Responding to a request from the members of the Bronxville Chamber of Commerce, the trustees voted at the July board meeting to engage the services of a zoning/planning consultant.
Richard Preiss, of Hoboken, N.J.-based Phillips Preiss Grygiel LLC, will be in our village soon to assess our downtown and speak with village stakeholders in our effort to improve the business climate in Bronxville.
Despite the historically long term success of our central business district, things took a major downturn in 2008, and it is quite clear we have not fully recovered.
The purpose of our study is to identify any planning and zoning issues hampering the downtown, particularly when compared to communities competing for like businesses, and create a road map to implement solutions for each issue and set Bronxville’s downtown on a course towards full occupancy and long term vibrancy.
Some of the issues to be reviewed include:
- Our approval process for change of use retail applications and whether the time frame is similar to communities such as ours, i.e., all things being equal, is it easy/faster to go into business elsewhere?
- Parking requirements for certain commercial uses.
- Creating mechanisms to permit and then control outdoor dining and outdoor merchandise display.
- Making sure our local building codes are not more or less restrictive than prevailing fire codes.
Oversight of the village’s business district is one big balancing act especially since the economic downturn. In these tougher times, it is simply harder to enforce regulations on already beleaguered shopkeepers yet turning a blind eye to aesthetics can bring down the high level of ambiance of the business district. At the same time, we are also implicitly burdening the merchants who follow the rules.
For example, signs are not to be placed on the window glass. Strict adherence to this rule would require the shopkeeper to say “no” to every school child advertising the spring play, a local blood drive or a lost dog.
Technically, under current village code provisions, no merchandise can be outside of a storefront. It is essentially free rental space from the village. However, completely sterile store fronts exhibit little character. However, it is extremely hard to say we encourage beautiful flowers encroaching the sidewalks but “no” to dress racks and snow shovels. Enforcement simply has to be fair, even handed and devoid of personal taste.
One particularly thorny problem is the quantity and regulation of outdoor dining. Studies support the premise that outdoor dining not only increases the ambiance of a shopping district, but also decreases crime as folks are out on the streets late into the evenings. However, on the flip side, outdoor dining must not restrict safe passage of shoppers and strollers.
One preliminary idea with great merit is a yearly renewable permit for outdoor dining. At the end of each permit period, the village can evaluate whether the outdoor dining option was beneficial in terms of space for shoppers, no excessive noise and the cleanliness of the sidewalk as maintained by the restaurant owner. A time limited permit would add a level of quality control that is currently lacking in our regulations.
Our village code was written pre-Internet and the storefront uses which are allowed do not reflect current shopping habits. For example, we will need to review our code vis-à-vis service industries as this is the one avenue of commerce, be it a ballet lesson, a math tutor or an exercise studio that cannot be replicated via the Internet. We are simply trying to keep up with the current retail realities by mirroring our village regulations to a very changed world. Sometimes one must do things by the book and sometimes the book must be rewritten.
Unlike 10 years ago, multiple suitors are not lining up to rent our vacant stores. Rather an entrepreneur is opening one outlet and looking at our community among a host of other communities including Larchmont, Rye and Bedford. Bronxville must remain competitive.
The trustees and I recognize the value of the business district and its impact on home prices, sales tax revenue and general village character. We will continue to partner with our landlords and merchants to sustain a business friendly atmosphere while at the same time preserving a level of quality that has historically characterized our village.
The trustees and I will endeavor to remove any impediments to successful business operation, but bottom line, any merchant, new and old, needs the support of our residents to maintain lasting viability. Despite all we do mechanically with our village zoning, the true source of downtown viability rests with our residents supporting our shops and services. Buy local!