Washington Irving (1783-1859) was the Stephen King, or perhaps even the Jay-Z, of nineteenth century American. His book, Life of George Washington, cemented in public memory the iconic image of “the founder of our country.” His Tales of the Alhambra was an international best seller and is still widely sold and read in Granada, Spain. The short story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, has created a cottage industry in the river towns of Westchester County, New York – focused on Halloween. Not only was Irving a wildly successful author, but he was also a U.S. Ambassador to Spain, which led to his travel by donkey from Seville to Granada, where he visited the Alhambra and camped out in a room there for several months providing the material for his highly entertaining Tales. My recent trip to Granada persuaded me to download Irving’s collected work and to read the Tales, as well as his ridiculously silly history A History of New York, written under the nom de plume of Diedrich Knickerbocker. Irving was also our Homer – the bard of our national myths.
I crossed paths again with Irving this year when I was invited to be a part of an Urban Land Institute Technical Assistance Panel for the Village of Sleepy Hollow, New York. The panel was brought to the Village by Mayor Ken Wray, and ably led by Developer, Kim Morque, President of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners, LLC. The panel was made up of eight talented and congenial real estate professionals, from a variety of disciplines, who spent two days in Sleepy Hollow, walking the study area, interviewing stakeholders, and ultimately presenting to the Village Trustees. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and our presentation seemed to be well received by the Trustees. I am grateful to Kim, my panel colleagues, and Felix Ciampa, Mara Winokur and Kathryn Dionne of the ULI staff who organized the panel, as well as to my good friend and colleague, Dave Stebbins, of Buffalo, who recommended my participation (The complete report will finished in a month or so. When it becomes available I will link to it here).
Sleepy Hollow is a Village of about 10,000 people. It was known for a very long time as North Tarrytown, but changed its name in 1996 to take advantage of its association with Irving’s story about the infamous headless horseman. A majority of the population of the Village is Hispanic, principally Central American, who primarily live in the dense Downtown area. The non-Hispanic Village residents live mostly in areas that are more typical of the familiar leafy Westchester suburbs. Two Metro-North commuter stations are easily accessible to the Village. The median household income for the Village is around $55,000, but the MHI for those that those who are Hispanic and live downtown is considerably lower.
The most important economic fact about Sleepy Hollow in its modern history is that it was the home to a 90-acre General Motors automobile assembly plant until 1996, when the factory closed. In it’s heyday the plant employed 2,100 people. As a result, North Tarrytown was more of a working class community then the other Westchester County Hudson River towns, and the Village’s retail businesses were geared to serving the plant’s employees. When the plant closed it left an empty, environmentally degraded site.
In 1996, Diversified Realty Advisors of Summit, N.J., and SunCal of Irvine, Calif., partnered to purchase the property, which adjoins the Hudson River and presents the potential for waterfront exposure, from GM and proposed to build 1,177 residences, 35,000 square feet of office space, 135,000 square feet of retail and a 140-room hotel. The project is now called Edge on Hudson, was the subject of a nearly completed two-year zoning special permit application to the Village, and site remediation is nearly complete. As part of the special permit, the developers agreed to turn over to the Village an adjacent 70-acre site for its use as a public space and a facility for its Public Works department along with some cash to pay for capital improvements to the site. According to Mayor Wray, when the project is fully built out, it will contribute $6 million in additional property tax revenue to the Village’s $22 million budget.
The legacy of the Rockefeller family also has a big footprint in Sleepy Hollow and adjacent communities. The Village is the home of Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) and its Philipsburg Manor property, which draws about 100,000 visitors a year, and Kykuit, a Rockefeller estate, last used by Governor Nelson Rockefeller, is nearby. Visitors to Kykuit must purchase their tickets at Philipsburg Manor. Nearby is the Michelin three star restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns – one of the country’s most important farm-to-table restaurants (where the prix fixe is $258).
While Irving himself lived south of the Village at Sunnyside in Irvington, he is buried in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, along with Brooke and Vincent Astor, Walter Chrysler, Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Gompers and a host of other notables. The Cemetery is part of the headless horseman/Halloween mystique of the area and draws an international clientele of tourists in the fall.
Mayor Wray asked ULI to send in a pro bono team to assess the situation and advise the Village on how it might best leverage The Edge project and the Village’s other assets to its best advantage. The Village prizes its distinctive identity as an economically and ethnically diverse community, with a dense downtown. It struck me that the danger for the Village is that once construction of the Edge is complete, Beekman Street, the Village’s main street, connecting the Route 9A/Broadway north-south artery with The Edge and the waterfront, could become merely a driveway for the project. Today Beekman has a few bars and restaurants, many bodegas and other businesses serving the local Hispanic community. The architecture along Beekman, while not particularly distinctive, is a fairly uniform representation of early 20th Century vernacular commercial design.
Based on my time there, I came away with the following reflections:
Like in Gloversville, about which I recently wrote, the Village needs to concentrate its economic development energy in a small, defined geographic area, in its case on Beekman Street between Kendall and Lawrence Avenues. The goal should be to create a critical mass of activity in that corridor, in an attempt to attract business from existing residents, new homeowners at The Edge and visitors to the HHV properties. There are already three or four bars and restaurants in that area, and the Village needs to raise their profile – particularly in a partnership with HHV — and add to their number. We were told that Village residents of the neighborhoods outside of the downtown tend to go to other nearby communities for their entertainment and dining. This, no doubt, arises out of Sleepy Hollow’s long reputation as a working class town that is a little rough around the edges. That perception needs to be changed – without materially altering the Village’s appealing existing character.
It’s important to focus economic development efforts in a small geographic region – in order to generate the synergistic effects that generate even more activity. Working on varied sites that don’t physically relate to each other dilutes the impact. There are two other commercial corridors in Sleepy Hollow that need attention, on Courtland and Valley Streets (which once was the Villages commercial center), and once Beekman develops its own economic momentum, Village leaders can then attempt to push out that activity towards the other areas.
The public space along Beekman, from building line to building line, probably reflecting the Village’s early 19th Century history, is only 65 feet – presenting a challenge for public space animation. But we recommended that existing restaurants be encouraged to place movable tables and chairs on the sidewalks – as well as on parklets built-in parking spaces in front of those establishments. As clusters of bars and restaurants create a destination and tend to be more successful, we suggested that the Village dedicate resources to taking some of the risk out restaurant startups. Its local development entity could do the build-out of the kitchens and mechanical systems of empty retail spaces, and perhaps take control of those spaces and lease them out at sub-market initial rent, in order to attract restaurant operators to the downtown by decreasing their initial operating risk.
Those food and drink establishments also should have a higher visibility presence on the websites of the major local attractions, HHV and the Cemetery. We were told by an executive of HHV that Sleepy Hollow restaurants were poorly reviewed on Yelp – and therefore HHV was reluctant to promote them – but a review of Yelp and Trip Advisor found generally high marks for Sleepy Hollow bars and restaurants.
We suggested that the Village aggressively attempt to have owners of vacant retail property in that strip along Beekman make those spaces available to artists as work spaces at low-cost on a month-to-month basis in order to activate those spaces — particularly at night. The downtown already has a high density of residents, who we are told do live their part of their lives out doors in the warmer months. Some of that activity is regarded as anti-social, including the sale of hard drugs, so those places need to be reprogrammed with positive social uses– following Holly Whyte’s dictum that “good uses drive out bad.”
A progressive landlord, Kevin Kaye, who is also a moving force in the local merchants’ association, recently purchased an empty lot near the center of this area. He seemed interested in the idea of creating a market on his lot; perhaps a night market, featuring the food of the countries of origin of local residents – Ecuador, Columbia, Chile, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. A Latin American food market would enable entrepreneurial activity by local low-income residents, be unique in Westchester County, leverage the unique Latino character of Sleepy Hollow and might well draw visitors from around the region. Such a market could begin with booths under canvas, and if it were to become sufficiently successful, be moved to a purpose-built food hall. In addition, the existing very successful farmers’ market, which is well run by a Village group, should be moved from a park that is not particularly close to Beekman, either into the road bed or to a nearby parking lot to maximize the potential synergies with other Village businesses. Its park presence fails to maximize its potential to assist in Village revitalization.
Across the street from that lot, in front of the Morse Elementary School, is the one widest sidewalks in the area. Planters and benches have been put there, but like the hanging baskets along Beekman, they are not well maintained. The practical purpose of streetscape improvements is to convey a message of social control of public space. Not maintaining them sends exactly the opposite message – nobody cares or is watching out. That sidewalk is in a key location for animation. The planters need to replanted and taken care of and the block needs more intensive programming. Its location in front of a school makes it a good location for the selling of food (and, of course, ice cream) out of stands, or maybe trucks. Perhaps a regular crafts fair (featuring Latin American goods sold by local residents) could be successful here. Between the sidewalk and the school is a large parking lot – which ordinarily produces a dead spot. But programming this block could turn a liability into an asset.
The gateways into the downtown need to be more clearly marked. You can drive by Beekman (as I have, many times) on Route 9 and not even know that there is a commercial district down there. The best solution would be an artwork highlighting the Village’s history and perhaps listing its businesses. But even a banner (which I generally view as lame) would be better than the attractive but uninformative historic clock.
The Village’s zoning resolution was created for a town supporting a major industrial facility that left the area more than twenty years ago. This leads to a high number of variances sought by owners attempting to upgrade or develop their property. With all volunteer zoning and planning boards that meet once a month, this can lead to serious delays. The Village needs to commission a master plan study and to adopt a zoning resolution for the downtown that promotes the kind of dense, mixed-use development that will be complementary to the new use of the GM.
The Village is very focused on what is called the “East Parcel,” which is across the Metro North tracks from the Edge and was deeded to the Village by the developers along with some money to design and build out new public space. While additional public space is always welcome, especially in a community as dense as the center of Sleepy Hollow, the East Parcel is too far from the activity of Beekman Street (or the other two commercial corridors) to contribute to its revitalization. In addition, it is essential to note that maintenance and programming is more important to the success of public space than design and capital investment. In the short-term, the Village can focus on “lighter, quicker, cheaper” solutions to activating the parcel, to see what kind of uses residents would actually take advantage of. Putting out chairs and tables, erecting temporary fabric shade structures, making available chess boards and bocce balls all are inexpensive ways to activate public space. Most importantly, in developing the parcel the Village needs to make sure substantial resources for maintenance and programming have been identified in its operating budget before committing to tens of millions of dollars of capital funds.
The issue of parking tends to dominate discussions of revitalization of main street corridors. The only local transportation in the Village is a county run bus that runs hourly at most. While Sleepy Hollow at present owns only one off-street lot, there are a number of privately owned lots that become available to the public in the evening. There is also additional surface parking planned for The Edge and the East Parcel. Our group recommended that the Village think about running a tram from Route 9 (where the existing Village-owned lot is located) along Beekman to The Edge (which will have its own parking) as well as to the two Metro-North stations used by the community. The tram might be paid for out of receipts from a re-priced parking system. Rates at the curb should be raised, in order increase turnover and to encourage parkers to use-off street lots. The entire system should be priced in such a way as to pay for its management, enforcement and the tram. Such a tram should reduce vehicle traffic on Beekman and increase the Village’s walkability.
It’s always odd when a team of experts parachutes into a community for a day or two and comes up with a bunch of recommendations based on such limited information as to make them seem arrogant. But it does present an opportunity for a community to be able to hear some new ideas from outsiders whose imaginations aren’t limited by long participation the ongoing community conversation. Sleepy Hollow is a unique village that appears to have thoughtful progressive leadership, and a commitment to maintaining its diversity and improving the quality of life for all its residents. It is a town with a great assets and a great history, where even a headless horseman should feel at home.