It doesn't have to be one or the other. Read on!
Some Port Chester officials have condemned efforts to preserve parts of Main Street, insisting that there aren't any buildings worth saving. Let's assume, for the moment, that they are right. If nothing is worth saving, then Main Street becomes a blank canvas. What is the picture going to look like? What does the artist draw on for inspiration?
Stamford? White Plains? Harrison? The Bronx? Or do they consider that the old Life Savers factory, a non-descript utilitarian structure, was so iconic and beloved by Port Chester residents that the developer turned it into condominiums rather than demolish it? (above)
Does the artist do a little research, a little historical digging into the families that brought industry and wealth to the Village over the decades, and built Main Street to reflect those values? What's the right answer? What direction provides the most reliable outcome for success and future economic strength?
To answer that, we first have to remember that preservation of a building is NOT the same as preservation of a neighborhood. The "small town" character of Main Street was cited in a 2020 report as one of the most important factors in bringing new residents to the village. So people clearly understand, and appreciate, the familiar street-level experience of being in a historic retail setting. That experience translates into real revenue for the village, in many ways.
There's no question that many buildings on Main Street are past their prime, and probably can't be refurbished or modernized at any reasonable cost. Many of them don't have extraordinary architectural features that would make them worthy of preservation on that alone. But we don't have to invent a new way to deal with this. There are plenty of examples of towns that have chosen the path of "historic infill", a decision that guides them in matters such as design, zoning, use groups, residence, material, and size.
New buildings are meant to look new. But they can be good neighbors to history, too. Can you see this elegant tower in Port Chester's historic Liberty Square? And it's brand new.
The design concept is simple:
"The main factors for infill design are height, width, composition, rhythm, materials, color and setback. If a new building is surrounded by buildings of the same height, the building should be the same height. If the building heights on the block vary, the building should reflect an average of the heights of the buildings directly adjacent to it. In instances where the vacant lot is identical in width to the adjacent buildings on the block, then the new building should fill the entire width of the lot. In some instances, however, multiple buildings in a row have been demolished. If this is the case, then multiple infill buildings should be built, or one building visually separated into multiple parts. Each building or visual part should reflect the width of the adjacent buildings on the block. The composition and rhythm of a façade relate to the organization of its parts (window size and spacing, storefront height, roof and cornice forms, etc.). Each of these elements on new infill construction should relate to that of the surrounding buildings. " Revitalizing Main Street (National Trust Main Street Center)
Take a moment to hear the Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia discuss why historic Main Streets are so vital to the long-term economic health of the city. It's not just talk; they have turned the concept into a set of codes that are having a real, positive effect on revenue. Why can't Port Chester do it? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2XRNuFHUlg
This Architectural firm has developed a guide for sustainable, historic infill. Villages can draw from the examples given, to create a set of zoning guidelines that are clear, sensible, and revenue-friendly. Because the examples are based on real-world data from completed projects, villages can rely on the science behind the practice:
Don't accept the "all or nothing" revenue argument
The argument that full-scale demolition is a "sustainable" stream of revenue is wrong. It is, in fact, a risky one-shot attempt to raise revenue in the short term. Once all the Main Street buildings have been replaced, and revenue remains stagnant ( South Main Street and G&S, for example), where does the village go next to raise money? Sell off Irving Avenue? Sell off King Street? Your home street? Instead, a slow, careful replacement of derelict buildings is clearly sustainable. And, it can be locally funded and locally supported by resident business-owners and property owners who understand the value of keeping Main Street's familiar character. That only requires some careful thought in creating Zoning regulations, and some careful consideration of the impact on local business. And Port Chester can do it - if Port Chester is willing.
You can make a difference. Write or call your elected officials. Attend public meetings. Join organizations that are fighting to preserve the character of the village.
Norm Davis 3/14/2022