Something “fishy” in Sleepy Hollow?

Update (March 8, 2022): The Westchester County Planning Board has reviewed the Village of Sleepy Hollow’s proposed amendments to the Zoning Ordinance. In response (see letter here), the County writes, “We encourage the Village to reconsider this action, or to perhaps consider adopting a revised version of these regulations.”

Zoning code is not something that typically lends itself to intense public interest and discussion. In Sleepy Hollow, however, it has become a matter of serious debate. It revolves around what the Village’s zoning code actually says—and the obligations of Village officials to apply it appropriately.

The debate relates to what took place on August 24, 2021, when the Sleepy Hollow Board of Trustees approved amendments to the Village’s zoning code. The vote was unanimous. The amendments were the result of a lengthy process of consultation involving residents, business owners, and Village officials.

The revised Code of the Village of Sleepy Hollow does many things aimed at improving livability in, and promoting economic revitalization of, the downtown area. It eliminates parking requirements for all lots less than 30 feet in width, for example, allows for the establishment of bars and restaurants in proximity of one another, and provides incentives to achieve sustainability and electrification measures. Moreover, it permits non-residential activities in the upper floors of mixed-use buildings and eliminates new curb cuts (thus preventing vehicles from driving across sidewalks) on specific streets like Beekman Avenue.

In addition, the amended Code encourages the adaptive reuse of buildings originally designed for religious, educational, and institutional purposes that have historic, cultural, and economic value to the Village. It also seeks to bring about affordable housing, streetscape/landscape improvements, green infrastructure, and public art installations—among other benefits.

Complementing these changes is the creation of a “Lower Beekman Avenue Designs Standards Overlay District” (LBADS). Comprising all parcels between Kendall Avenue and Clinton Street along Beekman Avenue, the LBADS reflects goals requested by Sleepy Hollow residents during the Comprehensive Plan update, which Village officials conducted in 2019.

Within the overlay district, the Code institutes specific regulations about the heights and shapes of new buildings to maintain air flow between them and ensure adequate sunlight for all. At the same time, it facilitates increased density and makes the development process clearer.

The LBADS includes architectural design requirements regarding front stoops and porches, styles, and building depths to help replicate the historic pattern of development along lower Beekman. Its aim is to ensure “an attractive, walkable neighborhood that serves as a link between the downtown and the waterfront.”

Controversy over 135 Beekman Avenue

Architect’s rendering of proposed apartment complex at 135 Beekman Avenue.

One property that stands within this newly designated overlay district is 135 Beekman Avenue. It has emerged at the epicenter of the zoning debate.

Owned by Mr. Francesco Alesci of Queens, the .56-acre lot is currently the site of a large, multi-family home built in the late 1800s. Alesci plans to tear down the current dwelling and replace it with a much bigger building, one comprised of 14 apartments. The building is slated to be four stories, each of which will have a fitness room, and will extend well beyond the rear of all existing buildings along Beekman. According to the current architectural plan, there will also be 27 parking spaces at the rear of the building (in addition to some indoor parking on the building’s ground level).

At a meeting of Sleepy Hollow’s Planning Board on November 18, 2021, many residents, several of them neighbors of 135 Beekman, turned out, posing questions and raising myriad concerns. Neighbors said that the proposed building is out of scale with the rest of the area and thus violates community desires as embodied in the Comprehensive Plan of 2019. Other concerns raised include matters of fire safety, fears of gentrification and displacement in a neighborhood with a large working-class and Latino population, and a parking lot and driveway that would occupy more than half the lot. (Sleepy Hollow resident Daniel Convissor, in written comments to the Zoning Board, said it was “absurd” that the Village requires 27 parking spaces and called the proposed project “a car parking lot with some places to sleep attached to it.”)

Overhead view of would-be apartment complex: “A car parking lot with some places to sleep attached to it.”

The main point of contention, however, concerns the height and length of the proposed building and how it will impinge on the privacy of neighboring residents and on sunlight.

Maria Martins, whose family has lived in an adjacent property for 34 years, for instance, spoke at the November meeting of the importance of her backyard garden. It is one that her children and nieces and nephews have long enjoyed and where there are fruit trees planted by her late father. The shadow that the proposed apartment complex would cast over the yard would cause great harm to the garden, she said.

Like several speakers during the public hearing, Martins suggested that much of the proposed building (at 43.5 feet in height) would seem to be in violation of the revised Code.  (Similar to other critics of the proposed project, Maria Martins has made clear that she is not opposed to a new apartment building. Why not a lower and longer building instead, she wonders, one with a smaller asphalted area for motor vehicles?) The zoning Code states that buildings are not to exceed 25 feet in height beyond 80 feet in from the edge of the sidewalk. The 80-foot requirement aligns with the rear of existing buildings along Beekman, thereby reproducing the current pattern of development, while allowing fire department access to upper stories.

Chairperson Marjorie Hsu assured those in attendance that the Planning Board had determined that the adapted plans presented by Alesci and his architect conformed to the revised Village Code. Both Sean McCarthy, the Village’s Building Inspector, and Hsu insisted that the height limitations only concern residential zones. And because 135 Beekman sits in a commercial zone—even if the property abuts other residences—the height limitations do not apply, they said. However, as some residents asserted at the meeting, the text of the Code would seem to clearly indicate that the overlay district applies to all parcels, whether commercial or residential.

Throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

Sometime in late January, Chairperson Hsu requested that the Village overturn the revisions to the Village Code.

The question is, why?

Livable Tarrytowns reached out to Marjorie Hsu for an explanation (on February 17). As of this posting, she has not responded.

Similarly, Sleepy Hollow Mayor Ken Wray has not responded to a Livable Tarrytowns’ request (sent on February 18) for an explanation for his position on the matter. At a recent “Work Session” (February 15) of the Board of Trustees, the mayor urged his fellow Board members to support a resolution in favor of a public hearing to reconsider the amendments to the Village Code as requested by Chairperson Hsu.

The lone dissenting vote was from Trustee Jared Rodriguez (a practicing urban planner), who said that he could not support the resolution in good conscience.  “From what I know in my professional capacity,” he explained, “it is exceedingly rare for a planning board chair to request a former zoning amendment to be overturned. It is rarer still for a legislative body like us to satisfy such a request.”

“I’m personally proud of the zoning amendments we approved here unanimously six months ago,” he continued, “after hearing support from our residents, many of them reaching out to me personally and coming to public hearings, businesses, and the planning board itself at the time.”

The timing of Chairperson Hsu’s request, and the Board of Trustees vote in favor of a hearing, is “fishy” in the estimation of Maria Martins. It comes soon after Ms. Martins, through her lawyers, filed an appeal of the Village Building Inspector’s determination that proposed project at 135 Beekman complies with the new zoning Code.

Village officials have reportedly stated that their desire to overturn the revisions to the Code has nothing to do with the debate surrounding 135 Beekman Avenue. Instead, they say, it is because of inconsistencies in the amendments that they must throw them out.

Still, regardless of intentions, in the face of a legal challenge to the Village’s determination re: 135 Beekman Avenue, the move to jettison all amendments to the Code would seem to be an admission that the project as currently envisioned violates zoning regulations. It also has the appearance of an effort to satisfy the wishes of a single developer as repealing the Code revisions would potentially allow the 135 Beekman Avenue project as currently envisioned to advance to construction. To the extent this appearance reflects reality, one wonders what precedent it sets for other developers who might seek zoning code modifications in the future.

If there are, in fact, inconsistencies with the amendments, why not fix the specific problems? Why throw out the amendments in their entirety?

And why risk the appearance of impropriety and undermine public trust in government?

Sleepy Hollow Mayor Ken Wray: “I will reserve my comments on the change and the need for it until we get to that public hearing.”

Referring to the effort to overturn the amendments at the work session on January 18, Mayor Wray asserted, “I will reserve my comments on the change and the need for it until we get to that public hearing.”

On Tuesday, March 8 at 7pm, when the hearing is scheduled to take place at Sleepy Hollow Village Hall, the public will have an opportunity to hear Wray’s explanation.

Making a difference

As for 135 Beekman Avenue, the lot’s future—in addition to the future of zoning and livability in Sleepy Hollow—hinges to a significant degree on what takes places at the hearing.

It is for such reasons that Lauren Connell, a candidate for an open seat on the Sleepy Hollow Board of Trustees (she is running unopposed), urges people to make their voices heard. “I encourage people to attend the hearing on March 8,” she told Livable Tarrytowns. “If there’s a good turnout, it could make a difference.”

Report on walking audit of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow

On the evening of Friday, September 24, seven members of Livable Tarrytowns got together and took an enjoyable walk, making stops along the way. We began at Neperan Park in Tarrytown and headed to lower Beekman Avenue in Sleepy Hollow. After socializing outside the home of two supporters, a few of us continued down Cortlandt to the Sleepy Hollow-Tarrytown border at Wildey Street. Throughout, we looked at and discussed particular sites and how to improve our thoroughfares, especially in terms of pedestrian and bike safety.

Below are photos (taken a few days later) of places where we stopped. We also share observations and suggestions for improving matters.

We intend to do more walking audits in the future with the goal of identifying other areas in need of improvement and generating constructive suggestions for change. With new people with fresh ideas on the boards of trustees in both villages and a new incoming mayor in Tarrytown, this is a great time to work for the enhancement of our public spaces.

An entrance to Neperan Park is just beyond the photo’s left edge. Because of this entrance and the curb cut on the upper right hand side of the photo (Altamont Avenue and Neperan Road), it would seem like this would be an obvious place for pedestrians to cross the road (as many do). But there is no crosswalk and no infrastructure to slow down motor vehicles. This is an accident waiting to happen.
On the right hand edge of the photo is another entrance to the park–a little further down the hill from the photo above. Because of Grove Street just across Neperan Road, there should be a crosswalk here as well. The nearest one is at Neperan and Broadway.
This is the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, looking southward across Neperan Road. The curb cuts indicate a place for walkers and cyclists to cross. But, once again, there’s no crosswalk. And the fact that that cars are allowed to park close to the edge of the curb cut shown on the bottom reduces the visibility of those crossing the road.
Crossing Broadway at crosswalks such as this one (at Central Avenue) is challenging and. at times, scary as drivers often cut off pedestrians when they are in the crosswalk. It is especially hazardous at night as the crosswalks are poorly illuminated. We call upon the Village of Tarrytown to add lighting so that the crosswalks are highly visible.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-6-1.png
These crosswalks would also benefit from curb extensions to reduce the distance pedestrians have to cross and to serve as a traffic calming measure. An interim measure would to be to install flexible posts or bollards (such as those on Pocantico Avenue across from the Morse School in Sleepy Hollow) a few feet from the curb (at a distance equal to the width of a typical car)..
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-7-1.png
This is the North Washington Street entrance to Patriots Park. The wide entrances here and on Broadway along with the asphalted road within effectively invite drivers to use the park as a shortcut. And some do. The Village of Tarrytown should immediately install infrastructure to prevent vehicles from entering the park without authorization. The Village should also replace the asphalted road inside the park with crushed stone (similar to the carriage roads in Rockefeller State Park). This would still allow people to bike in the park while helping to cool the space in the summer.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-9-1.png
Along North Washington, particularly in the area of Patriots Park, many drivers partially park their vehicles on the sidewalk. This problem is especially pronounced on the far side of North Washington shown in this photo. This results in the degrading of the grassy strip between the road and the hard-surfaced sidewalk.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-8-2.png
Other than Broadway, Washington Street is the principal north-south thoroughfare between Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown. It has the added advantage of (more of less) connecting all the schools in the district shared by the two villages . We discussed a plan to turn Washington Street into a bike and pedestrian boulevard, one that would still allow access to motor vehicles while slowing down and markedly reducing traffic. We will share our ideas on this front in a future blog post.
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-10-2.png
This crosswalk, which connects the beginning of a brief leg of Valley Street to North Washington, is dangerous for two reasons: 1) vehicles come around a slight corner, limiting their ability to see the crosswalk and anyone in it; and, relatedly, 2) vehicles parked along Washington reduce the visibility of pedestrians. In the short-term, Sleepy Hollow should eliminate the immediately adjacent parking spot and install flexible posts. Longer term, consideration should be given to eliminating this stretch of Valley Street (vehicles would still be able to access Valley Street by taking a right at the traffic signal at North Washington and Chestnut Street, about 150 feet away) and enlarging the mini park. Another option is to install a roundabout connecting N. Washington, Valley, and Chestnut, and reconfigure the “square” within and eliminate differences in terms of elevation between the sidewalk and drive lanes. Bollards and street trees would delineate pedestrian areas. The park would become more active and larger. The installation of a brick surface would give the impression of central square or plaza.
Along Beekman Avenue, crosswalks such as this (and especially this one since it is across from a school) would similarly benefit from “bump outs” (see our previous post) to enhance pedestrian safety and slow down traffic. According to a member of Sleepy Hollow’s Board of Trustees, the Village will soon undertake street safety and place-making efforts along the full length of Beekman Avenue. Further down Beekman, Sleepy Hollow has allowed Hudson Anchor to create an outdoor dining bumpout (which occupies what were two parking spaces). Sleepy Hollow is also conducting a “road diet” study along its stretch of Route 9.
The Village of Sleepy Hollow recently turned this offshoot of Cortlandt Street (at Beekman) into a small park with seating, greatly enhancing the area aesthetically and in terms of pedestrian safety. Reportedly, the Village will make the park permanent! It it this type of creative thinking that is needed at Valley and North Washington (see above), among other locations in the two villages.
Parked vehicles frequently block this stretch of Wildey Street (between the Metro North tracks and Cortlandt) and the sidewalk in front of Stiloski’s. This prevents pedestrians from accessing the crosswalk (greatly in need of paint, it is barely visible between the two vehicles) connecting lower Wildey Street with the sidewalk on the h-bridge. We have brought this problem to the attention of Tarrytown officials.

Protecting and Enhancing Crosswalks

Main Street at John Street, June 16, 2017. When a car is parked on top of a crosswalk, it forces pedestrians into unmarked, less safe areas.

Ensuring safe streets for all is central to the work of Livable Tarrytowns. Of particular concern is the well-being of the most vulnerable: our seniors, children, and individuals with mobility challenges. It was for this reason that our first public presentation—to the Tarrytown Transportation and Mobility Council on January 28, 2021—focused on improving the safety of crosswalks, particularly those on Main Street, not least because drivers often block the crosswalks by parking on them.

Since September 2017 (see “Background” section below), there have been plastic bollards—off and on—at the crosswalk on Main at Kaldenberg Place and John Street, as well as on John Street at Main. The bollards were originally intended as a temporary measure to test their utility. When they’re in place, the bollards generally work. The problem is, they are often not in place as people move them or motor vehicles damage them. At the time of the meeting, no temporary bollards were present on Main Street.

For such reasons, we asked the Transportation and Mobility Council to move beyond this temporary intervention and take permanent measures to provide robust protection and to enhance the visibility of the crosswalks. We provided various suggestions on how to do so (see “What Other Places Do” below).

The Council’s position—and that of Village officials who were present—was that permanent changes (e.g., bollards attached to the ground, sidewalk extensions in the form of bulb-outs) were not necessary. Instead, they advocated more of the same: moveable plastic bollards.

In July 2021, the new plastic bollards finally arrived on Main Street. The results are not encouraging in terms of crosswalk protection and pedestrian safety. Rarely are the bollards where they are supposed to be. As has happened in the past, people are moving them and Village officials do not ensure that the bollards are put back in place. The result is unprotected and less visible crosswalks and persistent pedestrian vulnerability.

Here are photos from two different days that illustrate the problem.

Kaldenberg Place, looking across Main Street. One (misplaced) bollard out of four (the other three are elsewhere). There should be two bollards, one on each side of the crosswalk, at least few feet from each end to prevent drivers from entering or backing into the the crosswalk. August 23, 2021.
Main Street at John Street, looking toward Kaldenberg Place. Note lack of bollards on both ends of the crosswalk. September 28, 2021.
In case you’re looking for the bollards, here they are! September 28, 2021.

These images (ones that are hardly unique to the two days illustrated above) show—once again— that moveable bollards are inadequate (in addition to a waste of money).

Beyond the Main Street crosswalks, there is a need for a broad program of pedestrian safety and infrastructure. In many places in the Village, crosswalks are unsafe. Bike Tarrytown and the Tarrytown Environmental Advisory Council (TEAC) have made this known in recent years, but the Village has done little in response.

Enhanced crosswalks are beneficial for reasons of pedestrian safety, but they also make walking more attractive. This is is good for air pollution, climate change, and our local businesses—as people who walk a lot are more likely to conduct their business nearby.

As suggested by the images in the next section, there are viable alternatives to the unsafe-crosswalk status quo. Livable Tarrytowns will work with our neighbors and officials in both Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow to identify these alternatives and bring about the necessary changes.

What Other Places Do

This simple, low-cost measure is on Pocantico Street in Sleepy Hollow, across from the Morse School. The photo is the courtesy of Bike Tarrytown.
Downtown Ossining. The bollards coupled with painted crosswalk and white striping greatly increase the crosswalk’s visibility, communicating to drivers the need to proceed with care.
Baltimore, Maryland. Creatively painted crosswalks provide additional benefits, one being an opportunity for area residents to share their creativity and artistic skills.
Baltimore, Maryland.
New York City. The “bulb-out” helps to slow down vehicles as they go around the corner.

Background

Several years ago, the Tarrytown Environmental Advisory Council  worked on a “Complete Streets” initiative. This included a walking audit of streets in and the downtown area with a goal of making them safe, attractive, and environmentally sound. Out of this initiative grew an effort to improve the crosswalks on Main Street—especially because drivers often blocked them.

As an interim measure, TEAC members proposed to the Village that temporary bollards be installed to protect the crosswalks with an eye toward some sort of permanent change. The response of the Village was more or less twofold: we don’t have the money for bollards and we’re not convinced that pedestrian safety is a issue at the crosswalks. So, with a small grant related to Complete Streets, TEAC purchased the bollards and a couple of TEAC members gathered data; this involved three one-hour  “studies” of Main Street crosswalks on three different days to demonstrate the need for the installation of bollards to the Village. When TEAC presented the results to Village officials, they agreed to the installation of temporary bollards.

Below is a small sample of the photos taken from two of the “study” days.

June 16, 2017, 6:22pm. Note car parked in crosswalk at then-laundromat.
June 16, 2017, 6:53pm.
June 16, 2017, 6:55pm.
June 16, 2017, 6:57pm.
June 23, 2017, 6:54pm, Main at Broadway. The Village has never placed even the temporary plastic bollards at this crosswalk despite the well documented need.
June 23, 2017, 6:19pm.
June 23, 2017, 7:03pm. To be safe, because they are worried that a car may back into them, pedestrians are compelled to maintain a good distance from a car parked in a crosswalk

Mission Statement

Livable Tarrytowns is composed of people dedicated to maintaining, improving and expanding public space in Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown. By drawing upon the ideas, needs, and hopes of those who live and work in the twin villages, Livable Tarrytowns seeks to make more transparent, and to democratize, the processes of planning and development so that they enhance the spaces we share. In a time of persistent socio-economic polarization and growing environmental challenges, the goal is to ensure that sidewalks, streets, parks, and other common spaces are safe and healthy, socially, economically and ecologically resilient, and welcoming to a diverse public, particularly the most vulnerable. The membership thus seeks the making of vibrant places that enable the building of deep and just community, enrich the local ecology, and integrate sites of residence, play, work, and commerce through streets and corridors that are accessible to all and encourage public transit and human-powered mobility. In that spirit, Livable Tarrytowns works with already existing advocacy organizations, village bodies and officials, and other stakeholders.