Stores big or small—or none at all? Planning Board balks at retail zoning for Chappaqua Xing

Advises the matter be run through a master planning process
Thursday, July 17, 2014
by Christine Yeres

Racing to finish their comments on the Chappaqua Crossing proposal before the July 22 public hearing, last Tuesday the Planning Board members Bob Kirkwood, Tom Curley and Sheila Crespi didn’t confine themselves to questions of size of the retail proposed, big stores versus smaller ones, how many restaurants, or additional uses such as garden or auditorium; they also expressed deep reservations about the project.

The three carried on crafting remarks for the Town Board on details of the proposed zoning and preliminary concept development plan but also questioned—as they have repeatedly over the two year’s review of the proposal—whether the Town Board should be considering creating a third retail center in the middle of an established residential neighborhood.  They ended by recommending categorically that a policy discussion take place through a community master plan process before any decision by the Town Board. 

Uncomfortable still that the proposed zoning change language makes short work of inconsistencies with the existing master plan by simply stating that there is a community need for proposed the grocery and retail shopping center, that New Castle is an “underserved market,” and that the retail use was somehow “foreseen” as possibly necessary by the 1989 Master Plan crafters, Planning Board members’ same old questions surfaced on Tuesday. And each one of them expressed frustration that comments they remembered making weeks before on the zoning language for Town Planner Sabrina Charney to pass on to Town Board members seemed to have been dropped from the latest draft zoning text before them.  Plus, they had received the materials they must comment on the very afternoon of the meeting.  They have scheduled an extra meeting for noon on Friday, July 18.

See Near to public hearing, Boards’ thinking on Chappaqua Crossing is all over the map, NCNOW.org, 6/20/14.

Retail: community’s need or developer’s opportunity?

With vacancies abounding in Pleasantville, Mt. Kisco and along Bedford Road “and an ample supply of retail space, I don’t think,” said Tom Curley, “anyone had demonstrated the need for more stores for any of the townships around us.”

Rather than characterize New Castle as an “underserved market” whose needs Summit Greenfield is proposing to fill, Curley explained that developers “have to create a demand, create a space people want to go.  These are essentially ‘diverted trips.’ It doesn’t mean that you need that place, but now you want to go to that place.”

“So it’s one thing,” said Curley, “to say [as it does in the proposed zoning language] that is there is a need in town for more retail—and I understand why the applicant would want to make that case, but [not] why the town would want to make that case….  It’s not so much a “need”—but the applicant and the retail community represented by these consultants is saying ‘There is an opportunity here that the developer can capture.  Not a “need” necessarily, but the opportunity for diverted trips.’”

“There are two fundamental objectives in the legislation,” Curley continued, ”—to establish a need—which I can’t find anywhere demonstrated—and, second, to provide a commercial tax base.  Planning is about that, too.  With respect to commercial need my question is not ‘Big stores or little stores?’ but ‘Why any stores?’”

Planning Board members balked at the retail plan from the start

“We had this conversation long ago.  We’re so concerned about the hamlets—how do we build this [grocery-retail at Chappaqua Crossing] and save the hamlets?  We [Planning Board members] said ‘Don’t build it.’”

“We said there’s a zero-sum game for Westhchester,” said Crespi, ‘’—but particularly here.  When you build more retail, you’re going to take it from other [places].  You’re going to capture that retail from somebody else’s retail.”  It could “end up undermining the vitality of the hamlets and defeat the purpose of what’s being billed as additional revenue for the town.”

“My concern,” Crespi continued, “is that bringing people to [Chappaqua Crossing] does not bring them to our other shopping sites in town.  And the AKRF report actually says that: ‘The new grocery store will draw from new customers who would not ordinarily shop in Chappaqua,’—and the reverse is that it will also draw from people who do shop in the hamlet.”  Grocery, she said—quoting from the AKRF study—yields “a low percentage of linked trips.”  AKRF’s remark that an “increased awareness” of the other existing shopping areas in New Castle might bring additional business to the existing hamlets, said Crespi, “is like a hope and a prayer. People are going to shop at Whole Foods and then go elsewhere [to other towns]. This does not in any way indicate that this is a plus-plus for New Castle.”

Zoning that will “change the face of our town”

“We need to talk about this,” said Curley, “because were talking about using zoning legislation to change the face of our town and it really has, in my opinion, less to do with the applicant and applicants’ proposal—that’s downstream—but it turned out that the Town Board, in its wisdom, decided to collapse all these things together and bundle them all up and that has—not purposely—made it difficult to sort through what would normally be a rational planning process. 

“And what we’re talking about now has much more to do with the rational planning of our town and where we put our resources.  If we’re concerned about the future of Millwood and Chappaqua we ought to be focused on those problems—instead of saying ‘We’re going to do this over here [at Chappaqua Crossing] and it’s not going to hurt you’—I don’t quite understand that.  We ought to be focused on those problems in a serious planning effort—and, by the way, there are are serious development proposals for actually doing something for Chappaqua.”

Maybe someday a good idea, but no way to know without master plannning it

“So from the get-go,” said Curley, “this zoning seems to be something we ought to be looking at—we’re talking about the details of the language [of the Town Board’s proposed zoning changes] and we need to go through that and [make our comments].  But I wonder if going through the details of the language shouldn’t be couched in a conclusion—that we may not be ready to reach—that this zoning is just something altogether that’s a bad idea.  Not that it couldn’t someday be a good idea, but a bad idea because nobody has a clue as to what it’s going to mean to the town’s master plan. 

“The way you do these things at this scale is you start with a public policy question and you go through a public policy process to figure out whether you want to change your town this much. You don’t have it arrive on your desk as a development proposal and then make a two-sentence change to your master plan to allow it to happen on the same day that you do your zoning changes. 

“Then you take it to the zoning board to make sure you have the zoning will work then receive applications under that zoning and decide whether to go ahead and grant it that way.

“But this is not good regional planning, it’s not good town planning, it’s not community planning and there’s a very severe consequence to a very real neighborhood and a set of people who have every right to be concerned and every right to feel that planning’s not serving them either.

Stores big or small—or not at all?

“[These issues] cut through all the other language [in these documents].  So when we talk about ‘big store or small store—we can have that conversation and I think small stores have much less of an impact than big stores, but the fundamental question is why have any retail at all?”

Crespi picked up the store size problem, saying “I think small and big stores will both affect the existing hamlets. Not that one store or another will stay in business, but overall whether there is a thriving business district in downtown Chappaqua and Millwood.

“One of my big concerns is that Whole Foods itself is the category-killer that has grocery, bakery take out, catering—whether the rest of the stores are big or small you have your major anchor taking business out of the hamlets.”

“My A&P in Millwood,” said Curley, “—our distinction is that it’s the smallest A&P on the planet—if you go to the one in Mt. Kisco, it has bakery, take-out—all the things Whole Foods has, but in a different price category and product delivery category of ‘organic’ and ‘locally sourced.’”

“And a lot that’s not organic,” added Crespi.  “They have it all.”

“Whether a Whole Foods or another specialty grocer,” said Curley, “that whole category is not something that we actually need to have in our community. We’ve got plenty of grocery stores. Nobody’s starving.  It’s not a need.  It may be a desire—of a smaller segment of the population than we otherwise know about—as a weekly shopping trip, and for a larger segment something to do once a month or for a special occasion, and for the rest of us it’s just not something important to us.  It’s not a need, it might be a wish.  It’s more a development opportunity for a developer rather than it being a community need.  So when we talk in the zoning [amendment] about the justification that it’s for ‘community needs’ and for tax revenue, it’s not a community need.  And therefore the impacts associated with this take on a whole other dimension.

“If someone were to come up to me and say ‘Well, how about a Whole Foods in your community?’ I might say ‘That sounds great,” but if they then say, ‘Oh, by the way, a Whole Foods in your community means there’s going to be all this traffic on 117 and Roaring Brook Road with the whole school situation there, and they’re going to place this thing in the middle of an established residential neighborhood.  And by the way you have a whole bunch of people in this neighborhood who have lived in this town and raised their families in this town and then all of a sudden their life is going to be disrupted to the extent of having this thing next door’ —I would think a whole lot different about whether I would want a Whole Foods. I would say, ‘Put it in Bedford Hills. Let somebody else have it.  That’s not our town.  It doesn’t have to be here.’

“These are less technical questions [than commenting for the Town Board on the zoning changes], but they’re the questions,” Curley concluded.

Proceed along two tracks

“I think the way to proceed,” said Planning Board Chair Bob Kirkwood, “is to write a cover letter to the Town Board expressing these sentiments, if they’re the sentiments of the Planning Board—while at the same time realizing that the Town Board has a situation—whether real or perceived—that its back is up against the wall, or they have to take action or something.  But I think you raise important questions.  And I’m late to the process myself, but this is certainly not inconsistent with my gut on it.  I think the approach here is to do it in a bifurcated way.  It’s a two-part thing and, by god, I think it’s in each of our memos already.  The memos are presumptuous in that the whole underpinning is that the legislation is appropriate.  And when you pull that underpinning out, well, now we have a whole different equation here.

“So we should be traveling in two different lines: a planning line for local regional and community planning, and for the specifics [of the proposed zoning amendments].

“Sabrina [Charney, Town Planner] and Tom and the applicant, town board and staff have been working on it for many months, so let’s travel in two lines.  I think this is critical.  I think it’s what’s been troubling me, because we haven’t had that different level of conversation.  I wasn’t sure where you guys were a year or two ago before I came in…”

This belongs in a master planning process

“This is where we were,” said Curley, “when this first came in [two years ago] which is: This belongs in the master planning process.  They should not do this before the master plan is done and all the things we’re talking about right now are exactly appropriate in a policy discussion.  I’ve already started to put a letter together that I can—or we can—work on and decide whether it’s the right tone and right message to go out.”

“I think that each of the two ways we travel,” said Kirkwood, “could be equally constructive to the Town Board—from a 40,000-feet-high level and up close on the specifics as well.”

The above discussion runs from around the 3-hour, 51-minute mark to the end of the meeting, about two hours.

Town of New Castle Planning Board Meeting 7/15/14 from New Castle Media Center on Vimeo.

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