July 9, 2007
The million-dollar village with a 25-cent problem
By Bill Fallon
Bronxville just sent out its tax bills. The top private home assessment was $8 million. Retail space runs $40 to $80 a square foot, depending on who’s interested, who’s next door and where the space is. The commercial district straddling the train tracks thrums 7 a.m. to late at night.
Yet Bronxville’s leafy, slate-roofed confines possess a dark, two-bit secret. Everybody knows it: the elephant in the village living room. It’s the parking: 25 cents at village meters, if you can find one open.
In the course of dishing 130 parking tickets on weekdays (40 on Saturdays) trying to keep cars moving along the village parking enforcement officers work at the volatile heart of the storm.
“You have to have thick skin for this job,” said enforcement officer Russell Pinto, writing a ticket. He is often the target of the “f” word, as he gently put it.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Robert F. Abele III, owner, along with his father, of Gillard’s Stationery on Palmer Road. “If a person comes in here to shop regularly and gets two parking tickets goodbye, customer. It’s a complete nightmare. We have triple-parked cars.”
Yet the economic activity there are only two vacant storefronts in the village is undeniable. Senior citizens mix with packs of youths in a throwback to the pedestrian life more modern towns forgot.
Abele III, 37, grew up in the store, went to the Bronxville schools and professedly loves the village. “I want to do what we’ve always done help people, watch kids grow and be a part of the community. I love city planning and small-town America and what it stands for. Having a village function on a healthy manner at its peak requires something for everyone, but it can’t be insular.”
He credits Gillard’s presence to “dogged determination and the fact we’ve been here more than 30 years.” The store dates to his father’s youth. Robert F. Abele Jr. folded newspapers for Herman Gillard’s predecessor, Frank Castro, when Castro ran the store at the site of the current Bargain Box, across Palmer Road. Herman Gillard bought it in 1952 and moved it to its current spot.
“It was a hayloft,” Abele Jr. said. “They loaded the hay in up here and threw it out back to the horses down below.” The area now houses different horsepower: several auto repair shops, fronted, like seemingly every business in the village, by filled parking spots.
A troika of options
Abele III favors better manipulation of existing village parking, including workable five-minute zones. Others, including Pinto, speak of the need for a parking tower; Lawrence Hospital already has a triple-decker. A third idea is to make Pondfield Road and Kraft Avenue one-way streets, forming a wide loop that would not clog traffic while one vehicle waits on another to vacate a spot. Mayor Mary Marvin says all options are on the table. The big April flood may yet have its say, too.
On July 10, residents will vote on a referendum to pay for school damage wrought by the April nor’easter: “We had 8 to 12 feet of water,” said Marvin.
The flood touches upon the parking issue because the proposed bond, for $12.2 million, may douse plans for any capital project fix to the parking.
The school’s Web site notes FEMA and insurance reimbursements may eventually factor into repair finances, but “the exact amount of reimbursement is not known at this time.”
“The school needs now weigh heavy on big capital projects,” said Marvin. “But we also have to protect the merchants. The flood did not help.” She has authorized a parking study the thrust of which, she said, is alleviation and not revenue generation.
Said Jon Gordon, president of Admiral Real Estate Services with offices in the village and New York City: “It’s not that hard to find a parking spot, you might have to drive around the block a few times, but people are frustrated by the traffic. It backs up while one person waits to park and creates what we call friction: obstacles to getting into stores.”
Gordon represents the former Try and Buy toy store, now vacant on Pondfield Road. The store is one of two gap teeth in the village economic scene; the other is the former Village Pastry Shop on Palmer Road. Gordon said there is a lot of interest in the Try and Buy space, although he is only interested in the right tenant to complement the many properties he manages between Andre’s Hardware Store and Blue Tulip, covering the west side of Pondfield Road and the south side of Kraft Avenue. “Some landlords don’t care who they rent to, but we do,” he said. The store is not available to banks and real estate offices, and could only accommodate a restaurant with a zoning variance, all due to village ordinance.
Bronxville has about 6,500 souls, only a few hundred more than 40 years ago. And therein lies a mystery. Everyone says it is more congested now than historically. So where are these people coming from?
Bronxville has become, in the words of Cliffhangers’ owner Joy Kilbourn, “a destination village. It’s clean. It’s safe. It’s pretty. It’s pleasant to walk around. It’s a legend. Now, we have a lot of restaurants. It’s become a destination village.” And, she said: “The parking is punitive.”
Kilbourn has witnessed the village commercial scene during 40 years in business, 38 of them on Pondfield Road. The store dangled over the cliff on Midland Avenue in Tuckahoe its first two years; hence the name. She used to know everyone who walked by her store. Now, “On Sunday I walk around and the streets are crowded with people and I don’t know who they are.”
Unprompted, Marvin also used the term “destination village.”
The out-of-towners are packing eateries that feature talented chefs and, occasionally, big-time Manhattan pedigrees. Requests for comments on Bronxville’s allure (and on its parking) could not draw several owners into on-the-record conversations.
Said Abele III: “Restaurants have worsened the parking problem. The couple parks and leaves the car for three hours. We need better parking management, including workable five-minute zones. We do not need a parking tower.”
“The parking has gotten worse” said Marvin. “It’s supply and demand and we don’t have a big enough supply. We have to consider everything. We’re working on this by arranging zones, but you can rearrange things just so much. I’m open to all ideas.”
In a statement that earns an A for forthrightness, the village Web site states: “Bronxville is a small village with a major train station and limited space to park.” Meters operate 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., free on Sundays and six holidays. Tickets are $15. No parking on public roads from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.
Some blame the banks for the parking woes. Financial institutions have sprouted to the point you can’t swing a dead IPO without hitting one and the village now bans them on the main thoroughfares. “We suffer from a proliferation of banks,” Marvin said. The chamber of commerce reports seven: Citibank, Emigrant, HSBC, Private Bank of the Bank of New York, Trustco, North Fork and Chase.
One bank willing to speak offered no doom and gloom:
“Bronxville has a thriving retail and business community and is home to thousands of existing Citi clients,” said Citibank spokesman Rob Julavits in written response to several questions. “It’s an important part of our tri-state footprint.” He called the village “a vibrant community” that attracts people. “Like many towns in Westchester County, traffic can be a challenge, but we believe our clients have convenient access to our branch.”
A new name in the village bank scene is The Private Bank of the Bank of New York, “a trusted investment adviser to high-net-worth individuals and families, working with them to find ways to grow and preserve their wealth for future generations.” The landmark building on Kraft Avenue was long a regular Bank of New York branch and before that it was home to Gramatan National Bank.
The Gramatan name is common around the village and south down Gramatan Avenue into Mount Vernon. In 1666, as a state plaque at the bottom of Gramatan Road, beneath the old Hotel Gramatan puts it: “Gramatan, Chief of the Mohican Indians, signed a deed transferring Eastchester to the White Man.” The sum is not recorded. The spot is identified, appropriately for Chief Gramatan, as Sunset Hill. Other regional tribes included the Aquehung, longtime mascot of P.S. 8 on Bronxville Road in Yonkers, and the Stockbridge, which lost 17 members and Chief Nimham fighting with the Colonists in a 1778 battle commemorated on Van Cortlandt Park East about 2 miles south of the village by the Mount Vernon Daughters of the American Revolution.
The Hotel Gramatan rose in 1905 and fell to the wrecking ball for townhouses in 1972. Writing in “Building a Suburban Village,” produced for the village centennial in 1998 and edited by Bronxville Chamber of Commerce historian Eloise Morgan, Ann English noted the hotel was the home to Mrs. Jefferson Davis, who arrived in 1907 “for an indefinite stay.”
The widow of the president of the Confederacy may well have come for the water.
Harriet Rockwell founded the Gramatan Water Co. some time before 1890, according to Morgan. The business survived to the 1970s when its lifeblood, an artesian spring on Midland Avenue, dried up. “There was a spa there, too, for hotel guests,” Morgan said. “The water was touted as the equivalent to Poland Spring in Maine.”
At the other end of the village at the same time, an odoriferous tanning business thrived, drawing immigrant workers to the area and, according to Morgan, stinking up the neighborhood. “The scent if that’s the right word would blow up to the original Lawrence mansions, over the whole village, in fact.” The leatherworks burned down in the 1920s, to be replaced by today’s Midland Gardens apartments, and a starker contrast tannery to tony may not exist in the history of development.
Bronxville’s commercial district is peppered with several stores with long histories: Joan Manning Gifts, 42 years in the village; Topps Bakery, 80 years; Pete’s Tavern, 70 years; and Mrs. Morgan’s Flower Shop, 81 years.
There are also real estate offices recalling that $8 million assessment, it’s big business.
Real estate broker Virginia Esposito grew up in nearby Crestwood, lives in the area and works now in Scarsdale. She worked 13 years in the village as first a licensed real estate agent and then as a broker.
She has seen up to 50 Bronxville homes on the market at one time. “Other times, very few.” The day she spoke for this story there were 35 for sale, but she offered a suspicion several might quickly leave the listings. She ticked off eight real estate offices in the village. A perusal of the Guide, the chamber of commerce local phone book, showed a dozen, but that can be deceiving.
In the tricky world of Bronxville real estate, it’s tough to tell by a listed address where the tax bills come from. Much of nearby Yonkers calls itself Bronxville and carries the 10708 Bronxville zip code. “Bronxville P.O.” is sales speak for the extremely villagelike expanse between the Bronx River and the Sprain Brook Parkway and north into Cedar Knolls; and also south of Palmer Road to Sarah Lawrence a Yonkers college and into Lawrence Park West. Lawrence Park West was developed in the 1890s, along with Bronxville’s original mansions, by William Van Deuser Lawrence, Sarah’s Lawrence’s husband, a medicine baron with a bent for social engineering.
Lawrence actively promoted the notion of “bridging residential and commercial areas,” according to “Building a Suburban Village.” It’s no accident that Scarborough Fair’s Marketplace has the same substantial look as nearby residences, and that the contiguous storefronts are Tudor design.
Esposito was in the village recently and the reason was: “There’s a night life here. The restaurants, the movies.” She had seen “La Vie En Rose” at the tri-plex on Kraft Avenue and had dinner at Haiku on Pondfield Road, pronouncing the fare “very good.”
The movie theater is an institution. The lines for “Jaws” in 1975 stretched clear to Sportcraft, now Botticelli Bridal Boutique. It keeps its classy, quirky bona fides with the likes of an ongoing classics festival Wednesday and Thursday nights featuring movies like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Casablanca” and “Raging Bull.”
The mayor is on board with the equation: “It’s dinner and a movie. The movie theater factors into the restaurant equation. It’s a synergy of setting.” And it’s gaining momentum: “We have a lot more restaurants than we used to have.”
“Bronxville is overrun with banks, restaurants and doctor offices,” Abele III said. “It’s a town out of balance. Definitely out of balance.”
Gillard’s might well qualify as a counterweight to banks, restaurants and doctors’ offices, offering many things seemingly everything they don’t. “This store is a big work of art that’s a reflection of me,” Abele III said to background tunes from Velvet Underground on the radio. The ever-evolving store is a benevolent hurricane of an Abele-prescribed minimum 50 options: newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, paper clips, pens, coffee, gifts, lottery, milk, soda, candy, nickel photocopies. “We provide a service. We’re the only store open on this side of town if you’re waiting all night to have a baby born, or for the nurses on the night shift. Very few people would have a bad thing to say about the store. It has an old feeling, not a corporate vibe.” Store hours can run to 20 hours per day, with 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. a fairly typical tag-team day between father and son and several workers.
For Kilbourn, longevity in business means, “You have to keep changing what you do. You have to reinvent yourself. Be true to yourself and buy things that have integrity. The most important thing is service: knowing your customer and caring about your customer. We know all about them and they know all about us. We know the glad things and we know the sad things. We have some wonderful customers. They have good taste and we do, too.” And, with co-worker Jill Gearon demonstrating her wizardry with boxes and bows, “We love wrapping it’s fun.”
Gillard’s used to sell up to 1,600 Sunday New York Times; now 200. Cigarette sales have fallen with the advance of Internet tobacconists. “We sell the papers with the home delivery inserts that are killing us.” But Gillard’s is still one of largest newspaper distributors in lower Westchester.
Said Jackie Majers Lackman, who, along with husband Heath Lachman, bought Topps Bakery last fall: “Bronxville is an exceptional community for store ownership. The residents of the town and the surrounding communities really seem to support us regularly, and particularly around holiday times.” To speed the rising process, she offered: “It might be fun to be able to put tables and chairs on the street or have the breakaway store front that opens up for the summer. It probably could be done, but would require many, many months of approvals, planning, paperwork. Also, rents are extremely aggressive, as you can imagine, so any relief in that area would make a gigantic difference.”
Several doors down from Topps is Blue Tulip, a stationery and gift shop, on the former site of the Gap, or further back in time, E.S. Bellis Pharmacy. Gap spokeswoman Sarah Anderson offered nothing specific to the village as the cause of the Gap’s failure, citing generic causes like location, performance and number of clothing stores in the marketplace. “It’s always a difficult decision to close a store,” she said.
Spare a quarter?
Gap corporate headquarters did not know of the parking difficulties outside its one-time shop. But an anonymous exchange there proved informative:
Man (laden with coins): “Can I have $2 for these eight quarters?”
Woman (producing dollar bills): “You’re not from around here, are you?”
Man (quizzically): “How did you know?
Woman (sagely): “Nobody gives up their quarters in Bronxville.”
Bronxville residents often earn like A-Rod. They love education and pay dearly in taxes for their love. Three different residents used the word “gem” to describe the school in interviews conducted for this story. They also support their stores. Such loyalty, in the world of parking tickets, can lead to repeat offenders. But what to the ticketer is a serial ticketee is to the merchant a dedicated customer, one who knows the parking difficulties and braves them anyway again and again.
Kilbourn praised residents for choosing to support village shops and several merchants spoke glowingly of “loyal customers,” notable because Central Park Avenue in Yonkers with its big stores and ample parking is only a mile away. But for Pinto, sizing up another miscreant at a meter: “They need a parking structure.” Absent that, he said, better signs on each meter would be helpful, especially alerting people to the fact there’s a cutoff on every meter and pumping in a hundred quarters won’t earn $25 worth of time.
But enough doom and gloom. This is Bronxville, a village so can-do its mayor was historically referred to as president. The sidewalk flower beds in the business district boast delicate flowers of the sort less genteel hamlets would grind into compost. The Bronxville Auto Center gas station on Palmer Road has not a square inch of soil, but it has planters bursting with geraniums. Village Hall just finished a $5 million upgrade to become Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant, among other improvements, and boasts oil paintings by accomplished Bronxvillites.
“The entire village is beautiful,” said Joan Manning, owner for 42 years of Interiors by Joan Manning on Pondfield Road, purveyors of gifts and decorative accessories. “We have beautiful stores. We have everything that’s good.”
Manning offered a qualified endorsement for a parking structure, saying, “Nothing is 100 percent. There are advantages and disadvantages. But outside the parking you can’t do better. The stores are conscious of their responsibility of everything that makes for a pleasure to shop. The people are helpful and courteous.”
And don’t forget, as Marvin put it: “You can park and do five errands in a short time. There’s an ease of crossing off the to-do list.”
All you need is a quarter.