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RiverSpace – The Next Step?

The other side of “If you build it, they will come” is: “I threw a party and nobody showed up”.

RiverSpace should be lauded for its attempts at self-subsidization. And the Village of Nyack should certainly take a long, hard look at any proposal that might contribute to a solution to its own festering economic blight. However, to hold urban re-developments, such as those in New York City, Columbia Heights DC, Providence RI, and even Poughkeepsie NY as the paradigm for Nyack to emulate is both naive and wrong-headed. Each of those mentioned had a much larger population base and physical/ social/ economic/ cultural/ geographic/ institutional/ transportation/ employment infrastructure to both drive and support the scale of developments therein. Each had a very different history of development, deterioration and re-development than did Nyack.

To add twenty percent to the retail space in Nyack when the community can’t support the existing retail space is ill-advised. To add offices to the infrastructure if there is no demand is equally ill-advised. Nyack needs a stronger merchant base before it can entertain a larger merchant base. And then, only if an economic base analysis suggests a demand for more merchant space. Just where are these customers and patrons of the arts coming from? Why would they come to Nyack rather than drive to NYC? Why would this enterprise prevail when other more established arts organizations in the community struggle to survive? How will the mission of RiverSpace complement rather than compete against other cultural entities? Nyack and Riverspace both need parking in the core. And Nyack needs a broader walk-to-shop residential market with disposable income to support its downtown. Who among out-of-towners will frequent the grocery and the pharmacy enough to make them viable? Let’s make it work for everyone.

The well-meaning board members of RiverSpace are on the right track. The cultural center has a better chance to survive if there is more activity in Nyack’s core. To achieve this goal, much more activity is required. However, I am not a believer in “architectural determinism”, the theory that good design will drive human behavior, in this case, draw hundreds – if not thousands – more people to Nyack on a daily basis. Good design is one of several elements that will influence human choice, but only if there is a demand. People will choose Nyack over another venue, but only if there is an over-riding need for what Nyack has to offer. In other words, good urban design accommodates urban demand. No one has yet demonstrated the need for the scale of commercial – and yes, cultural – development that RiverSpace proposes. The only needs that are absolutely clear are RiverSpace’s need for financial support and parking; and Nyack merchants’ need for parking. Certainly, the success of RiverSpace will also benefit many merchants. A symbiotic relationship has been defined. LET’S MAKE IT WORK FOR EVERYONE.

What follows is my personal observations of Nyack’s last sixty years. Others may recall it differently. For those who don’t have the time or the interest, please skip to the last two paragraphs.

Nyack – which had historically been Rockland’s primary manufacturing, mercantile and shipping hub to the lower Hudson Valley – benefited from a return to domestic commerce shortly after the end of World War II. The infrastructure was, after all, already in place to serve the modest beginnings of the suburban movement. Some returning G.I.’s disembarking at Camp Shanks chose to remain; staking homesteads and commuting to NYC over the George Washington Bridge via Route 9W. Some wage earners took the West Shore railroad line out of Nyack. Some traveled east by ferry to Tarrytown. But the suburban movement had not yet created a negative affect in Nyack.

The photograph of the south side of Main Street in Nyack, looking east from Franklin (displayed Monday night by Riverspace) was probably taken in the late forties or early fifties. The buildings were in good repair, the street was lined with cars and trucks, and all was well. Nyack was the near region’s choice for commerce and entertainment. New York City was too far to travel on a regular basis for shopping or entertainment, considering available transportation modes and consumer habits of the time.

Madison Avenue had not yet perfected the “suburban myth” of happy family life. Advertisements from automobile manufacturers, and large appliance manufacturers were just beginning to appear. Appliance, automotive, steel, and rubber manufacturers; and building trades were just beginning to lobby for the promised land, an arcadia, well beyond the city limits. The Tappan Zee Bridge had not yet been constructed, nor had the Palisades Parkway been built. The Interstate Highway System, created out of Eisenhower’s Department of Defense budget, had not yet been enacted. Suburbia was slower to take hold in Rockland than in Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Union, Westchester and Nassau Counties – mostly because access to NYC’s core was not as well developed here.

My first exposure to Nyack was in 1957. Nyack had two stationer/toy stores, four successful men’s clothing stores, two Army-Navy stores, two national chain food markets, grocery stores, barber shops and beauty salons, luncheonettes, flower shops, a bakery, a sporting goods store, a bicycle shop, a bookstore, a tire store, four funeral homes, hardware stores, countless well-attended churches, a Woolworth’s, a children’s clothing store, several women’s apparel stores, three drug stores, meat markets, produce markets, a movie theater, live performance theaters. . . Appliances were sold in a showroom on the ground floor of Rockland Light and Power Company (now Presidential Life). Street parking was enforced by meter. A dime bought you an hour. If you were ticketed, the fine was a dollar. If you went to Village Hall (now Hudson House) and paid for your parking violation the same day, the fine was reduced to a quarter. Downtown Nyack had all the things that a thriving Village community would be expected to harbor in order to serve its population and that of the surrounding communities.

But suburban sprawl was creeping deep into Rockland. The Bridge was completed, the Parkway was completed, residential subdivisions were popping up like so many rings of mushrooms after a rainstorm, and Route 59 became host to countless strip shopping centers with discount department stores and food supermarkets. Rockland residents began to follow the suburban example and backed their “suburbans” out of the attached garage of their three bedroom ranchers and split levels to these new Mecca’s of merchandise. Rockland had become a bedroom community. The new residents had not yet developed community ties to Rockland County. Certainly no ties to Nyack. And when ties were established, they were frequently to new houses of worship, local schools, and more convenient shopping centers on Route 59. At the same time, Nyack’s blue collar community was aging out. The old, small lot village houses that they owned barely marketable. Merchant demand in Nyack diminished. Store owners began to suffer the exodus of patronage. Many storefronts went barren. Fires seemed more frequent. Poverty was on the rise. Racial tensions elevated. An evening curfew was enforced. Parking was not a problem: there were few cars on the downtown streets after dark. By the early sixties, this is what I observed as I walked to the old Nyack High School from my home north on South Broadway, west on Main Street, and north on Franklin Street. I would retrace my steps in the afternoon. To that teenager, Nyack was dying. I came home from college one summer, and the quadrant of land bordered by Main Street, Franklin Street, Depew Avenue and Liberty Street/Cedar Street had been razed. Later, an architect had the bright idea that if he set a commercial building back from the street, two levels of stores could be accommodated: one a half level below the street, the other a half level above the street. The building set back, coupled with the change of grade to entry of all the stores, served as a physical and psychological impediment to commerce. Of course, the economic depression that had hit Nyack didn’t help fill empty storefronts either. Summer stock plays which had been produced at the Tappan Zee Theater, were no longer in vogue, and the building began its long descent into disrepair.

A renaissance took place by the accidental confluence of events in time. New York’s antiques retailers, who traveled to Nyack by pilgrimage to purchase items at Gable’s wholesale antiques on Main Street near Highland Avenue, saw empty storefronts downtown and several opened satellite stores. Some bought houses in town. Young couples of the Woodstock generation, who once eschewed home ownership and the institutionalized family, began to see benefits in matrimonial union, and took up residence in Nyack. Some opened craft stores in the affordable, otherwise empty storefronts. Curiosity shops and restaurants followed. Jazz riffs could be heard late into the evening at The Office. Nyack became a weekend day-trip regional tourist destination. The ambiance of this quaint town and the River influence increased demand. Downtown property values began to escalate. Trendier restaurants, taverns, stores and boutiques opened. The Hudson River was suddenly identified as a sought-after resource. Street fairs and parades abounded on weekends. Bargain residential properties became in demand as more and more young families sought to flee a then-hostile New York City for the Currier and Ives picture perfect postcard quality of life suggested in Nyack.

And downtown thrived – not by the local residents’ habitual purchases of goods and services so often associated with village merchants – but rather with the street life established by the tourist trade. With a viable movie theater, and later, hopefully, a performing arts center, restaurants continued to thrive. Merchants kept their stores open late on weekend evenings to offer dinner and theater patrons the opportunity to complete their experience of Nyack with a purchase or two. Residents created a hybrid lifestyle: shop in the out-of-town malls and supermarkets, visit New York City for most cultural events, and occasionally take advantage of what Nyack had to offer. Most service oriented merchants can’t survive on that formula.

Nyack suffered from its own success. Antiques and boutiques reached a saturation point. Recessions broke old habits. Patrons sought new experiences. Other communities and out-of-town establishments began to compete for a market share. Real estate values outstripped market demand for the kinds of stores that had filled Nyack Streets on weekday – and more so on weekend – afternoons. Some new commercial property owners, with no historic ties to the community, wished to cover their investments. Bars were willing to pay the rent. The patrons of the bars do not serve to benefit RiverSpace or the other merchants in the community; and – in isolated incidents – discourage other visitors and potential RiverSpace patrons from experiencing downtown. Until this trend is reversed, more existing storefronts will empty. What is clear is that Nyack can never revert to what it was in the late 1860’s or even the late 1940’s. However, what it shares with those eras is the existing infrastructure to host development that will serve to economically revitalize the entire community. It must continually re-invent itself to address the times. A solution to parking is essential. RiverSpace could be central to that solution also, but can not do it without comprehensive support.

If the development described by the principals of RiverSpace comes to fruition, and the resultant buildings can not be occupied due to lack of market demand, then RiverSpace’s current debt will pale in comparison to what could be in store. There will be no one with pockets big enough to rescue this valuable cultural resource, and Nyack will have exposed itself to greater economic and social decline. Due diligence demands a market study by RiverSpace of what is – not an architectural rendering of what is not (and won’t be due to the intractable realities of Nyack’s position in the region) – keeping in mind that, as a beginning point, proximity to the cultural and mercantile riches of the Hudson Valley and New York City serve as a disincentive for the reachable population to point its compass to Nyack. RiverSpace is in the unenviable position of having its hands tied. Without new space, it can’t fill its calendar. And without filling its calendar, it can not prove the merits of community investment in this proposed relatively huge commercial enterprise. Riverspace must determine how much program the larger community will support. Then it must determine its income from its programs; and its operating expenses at its anticipated full operation.

Concurrently, I suggest that RiverSpace join in supporting an increase in downtown residential development for those with disposable income to, in turn, support RiverSpace programs and the merchant community. This should, of course, be accomplished only to the extent that Village social and economic infrastructure can support additional residential development. The result would be to incrementally reduce RiverSpace’s dependence on a more distant and fickle market share of the population, one with less at stake than Village dwellers. A fundraiser who is knowledgeable about the 650 competing not-for-profits in Rockland, the county’s tax structure, and the gloomy shifting trends in Rockland demographics, should project the annual giving capability for RiverSpace. This must be performed in conjunction with a market study to determine the amount of additional retail, gallery, office, loft, residential and parking space that could be supported in this location. The viable additional real estate developed, for which RiverSpace would theoretically generate net rental income, would help sustain its programs. The taxes collected by the Village of Nyack (net of increased services provided) on the portions of the development not attributable to not-for-profit endeavors, and the increased activity in the Village generated by a successful RiverSpace, will benefit the entire community of Nyack. Any overbuild would be counterproductive. What has been presented to date is too vague. Without empirical evidence, the project is entirely too risky for public or private financial support and partnership. Without real facts, the public’s enthusiasm for this project will erode, and the momentum gained on Monday night will have been lost. So I’m not certain that more RiverSpace meetings, “focus groups” and architect’s renderings are called for at this time, at least not without substantive input from RiverSpace.

Respectfully submitted,

Jan Degenshein

Nyack Farmer's Market

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