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Nothing Gained: A Critique Of The Harmon Zoning Changes

December 19, 2009

The camel is sometimes jocularly described as a horse designed by a committee. Upon close examination, the zoning changes hastened into effect by the village board on December 7 as Local Law No. 4 turn out to be a veritable camel. Compared to the committee’s original recommendations, this addendum to the discredited Gateway Law is a miserable, mangy beast, a mere shadow of its former self. By no stretch of the imagination does this miscarriage of planning deserve the accolades heaped on it in recent congratulatory comments by supporters who obviously have not read it closely.

The third-floor of each new or remodeled building is reserved specifically for residential use, presumably to preclude any opportunistic retail discounter from renting there and advertising, “Walk up two flights and save.” Third-floor units could actually be more desirable, being farther from the odors wafting up from an exotic ethnic restaurant on the ground floor and its incessant music of cymbals, chimes and gongs. Similarly, the area behind ground-floor retail units is limited to residential use. But if living over a store is déclassé, what is living behind a store? One advantage: If you run out of sugar, you can always knock on the back door and borrow a cupful from your neighbor, the ever-smiling and obliging chef with the flashing cleaver. Can’t you see the hordes of young couples that will desert the Upper West Side and move to Croton to live in such desirable quarters? Fat chance.

The second floor may house any combination of retail and residential uses. Professional occupancy was originally an important part of the rental income formula of retail stores sharing space with professional offices and apartments. A felicitous amalgam intended to milk increased tax revenue from “revitalization,” it also conjured up images of lawyers’ clients stumbling over prams and strollers parked in the hallways. But not to worry. Such frictions will never come to pass. Professional offices are nowhere mentioned in the new law, which defines mixed use as “a combination of residential dwelling units and other permitted and/or special permit users.” I kid you not. It will be apartments and retailers plus whatever undefined “others” are able to pass muster with the Planning Board and receive special permits required from the Village Board of Trustees.

As if to emphasize Croton’s aggressive unfriendliness to commerce, the new law repeats the Gateway Law’s categories of banned legitimate businesses that are beyond the pale. In today’s hard times when we should be welcoming business of every stripe, Croton is like a panhandler insisting he will only accept a quarter if it’s a scarce collector’s commemorative coin. The recently enacted zoning changes do not represent intelligent planning; they are planning run amuck.

The earlier laughable Rube Goldberg concept of parking spaces shared between the various categories of tenants and customers has been quietly swept under the rug. In its place is a simple formula based on bedroom counts. Retailers will have to fall back on existing commercial district parking regulations—formulas that are notoriously inadequate, particularly for restaurant parking.

Advocates of the zoning change were loud in their criticism of the “dowdy” look of Harmon’s commercial area. A look I happen to like because of its quaintness and lack of pretension. In Harmon, what you see is what you get. Proponents promised that the zoning changes would alter that look, but don’t hold your breath. The committee’s original recommendations at least gave a nod to appearance in the following virtually unintelligible statement that “the third story must be designed to within the roofline and dormers, gables or other aesthetically pleasing design possibilities.

The zoning changes say absolutely nothing about aesthetics. What they do say is, “buildings in the area shall be subject to such additional design guidelines as may be adopted by resolution of the Board of Trustees from time to time.” So, after all the fuss and bother, the vaunted zoning changes are revealed to be nothing more than a work in progress! Still to come are the inevitable onerous nit-picking regulations that are the bane of venture capital investment.

I can comfortably make a prediction: Local Law No. 4 of 2009 will bring as much new development capital to Harmon as the 2004 Gateway Law brought to Croton in almost six years—which is to say, zero, zip, zilch, nada, nothing. One year, five years, ten years from now, Harmon will look pretty much the way it does today. And we can all thank our lucky stars for that.

Readers can read the text of the zoning changes adopted on December 7, 2009, as Local Law No. 4 will find it at the following link:

— Robert Scott


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