Friday, July 31, 2009

Good Old Urbanism - Hudson River Towns of Lower Westchester County NY

Continuing our exploration of examples of successful "old urbanism," existing communities that already manifest many of the principles of the New Urbanism .

The Hudson Rivertowns of Lower Westchester County , New York, are very popular places to live and, increasingly, to work.

These three small hill towns nestled between the city of Yonkers to the south and Tarrytown to the north are Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry , and Irvington-on-Hudson. They ascend steeply uphill from the eastern shore of the Hudson River and look across to the dramatic craggy face of the Palisades, sheer cliffs formed when seismic activity thousands of years ago caused what is now the riverbed of the Hudson to shear off and sink.

Historically, the Hudson has been a working river. Indeed, you can still see tugboats pushing oil tankers and barges up and down the river, as well as yachts, sailing ships such as the environmental sloops Clearwater and Ferry Sloops, small pleasure craft like sailboats, rowboats, kayaks, and motorboats. For many years it was an industrial dump, because most river towns hosted heavy industries on their waterfronts, and these, including such famed polluters as General Electric and Anaconda Wire and Copper, freely poured their toxic waste products directly into the river, leaving subsequent generations -- i.e., ours -- to deal with measuring and cleaning up heavy metal contamination and PCBs.
As the result of long years of lobbying and activism by environmental groups and concerned individuals, the Hudson is much cleaner than before -- there is even a swimming beach at Croton Point Park again -- but each village must still deal with its own waterfront pollution problems before it can proceed with redeveloping its precious acreage along the shore. The trend now along the length of the Hudson is for recapturing waterfront land for recreational and mixed-uses such as residential, retail, restaurants, and boating.

Hastings-on-Hudson, Dobbs Ferry, and Irvington are primarily commuter villages, whose residents take the MetroNorth railroad to jobs in New York City or drive to work in Westchester, Connecticut, or New Jersey destinations via easily accessible nearby highways.

The villages used to be much more evenly split between locally based factory workers -- mostly from immigrant families -- and professionals, such as lawyers, doctors, educators, administrators, etc., but since the demise of waterfront industries such as Anaconda in Hastings and the General Motors plant in North Tarrytown (now called Sleepy Hollow), the number of longtime locals still in residence has been steadily diminishing.

As former workers die or move away, newcomers taking their place mostly arrive from Manhattan or other parts of the country, attracted by the easy access to New York jobs and the excellent schools, abundant nature, and small-town life of the Rivertowns. This has driven up the cost of real estate to astronomical figures, further aggravated by the paucity of available houses and apartments to show prospective buyers and renters.

An attractive aspect of the Rivertowns is the stylistic diversity of their houses. Because buildable land has always been at a premium -- with a lot of "steep slope" conditions and because the villages are strictly bounded by north-south highways to the east and the Hudson River to the west -- development has historically occurred gradually. In recent years, several larger scale condo and townhouse complexes have appeared, but they do not dominate the landscape. Consequently, on an amble along residential streets, you might see a California Spanish style house next to a Colonial next to a very modern 1960s style house next to a Victorian or Cape Cod. The layered hillside terrain also keeps the mix interesting, so you never have the experience of acres of vacuous "little boxes" that make other suburbs so deadly boring.

The apartment stock is mostly old, especially in Hastings and Dobbs Ferry, although Irvington and the eastern edge of Dobbs Ferry have some newer condominium developments. Apartment buildings tend to be of the generic red brick variety, with traditional room layouts and not much in the way of terraces or decks. Cooperative apartment complexes abound, with all the attendant aggravation and uncertainty of one's expenditures and lifestyle regulated by the vagaries of coop boards. (And a word to the wise: Pet owners who can't afford to own their own home in the Rivertowns will find almost no rental or coop buildings available to them.)

The best things about the Rivertowns are how walkable and compact they are, how rich they are in parkland and other types of nature experiences, and how easy it is to access bigger shopping and other cities and places.

Let's take Hastings-on-Hudson, for example. When I lived there, my apartment was in the middle of the downtown, admittedly not where most people live, but everyone else was within a mile from town. I could walk to every type of daily shopping I needed. The three downtown shopping streets include supermarket, produce markets, natural foods store, delis, pizza parlors, Chinese takeout food, dry cleaners, stationery/toy/cards/gifts, bookstores (four of them), hair and nail salons, coffee/tea/sandwich cafes, banks, a flower shop, laundromat, hardware store, women's and children's clothing, toy shop, shoe store, diner, and several restaurants. The downtown also contains the municipal building, library, police station, a funeral parlor, and three churches. I may have left something out, but you get the idea.

Also within a few blocks of my apartment were the train station; the waterfront, with a park, tennis club, and restaurants; the Old Croton Aqueduct, a beautiful linear nature trail that traverses all the Rivertowns high up above Broadway and the Hudson River, crossing through backyards, forested lands, and estates; Hillside Woods, an old-growth forest with a fishing pond, nature trails, and a vernal pond; and, only a mile away, Dobbs Ferry, the next town upriver from Hastings. I could, and I did, walk regularly to all these places.

Hastings' waterfront is still an EPA Superfund site, and the acreage not used for recreational activities and dining -- that is, most of it -- is either vacant or covered with huge, decrepit industrial buildings waiting to be demolished for new uses. Even so, the ability to walk down to the water and sit next to the lapping waves, watch boats and ships passing by, and admire the looming Palisades cliffs on the opposite shore is a real treat and a great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of town.

Too much truck traffic passes through downtown Hastings, due partly to delivery trucks that service the commercial district -- a fact of life in any town -- but also to the huge semi tractor trailers that wind their way down the narrow downtown streets, on their way to a trucking company that leases space on the waterfront. County buses also drive through the downtown, as well as commuters and shoppers, with the result that it's more fume-laden than aromatic during the morning and evening busy periods.
In recent years, more local residents have decided to move their businesses from Manhattan to the Rivertowns, so they can live and work in the same place, with more time to spend with their families and recreation. Dobbs Ferry and Irvington each have former industrial buildings on their waterfronts that have been retrofitted into offices, design studios, and other facilities for yoga, dance, and light assembly and manufacturing. In Hastings, businesses such as a music studio, dance and exercise studios, graphic design company, architects, and law firms have found space in existing downtown commercial buildings or apartments located over stores. Due to the demand, these types of alternative work spaces are in tight supply.

Each of the three rivertowns has its own unique character, due partly to the idiosyncrasies of geography and partly to historic ethnic and economic features. Long ago, Irvington-on-Hudson was parceled out into large tracts of land owned by wealthy families and institutions For instance, Columbia University's Nevis Laboratories are located there, as is Sunnyside, the historic home of Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The streets on either side of Main Street, which runs from Broadway (Rte. 9) to the river, are only one block deep each, with densely packed houses originally inhabited by people who serviced the mansions and estate properties there. Irvington has a quiet, sort of buttoned-up feeling to it compared to the other nearby villages. Its waterfront features a large, beautiful park -- unfortunately strictly limited to Irvington residents only, who must show I.D. to use it -- as well as industrial buildings converted to office and studio spaces.

Dobbs Ferry has a very long commercial street, Main Street, which turns the corner into Cedar Street, a shorter commercial street. There are numerous restaurants, pizzerias, specialty shops such as picture framers, art galleries, cafes, recording studios, wedding apparel, cafes, women's clothing boutique, liquor store, gift shops, along with the usual hardware store, municipal building, post office, police station, supermarket, produce shop, and so on. There's an Italian flavor to this village, both in the "hill town" architectural style of many downtown buildings, and in some of the restaurants and cafes. Historically, Dobbs had a significant Italian population, mirroring that of Westchester County as a whole. At night Dobbs Ferry's downtown has some life to it, with restaurants and cafes open into the evening hours. There is a chronic overabundance of unoccupied storefronts, however, and the village hasn't yet figured out how to attract enough viable retailers.

Dobbs Ferry's waterfront is now entirely devoted to recreation, with sweeping views of the New York skyline and George Washington Bridge to the south and the Tappan Zee bridge to the north. A restaurant, two waterfront parks, and the commuter parking lot and train station share the site.

Dobbs Ferry has been struggling in recent years with deciding what to do with its "gateway," a rather unsightly multi-corner intersection at the intersection of Cedar Street and Broadway. Not a very attractive way to greet people arriving via Broadway, which up to that point is quite lovely and historic both to the south and to the north.

Even though Dobbs Ferry has more art galleries and a waterfront industrial building that is home to numerous artists' studios, Hastings-on-Hudson has a reputation as the "artsy" village, with a fair number of artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types in residence. (At last count, there were 82 published authors living in Hastings, approximately 1% of the village's entire population of 7,648.)

Hastings offers an art supply store, picture framer, a couple of galleries, a health food store, and several architecture offices.

Irvington and Dobbs Ferry built new libraries several years ago, and Hastings expanded and renovated its library.

The entire area faces the same problem that challenges other very popular and upscaling towns, which is how to provide affordable housing for longtime locals, such as seniors, who want to stay in their communities in the face of rapidly escalating property taxes and maintenance costs; emergency and school personnel; and young adults not yet in their peak earning years. These towns become more and more unbalanced economically, since only the very-highly-paid or multiple-income-couples can even consider biting off huge mortgage, tax, and maintenance payments.

In years past, the villages' tax base was a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial property taxes. Now, with the demise of local industry, there is too much reliance on residential property taxes, which must cover traditional municipal services as well as a growing school population drawn to the area by very high educational system ratings.

Like numerous other interesting former Rivertowns residents that I've known, I can't afford to live there anymore. And even if I could, the prices (and taxes) currently being paid for housing there are stratospherically out of kilter with the long-term value of those properties. I say this with the perspective of having lived in the Rivertowns for over twenty years, seeing values vacillate with recession and boom cycles.

Nevertheless, the Rivertowns are a naturally beautiful, walkable, relatively peaceful place to live, with easy access -- via the MetroNorth train that runs alongside the Hudson River -- to New York City, to the south; and via car to New Jersey to the west, to upstate New York and New England to the north, and to Long Island to the east.

As the real estate people say, it's all a matter of "location, location, location."

Good Old Urbanism - Aspen CO - All in One Place

Of course, no place is perfect, though several come achingly close to being ideal, if only . . .

And many downtowns are quite functional, though too many are tired and lack a contemporary spark, which robs them of their potential as stimulating gathering places. There's a huge difference between going downtown to cross off chores on a list and finding downtown warm, inviting, and socially engaging enough to want to hang around for awhile, watch the scene or chat with acquaintances and friends.

So let's get down to specifics and visit some examples of successful "old urbanism," by which I mean existing communities that already manifest many of the principles of the New Urbanism . None of them is perfect, and each of them has limitations that can frustrate a determined seeker like myself. If you can suggest additional places of interest, please let me know. This is a work in progress.
First stop is Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Functioning alongside the Aspen CO you've heard about -- famous stomping-ground of the rich and famous -- is the everyday Aspen of locals -- people who work and live there. It's really a less obvious, parallel universe to the glitzy destination resort experience.

It's interesting to live in a place that attracts visitors and residents from all over the country and the world and offers world-level culture, such as the Aspen Music Festival, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, dance festivals, Food and Wine Classic, filmfests, writers' festival, Physics Institute, and the Aspen Ideas Festival. At the same time, it's a daunting challenge to find affordable housing and meaningful or at least good-paying work in a town that's geared primarily towards mulitmillionaires and billionaires.

And, while most locals head downvalley to Wal-mart for the bulk of their necessities, I've found that Aspen provides me with everything I need for my daily living. As a native New Yorker, accustomed to doing my shopping on foot or via public transportation, I'll pay slightly more for the advantage of local convenience and quality.

While I briefly lived in Aspen at one time, I soon moved to the "midvalley." Once a day, I took the bus upvalley to Aspen, a twenty-five minute ride through breathtaking sky and mountain scenery.

Aspen's downtown is supremely walkable and mostly level. With the exception of a few landmarks such as the Wheeler Opera House, Jerome Hotel, Pitkin County Library, and St. Mary's Church, most of its buildings are only one or two stories high, so that wherever you walk or sit, you can admire the enormous mountains that ring the town. In summer they're carpeted with lush greenery and topped by a bright blue sky with cottony puffs of cloud. Aspen's uniquely sweet-sour fresh mountain air is intoxicating, making one feel like it's truly heaven on earth.
Even without errands to do, it's a wonderful place to simply sit and look, or walk and gawk. And since I'm a walker, that suits me just fine. However, for those who use a car (or, more likely, an SUV) to do their errands, parking can be a big annoyance.

Most of the shops and hotels within the downtown core, especially within easy walking distance of the ski lift and gondola, are extremely expensive, offering luxury goods rather than practical everyday items. Years ago, Aspen was famous for uniquely quirky one-of-a-kind shops. In recent years, due to skyrocketing retail rents, those stores have been replaced by national chains such as Prada, Fendi, Baccarat, The Gap, Banana Republic, ad-upscale-mall-nauseum. There are also furriers, art galleries, jewelers, tres chic restaurants, and high end purveyors of interior furnishings for second-mansion-owners. If you're not part of this world, it's easy to feel like you're always on the outside looking in.

What I've discovered, though, is that there's still a "basic Aspen" that provides me with a fulsome array of goods, services, and experiences. It's just not always obvious to the vacationer who arrives here in a busy social whirl.

For instance, there's a spacious, modern, post office, filled with natural light and powered by solar panels, with 24 hour access to mailboxes and friendly interaction with one's neighbors when waiting on line to send packages or get stamps. In the same shopping complex there's a hardware store, locksmith, Mailboxes Etc. (for copies and shipping), supermarket, video store (with lots of interesting foreign films and unusual movies), flower and gift shop, and two casual eateries. Also, a central plaza with picnic tables for eating, chatting, reading the paper, or staring at the mountains.

A block away is a beautiful linear walking path along the banks of the Roaring Fork River, so within a couple of minutes one can leave urbanity and enjoy nature. Two blocks the other way is a large park with soccer fields and a skateboard park.

Across the street is Pitkin County Library, one of the most comfortable, quiet, and well-stocked libraries I've found anywhere. A large video collection, free Internet access, and an extensive music collection round out its offerings. And the free local phone in the lobby is handy for checking back home about things to add to the shopping list.

Within several blocks are other staples, including a large pharmacy with a funky general store upstairs; a wonderful independent bookstore with a vegetarian cafe; an athletic club with a lap pool, steam room, whirlpool, exercise equipment, climbing wall, and physical therapy services, tucked unobtrusively in the basement of an office building.

On my way to the downtown bus station, I could shop at another supermarket and treat myself to pizza, unusual sub sandwiches at a funky sixties' style deli, or fresh made crepes at the legendary Popcorn Wagon across from the Wheeler Opera House, home of Aspen's various film fests. And there's the fun of looking for clothes at the Aspen Thrift Shop and at Susie's, a fashionable consignment shop, where one can discover brand new ski jackets, sweaters, and all kinds of fancy finds the rich discard, for a pittance of their original cost.

These are just a few highlights, and I'm leaving out hair salons, restaurants, shoe repair, photo finishing, dry cleaners, musical instruments, and pet supplies, among other things. The point is that, once I'm in town, I can take care of everything I need to do on foot. And if for some reason I'm too tired to walk, I can take the free buses that ply the downtown and go as far out of town as the airport five miles away.

So for walkability, view quality, fresh air, access to urbanity and nature, errands and exercise, and potential for what I call "bumpintas" -- bumping into aquaintances and friends and saying hello -- Aspen scores quite high.

The negatives start to creep in when the astronomical cost of real estate in Aspen requires that most people live "downvalley," in one of the towns anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 1/2 hours away by bus or car. It wasn't always thus, when both locals and tourists mixed in Aspen's famous "messy vitality" of years past. But with only a limited amount of affordable employee housing available in Aspen proper, and with entire neighborhoods, like the picturebook Victorian West End, empty most of the year, except for several weeks when billionaire second homeowners spend a little time in their Aspen houses, it's a sad lesson in the downside of urban sprawl.

It also means that Aspen's pretty quiet in the evening, despite its busy party scene late at night. With everyone leaving town to go home after work, the downtown core feels emptier than it should, given how built up it is. It's like walking through a Hollywood stage set, after the cast has gone home for the day.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the four-laning of Highway 82, which forms the spine of the Roaring Fork Valley, spanning between Aspen and Glenwood Springs, is a consequence of the relentless stretching out of the Aspen experience. It makes for safer travel than the old two-lane highway, but it also enables more traffic both into and out of town. It has inspired more downvalley housing developments than the area can really support, given the heavily tourist-based service economy. Especially during an economic downturn, one wonders where all the new homeowners will work, once they migrate to this beautiful yet fickle place.

So, in order to do all my errands, and get the inspiration and exercise I need every day, I, too, take the bus upvalley for a thirty minute ride each way. The bus service, called RFTA (Roaring Fork Transit Authority, pronounced "rafta" by the locals), is excellent and frequent and not too expensive, but it's not my first choice of how I want to live. To be a truly complete Best Urbanism experience, living here should allow me to step outside my door and walk directly to everything I need, and on that note, living downvalley fails the test.

Oh, yes, and sitting next to me as I type is my dog Snowy, who reminds me that my other frustration is not being able to take frequent walks around Aspen with her. Since I can't take her on the bus, she gets far fewer adventures outside the confines of our housing development, and that's disappointing for both of us.