Going downtown: Chappaqua and other Westchester communities look to revive
by Michael P. McKinney, Rockland/Westchester Journal News | May 29, 2019
Northern Westchester County towns are rethinking their downtowns in the aftermath of the shift from brick-and-mortar shopping and millennials’ strong desire to live closer to public transport.
For Chappaqua, the downtown revamp that’s under construction comes with wider sidewalks, plazas that promote meetings and gatherings and a new light to help streamline traffic. In Pleasantville, a plan under consideration would turn part of a parking lot into a park, close to the village’s farmers market and new loft apartments.
“A central village gathering place — it’s an opportunity to respond to what so many folks who live here and so many folks who are moving here are looking for,” said Pleasantville Mayor Peter Scherer.
Downtowns have for decades faced challenges, from shopping malls drawing away traffic to the suburbs to electronic commerce. There was a time when clothing stores anchored downtowns, attracting people in to shop.
But retail is no longer enough to sustain the business districts, municipal officials have said. Many places, like Mount Kisco, have pushed in recent years to fight retail vacancies by drawing more restaurants and businesses that online shopping can’t replicate. And new housing near public transportation is in demand.
“In the past, I think the downtowns were there just as an amenity to the people who lived in the town but what they’re seeing now is having a vibrant downtown really is a draw,” said Jonathan Gordon, president and chief executive of Admiral Real Estate Services, a Bronxville-based brokerage for various businesses and shopping centers throughout northern Westchester.
Towns and villages may look to change their land-use laws to draw businesses and developers while giving residents more reason to head downtown.
Here’s a look at how four downtowns are poised to change.
Chappaqua aims for walkable downtown
The streetscape project that’s underway comes after nearly two years of replacement of thousands of feet of decades-old sewer and water lines downtown. The New Castle Town Board in 2017 awarded an $11.6 million contract for the projects.
A decorative clock, ornamental streetlamps with energy-efficient lighting, and patterned sidewalks with decorative brick pavers and brick crosswalks are some of the new details residents and visitors will notice over the next few months.
Across from the Starbucks, the corner of King Street and Greeley Avenue will become more of an outdoor plaza. A traffic signal and more crosswalks will be installed at the intersection, which has been a tricky interchange for the uninitiated.
Drivers headed down steep King Street come to what intuitively would seem a place to stop before turning left or right, but it isn’t. They’re supposed to proceed right through while cars on each side of Greeley wait — sometimes for a while. It also can prove challenging for walkers to cross in the area.
The goal, Town Supervisor Rob Greenstein said, is to make the downtown more pedestrian-friendly and safer, widening sidewalks and adding the pedestrian plazas.
Toni Magnotta, owner of longtime business Chappaqua Cleaners & Tailors, said she thinks the traffic signal is a good idea and likes making the area more walkable with plaza spaces that draw more foot traffic. But she feels attracting more eateries will be the key to long-term success for the downtown because they will draw visitors and create a greater mix of businesses.
“When the weather is beautiful, people love to sit outside and kick back with a drink, have a meal, enjoy the weather,” she said.
Magnotta said she and others have been concerned about the project’s effects. “People don’t want to come downtown because the construction is difficult to navigate,” she said.
Another concern for some, Magnotta said, is the plan to turn Allen Place into a two-way street, which she feels will reduce parking spaces that are at a premium for merchants there.
In recent weeks, brick pavers have been installed along Greeley Avenue. Next week, safety bollards will be installed in crosswalks.
Also coming are new benches, bicycle racks, ornamental fencing, and an informational kiosk.
Once the streetscape is done, town officials will look at a next step: Zone changes to allow housing closer to downtown.
Pleasantville plans community park
At the heart of the village is Memorial Plaza, which serves mostly as the train station parking area. A landscape architect earlier this year showed village officials how a half-acre piece of it could become a park, or civic space, divided into four distinct areas.
Wagner Hodgson Landscape Architecture, the firm behind the project, envisions one of the four spaces, known as the “flexible lawn area,” hosting community events such as movie nights. Another, “the bosque,” would have trees to offer shade over people relaxing in bistro-style chairs.
Another section of the park would essentially be a quieter area allowing residents to sit back. At the center would be a plaza with umbrellas and furniture, similar to New York City’s Bryant Park.
The Pleasantville Farmers Market, which is held on weekends at Memorial Plaza, would continue to be held on the redesigned park/parking area. And there are places to eat all around.
Meanwhile, the Lofts — 23 upscale apartments — are nearly complete on nearby Washington Avenue. The same developer, Hexad Holdings, has proposed 82 more units that would run alongside the parking lot in Memorial Plaza. That proposal is being reviewed by the Planning Board.
Mount Kisco’s mixed-use plans
Village officials are considering allowing mixed-use development, such as retail on the ground floor and apartments on higher floors, on a 7.4-acre area owned by the village on South Moger Avenue. Any proposal would have to keep existing parking capacity for the train station and accommodate additional parking needs of new housing.
The two lots in question are zoned for businesses. But, using what’s called an overlay district, mixed-use buildings of up to four stories, or 50 feet, would be possible.
The idea is “to reinvigorate downtown with new residents, commercial activity, and civic amenities, all of which will contribute positively to the public realm in downtown Mount Kisco,” according to the village’s request for development proposals.
Yorktown Heights looks for ideas
One of Yorktown’s five hamlets, Yorktown Heights is looking to enlist local resident Andrew Drews to help steer a new chapter for its downtown.
Drews, who has a background in urban design, would bring graduate students in architecture as soon as next academic year.
“The idea is to deliver a vision for Yorktown center,” said Drews, a member of the town’s Economic and Business Revitalization Committee.
The graduate students, he said, would look at Yorktown Heights and later at the other hamlets and come up with proposals.
Yorktown Heights’ downtown has long been anchored by older shopping plazas and large parking lots. It doesn’t have a Metro-North Railroad station.
But it’s seeing developers propose apartments, including one to demolish the Roma building at the intersection of Routes 35, 118 and 202, and put up a four-story building.
Having more apartments means making downtown more walkable, Town Supervisor Ilan Gilbert said.
“You have to rethink,” Gilbert said, “and think outside the box.”