On The Waterfront: Developers and Environmentalists Square Off
In The Battle For The Hudson
Westchester Magazine, June, 2006
No one doubts that something must be done, but will pricey residential developments
improve our riverfront or ruin it forever?
By Dave Donelson
Welcome to Sleepy Hollow’s Lighthouse Landing, year 2016. About 3,000 people now live here on the bank of the Hudson River, in about 1,500 swanky townhouses and apartments with spectacular views of the river, the Tappan Zee Bridge, Kingsland Point Park and its historic 1883 lighthouse. When residents step out of their homes, they enjoy dozens of upscale shops, inviting restaurants, and even a hotel. While some Landing denizens work in the new office towers that dot the development, most board the train for the daily commute to Manhattan at the sparkling new Metro-North station, or take advantage of the high-speed ferry to the city from the recently built pier. On weekends, the crowds along the riverfront esplanade are thick with both residents and visitors; a favorite pastime is enjoying a drink at one of the Landing’s riverfront cafés while watching the gulls squabble and fight. Life at the Landing is pleasant, but it’s by no means cheap. Even a small, riverview condo sells for $1 million-plus; a townhouse here can easily set you back two- or three-times as much.
It’s hard to believe that, back in 2006, this was a desolate expanse of concrete, debris, and land filled marsh, the ninety-five-acre site of an abandoned General Motors plant. After decades of municipal squabbling, environmental posturing, and political machinations, Roseland Property Company developed the expensive community-within-a-community that now epitomizes the transformation of our county’s Hudson shoreline from a grimy and derelict no man’s land to an upscale residential section desired by many, but affordable to few.
Of course, this vision, like the ones presented to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, are just glimpses of what might be, not what will be. And whether you find this vision terrifying or hopeful depends on who you’d like to see win the struggle for control of the Hudson shoreline’s future. Almost everybody in Westchester agrees that something needs to be done to turn the ugly, mostly abandoned plants and factories that now dot the riverbank into something more appealing and accessible. But ask three people what should be done regarding development along the Hudson, and you’ll likely get three different answers.
In the main, opinion is divided among three different factions. There are unwavering environmentalists who speak of preserving open land along the river for future generations. Opposing them are powerful developers who perceive a vastly underutilized natural resource with immense profit potential; if they have their way, the stretch of the Hudson between Westchester’s northern and southern borders will be transformed into a series of high-priced, mixed-use developments like Sleepy Hollow’s Lighthouse Landing. Complicating the fray are local authorities and residents who are eager for new sources of revenue and amenities, but fearful of destroying the small-town character that has made life in communities along the Hudson so appealing.
On one end of the spectrum of opinion are visionary developers like Martin Ginsburg, who has built four residential projects on both sides of the Hudson—in Haverstraw, Peekskill, Ossining, and Sleepy Hollow—and has more on the drawing board (see “Riverfront Developments to Watch,” page 90). With his urbane suits, jet-black hair, sleek designer glasses, and modern architect’s aesthetics, he doesn’t look like the insensitive, bulldoze-everything-in-the-way profiteer that central casting might suggest. Nor does he speak like a “short-fingered vulgarian” (as Trump was once famously described).
“Preservation is important, but development and redevelopment are now important in the destiny of the river,” says Ginsburg. “We have this fantastic river and nobody goes there. No places, no activity, no nothing. You have a few places where you have some park benches on a lawn covered with goose turds.”
Still, the driving factor behind the riverfront redevelopment is money. Two big factors drive up the value of riverfront property: it’s pretty and it’s scarce. As Arthur Collins, whose third-generation private real estate company owns and operates a $200 million portfolio of multifamily and commercial office buildings from Norfolk, Virginia to Stamford, Connecticut, points out, “On a for-sale property, we normally add up to fifty percent more on the price of a riverfront property.” Collins says he is eager to find other opportunities on the riverfront. He’s looking at sites from Yonkers to Beacon.
Currently, there are more than twenty new residential/mixed-use developments either proposed or under construction along the forty-nine miles of river shoreline that marks Westchester’s eastern boundary. Ground is being broken from Yonkers (where Collins Enterprises’ Hudson Park Phase Two features two nine-story, $72-million buildings located northwest of the train station), to Peekskill (home of Ginsburg Development’s 500-unit residential development along Hudson Avenue). If all of the proposed and approved riverfront developments are actually constructed, they will altogether add nearly 5,000 residential units to the County’s housing stock.
Some observers, like Tarrytown-based environmental consultant Mark Fry, fear that in the headlong rush to redevelop the Hudson riverfront with thousands of upscale condos, a historic opportunity to rethink and refashion the relationship between the river and the thousands of current inhabitants who live along its banks might be lost. “The challenge is to bring new economically viable uses to the waterfront now that the industrial era is over, without radically changing the neighborhood character of the rivertowns,” Fry says. “You have to have a balance between public access and open parkland along the river and private, mixed-use development with an emphasis on residential.” Today’s developers, according to Fry, “are asking for much more than is appropriate, and municipalities are trying to bring it into a reasonable balance.”
To get a better sense of Ginsburg’s vision for the Hudson riverfront, visit his recently completed project, Ichabod’s Landing on the border between Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow. The forty-four-townhouse development is built on a former parking lot adjacent to the GM site, the proposed 1,250-unit Lighthouse Landing. From the stone-paved courtyard of the $45-million development, you wouldn’t know you were within yards of the Hudson; the three- and four-story townhouses, which are priced at $1,099,000 and up, block the view completely. The units themselves, of course, have great river views.
The townhouses at Ichabod’s Landing are attractively—if somewhat busily—detailed, with brick facing intermixed with stucco, copper-roofed porticos, window boxes, and roof lines broken up with dormers, a weathervane, and even a couple of widow walks. A generous setback allows for a pleasant esplanade, a gazebo, and unobtrusive landscaping that separates private property from public areas. Non-residents have complete access to the river and the adjacent vest-pocket park along the esplanade.
Ginsburg would like to see a busy riverfront, offering plenty of opportunities for people to enjoy themselves and spend a little cash while they’re at it. “The important ingredient of development is creating destinations on the river that include inns, spas, museums, and entertainment facilities,” he says. “Another important ingredient is having people live on the river, near the river, in proximity to the river.”
Of course, not everyone shares Ginsburg’s vision. The Hudson shoreline and its wetlands are “a natural treasure,” insists Ossining middle school math teacher, Joan Indusi, who was a strong opponent of Ossining’s Harbor Square, a 150-unit, seven-story apartment building, which the village has approved. “We have a responsibility to future generations as well as all the life in that area—the plants, the animals, the fish. We have a responsibility to keep it in its natural form.”
A visit to the Harbor Square site, next to the Ossining train station at Secor and Westerly Roads, reveals it to be far from enticing to anyone in its present state. Now, it’s little more than a weed-infested lot full of burned-out cars that were left when the volunteer fire department trained there. Kill Brook, a desultory ten-foot-wide stream, separates it from an oil-tank farm and a light industrial area on the north, while to the south, there’s a down-at-the-heels marina, a park full of driftwood and trash, a sewage treatment plant, and Sing Sing Prison.
So, why would Indusi or anyone else want to preserve it as a park? It’s not much bigger than a football field and it boasts a view of the sewage-treatment plant and the prison. Still, you might ask the same question to those considering buying an apartment here, but that’s something for prospective owners to decide.
Not all environmental groups stand dead set against any form of development along the river. Many agree with developers—up to a point: Westchester’s riverbank needs some serious attention. For much of the last two centuries, the Hudson was the ugly backyard of most of the Rivertowns, a place where job-generating industries could be located out of sight of the inland-facing communities, barges and railroad cars could make noisy deliveries, and the river could carry away the nasty effluvia of the mills and factories.
Today, a tangle of Metro-North Railroad tracks, abandoned and operating industrial sites, commercial properties, and the prison, block access to nearly half of the shoreline. Along great stretches of the river, fiddler crabs, muskrats, kingfishers, and great blue herons cavort among dredge spoil deposits and abandoned jetties.
There’s a need and opportunity to do something, but what? “I’d rather see a tastefully, thoughtfully done mixed-use development along the waterfront—with the big caveat that we preserve as much open space as we can—than see huge, sputtering industrial sites,” says Alex Matthiessen, president of the environmental watchdog organization Riverkeeper.
Ginsburg isn’t really in opposition. He insists that rather than shut off public access to the riverfront—which industrial sites do—his proposed developments will once again enable the public to enjoy the river as part of daily life. Ginsburg favors the county government’s planned RiverWalk, also a favorite project of Westchester County Executive Andy Spano, who hopes to connect established county-owned trails such as the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail with public esplanades like those on Ginsburg’s properties and new trails over lands with restricted access, including Metro-North Railroad property. If completed, the RiverWalk will span 46.6 miles from the Putnam County border to the Bronx.
Ginsburg points out that public access is an integral part of his waterfront properties. “All the streets at Ichabod’s Landing are public,” he says. “There are sidewalks where people can walk right down to the river, walk past your houses. If someone wants a gated community, they better not go there. It isn’t a cul-de-sac.”
Some communities along the Hudson fear that all the residential development on the books will irreparably harm their quality of life. Developers have occasionally presented mini-Marshall Plans that will rejuvenate the flagging local economies in places like Yonkers and Ossining, which have watched jobs vanish as local factories have closed their doors.
Some local governments are willing to chance losing the remaining manufacturing jobs in their towns in order to redevelop factory sites for residential use. In Yonkers, for example, Mayor Phil Amicone’s long-range vision includes building more than 3,000 new residential units on the narrow strip of land between the railroad tracks and the Hudson. The site includes some of the few remaining large industrial facilities in the city, including the giant Domino Sugar plant, Alben Stage Lighting, and Excelsior Bag factory, all of which are slated to be evicted at some point in the future, although Amocone hopes they will relocate in the city. Still, some 500 blue-collar jobs are at stake. It’s not entirely clear that residential development is a more lucrative replacement, since both industry and residential development feed customers to local retailers and service establishments.
“What I’m building isn’t affordable housing,” Ginsburg maintains. “It’s expensive to build and it’s expensive to buy. The people who will live in these homes will have disposable income. They will be able to support local restaurants and other businesses.”
Collins agrees wholeheartedly that high-income residents and their spending dollars are key to fiscal health. “Any city that’s actually spending money on infrastructure, cultural stuff, new libraries, that kind of thing, will reap benefits over the years,” he says.
That argument carried weight among city fathers in Ossining, where trustee Miguel Hernandez voted to approve Harbor Square because, he believes, “higher-income residents will purchase some goods in the village.”
Like many other riverfront villages, Ossining’s development site is separated from Main Street by the ever-present railroad tracks. In addition to enduring the periodic roar of passing trains, shoppers living on the riverbank have to navigate the viaducts that arch over the tracks and the tunnels that dip beneath them, or use the few pedestrian bridges, which usually connect through the train stations.
Most plans to turn affluent riverfront residents into village shoppers rely on some pretty big assumptions. For example, Hernandez opines, “there will be a trolley or jitney service that will connect downtown with this project.” And who will pay for the trolleys or for that matter, the extra police and services for these people?
“Plenty of studies have shown that residential development adds more burdens and costs to municipal services than it contributes to the economy,” reports Ned Sullivan, the president of Scenic Hudson, a Poughkeepsie-based environmental advocacy group with a special focus on Hudson River preservation. “Jobs are created during construction, but then the town has to pay for fire, police, security, waste water, drinking water, and schools.”
But Sleepy Hollow Mayor Phil Zegarelli isn’t worried. “The benefits will far outweigh the transition issues and problems we’re going through.” Besides, he points out, many services already exist in his town to serve the development. “The sewer line runs right through the GM site and there are existing water lines,” he notes. “It’s not like we’re taking farm land and building a community on top of it.”
True, but they are taking abandoned or nearly abandoned sites and building homes on top of them—which means more people. How many more people? In the case of Sleepy Hollow/Tarrytown, Lighthouse Landing, Ichabod’s Landing, and Ferry Landings, will be like dropping a new village the size of Ardsley—about 4,500 people—within their borders. Which means, of course, more cars and more traffic. According to Buckhurst, Fish, Jaquemart, Inc., consultants retained by the Village of Tarrytown, Lighthouse Landing will put 1,200 additional cars on the streets—primarily Route 9—during afternoon rush hour.
That vital North-South artery is already so clogged as it passes through Tarrytown that the fire department periodically parks its trucks elsewhere so they aren’t trapped between the Thruway overpass and the business district during the hours of peak traffic congestion.
As Tarrytown resident Mark Fry says, “In Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, Route 9 is a severe bottleneck, and there are no politically acceptable solutions. Blowing four lanes all the way through Tarrytown won’t solve the problem.”
The alternative to residential development most often touted by opponents is open space such as nature preserves and parks. “By cramming the waterfront with condominiums and retail outlets and parking lots, you’re also going to remove the opportunity to create open space and to make available once again this open space for the use of the public at large,” Matthiessen of Riverkeepers says.
Parks don’t add much to traffic congestion. By definition, they open the river to access by the public and you can even make a slim case that park visitors contribute to the local economy by shopping in local stores to fill up their picnic baskets on the way to the riverfront.
“For drawing new companies and stimulating your economy, natural, cultural, and historic resources that are big quality-of-life contributors are very important,” says Jay Burgess, director of communications for Scenic Hudson.
Former Ossining Receiver of Taxes Marie Gagliardi agrees, saying Harbor Square, for example, “could be a park and they could turn some of those buildings into shops and boutiques. God has given us this gift and we are destroying it. We are developing it like crazy.” So why not more parks?
One part of the answer is a rather cynical question: How many parks do you need? “If all you do is build ballfields, those downtowns are going to suffer forever,” Ginsburg maintains. Public parks currently comprise thirteen miles of the shore, the largest single use of Westchester’s waterfront. Some are large multi-use natural areas like Croton Point Park, which has 508 acres maintained by the county on a peninsula in the river offering everything from RV campsites to a nature study museum. Others are vest-pocket municipal spots like Hastings’s MacEachron Waterfront Park, slightly more than an acre with a picnic area, playground, and stunning views of the Palisades. All along the river are dozens of ballfields, trails, esplanades, scenic overlooks, boat launches, and hundreds of park benches.
Another part of the answer is a practical one. Railroad tracks dominate much of the landscape under consideration for development, part of the scene since 1846 when the railroad first reached Yonkers. To enjoy the waterfront in many villages, you have to cross the tracks first, and once you’re between the tracks and the river, the peaceful setting is periodically shattered by the roar of ten-car trains just a few yards away.
But for Ginsburg, the railroad presence is just one more reason to build homes by the water. “You’re supposed to put density where you have transportation. That’s exactly what you have in the old river- towns.”
Opponents point to Scenic Hudson Park in Irvington as an example of how industrial sites can be turned into parks instead of condos. “Scenic Hudson and the Village of Irvington got together and reclaimed a brownfield property and created a beautiful park,” Fry says. “It’s a great place to sit down after a long hard day and watch the river. There’s something elemental about a body of water that slows you down and gives you a place of refuge.”
The park is in a mixed-use area adjacent to Bridge Street Properties, a cluster of redeveloped industrial buildings with a mix of tenants, including women’s clothing company Eileen Fisher and Solera Restaurant. Interestingly, Bridge Street also intends to build residential units just north of their current development.
The great Battle for the Hudson won’t end anytime soon; feelings run too strong and there is far too much money at stake. Joan Indusi says of the developers, “Part of the health of a community is the beauty of its natural surroundings, and they are destroying that.”
“Environmentalists are very uncreative,” Martin Ginsburg shoots back. “They want to preserve the wilderness so no one ever uses it. I hope to make the river again an active part of the life of all the communities on the river.”
Perhaps. But Riverkeeper Alex Matthiessen warns: “If we don’t do it right, we will live with our mistakes for the next hundred years.”