area will create Harmon’s new “downtown” and attract throngs of strolling shoppers. Proponents seem unaware that Harmon’s future Times Square already has three very permanent and necessary gasoline stations and an automobile repair shop along its main drag.

It’s my Harmon, too. My family and I were not looking for a picture-postcard New England village when we went house hunting here in 1963. We moved to the Harmon area of Croton because it was what it was: an unpretentious workaday post-industrial Hudson River village with a good school system and frequent train service to the city. Because Clifford Harmon was a seller of building lots rather than a builder of houses, Harmon today is no Levittown, but a delightful mix of architectural styles from modest bungalows to more imposing residences. Its shopping areas can best be described as quirky or quaint—but appropriate to the history and character of the village. Most residents like it that way.

The Harmon redevelopment concept proposes to take the tax burden off the backs of Croton’s home owners with a Rube Goldberg scheme: (1) Raise the number of permitted floors in retail buildings to three and astronomically increase the number of walk-up apartments. Add a parking scheme resembling the game of musical chairs. (2) Wait for developers to flock to Croton and (3) buy, (4) demolish and (5) replace perfectly good buildings (including a landmark). Croton will then (6) undertake to find retail tenants, and (7) soak the hell out of them with high taxes, as promised by Trustee Olver in his patronizing letter to The Gazette. If you believe this unrealistic, self-delusional plan has a chance of succeeding, especially in today’s troubled economy, I’ve got a dam I’d like to sell you.

Robert Scott, Croton-on-Hudson

On August 25, 2009 9:30 AM, Seth R said:

In a time when we suburbanites, many of whom claim to harbor great concern for the natural world, are forced to acknowledge that our fresh-air bedroom communities are the most unsustainable element of our energy raping world. The Harmon plan, which at its core increases residential density and commercial activity in an already developed neighborhood near the rail line, is potentially the greatest gift we could give to the environment.

You write at length about the highway cutting the village off from the world; but this village is connected not by road but by rail. If you want planning to acknowledge history, then remember that Croton’s identity has always been tied to the Hudson Line, not Route 9.

The whole point of rezoning is to acknowledge our role as a bedroom suburb, and to shape our community in a manner that respects the environment at all scales, local to global. Policy should encourage development in areas that are within walking distance to the train. Commercial and residential development should be allowed to intermingle, as there are good reasons for both people and businesses to be close to mass transit.

In the end the identity of the village will evolve. It has to. Perhaps there is an essential sense of place that connects us to the Indians, and Dutch farmers, and Irish and Italian masons, and others who have lived here in the past. But that essence is ephemeral. It can’t be found along any road, or in any restaurant or store. It certainly can’t be codified!

The problem with these kinds of debates is the failure of one or both sides to acknowledge that the qualities we love in our village are not static. Changes are inevitable and can result in perceived improvements and failures, but resistance to change will always lead to failure.


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