year end essay

Focal Points Create A Ripple Effect Of Good Living and Economic Prosperity

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Let’s Take Our Diamonds In The Rough And Give Them a Coat Of Polish

By Tina Traster

People ask me what I think about this or that all the time. They figure I know more than a bit about Rockland County. I’d like to modestly say that I have a fair sense of the county’s zeitgeist, though no place is without its mystery.

As we wrap up 2022, we tend to take stock. Where does that project stand? Is that mall going to survive? Will the cinema remain open? Is anything ever going to get built on Nyack’s waterfront? Will Stony Point’s Letchworth stand ghostly for time eternal? These are some of the questions that arise as the wine and spanakopita is passed around at year-end soirees. During the final weeks of the year – amid the celebrations, wind downs, travel, and anticipation of turning the page – we gather our thoughts. We take stock. We ponder what will it take to make our little corner of the globe a better place.

The good folks of the Village of Nyack, for example, continue to wonder how to better utilize its diamond-in-the-rough waterfront. The stalled TZ Vista development on Gedney Street along the Hudson River remains a black hole while a pair of developers remain locked in legal battles, and the former River Club restaurant is still a vacant site waiting to be reinvented. Waterfront development kickstarts prosperity. In Nyack, it’s stalled. The village tries in so many ways to utilize its assets – beautiful architecture, a vibrant downtown, restaurant scene, more housing for younger people. But the waterfront piece is unmined treasure, and that’s too bad.

On the waterfront in the Village of Haverstraw, in contrast, plans are afoot to transform the nine-acre former Chair Factory site with housing, retail, and a hotel. Kudos to the village for the initiative it’s taken to get a game-changing project jumpstarted.

Villages like Nyack or Suffern or Piermont benefit when they have a focal point. The loss of the Helen Hayes theater in Nyack left a void, a cultural crater that if replaced with a theater or cinema somewhere in the village, could be a strategic focal point for the village. Suffern has the historic Lafayette Theater, a treasure that needs more exposure and buzz. We’ve recently learned how fragile our cinema-going opportunities may be here in the county when there was a chance that Regal would walk from The Shops at Nanuet. For now, there is a reprieve, and Simon Property Group and Cineworld are likely negotiating, but a single-screen historic theater in a community is certainly a way to differentiate a village and build a movie-going culture around it.

Speaking of The Shops at Nanuet, I’m often asked what will become of that outdoor mall? I don’t have a crystal ball and Simon is not especially transparent. I’m hoping Regal keeps the magic going but I do have some unsolicited advice for the folks at Simon. We see a new generation of retail coming to the outdoor mall – some hopeful, some not so much. The new artisanal coffee shop Roast’d, which replaced Starbucks, indicates what is possible. But I believe Simon needs to be more than a passive mall filled with retail tenants, a cinema, and a gym. That mall has the unique advantage of being an outdoor venue, and the pandemic taught us that we can really enjoy the outdoors in all seasons. Simon should think about robust programming that includes the arts, music, dance, theater, readings, festivals, food year-round and often– the kind of activities that draw crowds to have experiences that make us feel like the mall and its real estate is truly part of the community.

And if the property owners really wants to change up the equation, why not use the fallow Sears building or the empty Macy’s floor or some part of the property for a brewery, winery, cidery or artisanal food or crafts market?  Because guess what – that’s what draws scores of people, especially younger people, to a place. It becomes a focal point, like a cinema in a village.

Speaking of magnets, let me share a recent experience I had in New Canaan, CT. I visited Grace Farm, an 80-acre former horse farm that was saved by a foundation and transformed into a gorgeous public space with stunning pods of glass and wood buildings that serve the public interest. There is a café, tea house, library, exhibition space, and an ethereal indoor amphitheater where free concerts are held. I visited this slice of paradise recently and wished so much that Rockland County had a place like this – both a sanctuary and yet a space to commune with others. I thought about this property and its spectacular architecture, and it brought to mind the rotting HNA (former IBM site) on Route 9W in Palisades that the Town of Orangetown now has a hand in. I recognize that a project like Grace Farm calls for philanthropy and fundraising and all the elements that bring projects like this to bear – but in the end they drive people to the area, to the downtowns, to the artists and vendors who work on site.

Focal points or unique places to gather, enrich and enliven our lives. We want walkability, craft products, good culture, and great stewardship of land that still has the potential to be something other than another big box, warehouse, or drive-thru. Maybe it’s a lot to wish for, but hey, isn’t that what we do when we count down to a new year? Happy New Year, Rocklanders. Aim high.