The Cost of Modernizing Main Street: What The Current Developments Mean For Downtown Port Chester

Written By: Shirley Guzman

Changes are currently being made to downtown Port Chester. Within the last few years, building demolitions and constructions have become a common sight, with the latest development being the Port & Main apartment building on South Main Street. These changes, some residents say, are a cause for concern and will put many aspects of Port Chester at risk. 

Back in 2020, the Port Chester Board of Trustees adopted the Village-Wide Form Based Zoning Code. This land development regulation intended to prioritize “the character of neighborhoods, districts and corridors within the community as the central organizing framework of the Village,” according to Brian Wright, who led the Port Chester developments. The new code strayed away from previous guidelines, including the maximum height and width of buildings allowed.

Since the 70s and 80s, the village has been experiencing an “economic distress.” For a long time, downtown Port Chester, specifically the Main Street area, has been considered the center of commerce until the Rye Ridge and the Gateway Shopping Centers were developed. Short term solutions were crafted in order to attract businesses back to Main Street, such as the controversial G&S Project that introduced the AMC Theatre and Costco. 

“Those are useful retail centers for Port Chester,” explains Davis, “they have helped economically to some extent but they’re kind of in the wrong place.” The design of Main Street and its inadequate parking has created problems for downtown since the project attracted an influx of cars. As a result, many business owners on Main Street began to stop taking care of their properties due to lack of customers and revenue. This can still be seen today on South Main Street which continues to hold run-down, derelict buildings. In 2018 to 2019, Port Chester was given two options by a consulting company to improve downtown economically: change the village government to a city government, which would have given Port Chester economic assistance from the government that it can’t access as a village and give the administration of PC control of the village’s finances, or aggressive upzoning. The second option was chosen thus resulting in the new Form Based Code. 

Residents, such as the Historical Society and the Port Chester Main Street Association (PCMSA), have been advocating to the Board of Trustees, who are in charge of leading the developments, for alternatives to refine the downtown while preserving the character of Main Street and avoiding the unintended negative effects of the planned developments. They’ve also focused on educating the public and raising awareness on the changes being made. 

Kikki Short, a member of the PCMSA, explains that a problem with the lack of building guidelines in the Form Based Code, such as maximum building lots, encourages developers to create large-scaled buildings in both height and width that don’t fit in with the historic character of Port Chester, an aspect that has been integral to the success of Port Chester. For decades, it has attracted families for its “small-town feel,” its diverse “mom-and-pop stores,” and charm that differentiates the town from surrounding areas like White Plains and Mount Vernon. 

“The consultant was very clear about this. That Port Chester needs to hang on to that character. But they didn’t do that because the current zoning does not have provisions in it to preserve historic buildings nor the character of historic buildings,” says Norm Davis. “Downtown has two to three story buildings and The Historic Society believes that if we want to maintain the chain of events in Port Chester and preserve its history, the developments need to respect the scale of the buildings. Three to four stories, that’s where PC ought to be.”

Since the new code also doesn’t include a setback, a guideline on how far away a building needs to be from the street, there will be what Kikki Short calls a “canyon effect,” where there are very narrow sidewalks and very tall buildings on both sides. Short describes how areas of White Plains with tall buildings have big sidewalks, about 20 feet wide, that “mitigates the feeling of being next to a large building.” The area between Costco and the AMC theater has been admitted to being the least successful area because people consider a canyon effect like that to be unpleasant. 

Implementing large, out of place buildings without a setback to counteract the different feeling of Main Street could have unintended but damaging effects to PC’s economy as not as many people would be attracted to the area. The area would also have a generic appearance and completely different ambiance than it has now, resulting in the loss of people who moved to Port Chester specifically for its unique, small-town feel. 

The Historic Society and PCMSA both argue that a better solution would be to replace unsalvageable buildings with new buildings that have the same characteristics and details as the previous ones to make it look like it belonged there. “It’s like replacing a tooth. You can replace a tooth but it better match the ones that are already there,” says Norm Davis. 

Many of the historic buildings on Main Street are also eligible for the National Historic Registry, which would allow them to be preserved and refurbished. Kikki Short, who is especially concerned from the perspective that history is being erased through the developments, states that “having things like that is not only interesting to the eye but to the brain. So when you look at all these buildings, you are looking at a rich history of who PC has been over the years.” One of the few buildings protected is Liberty Square. 

“If Port Chester had a historic preservation commission, once established the village becomes eligible for grants at federal or state level so the village can step in as a partner for the building owner to help buildings with historic significance qualify for reservation funds and repurpose them,” explains Norm Davis. A successful example of a repurposed building in PC is the Life Savers Building on North Main Street which was repurposed into a condo complex after serving as a factory and headquarters for the Life Savers Candy Company.

However, because of the rising costs of buildings, construction, and laborers, repurposing buildings might not be a realistic solution, says Norm Davis. “I don’t see repurposing happening on a large scale in Port Chester, unfortunately. I would love it but I don’t see it happening.”

By removing the small lots in exchange for large commercial and residential buildings, the PCMSA also worries that it will remove Main Street’s status as an opportunity zone for small businesses. In the previous form based code, building lots were outlined to be much smaller with lower rent, making them a perfect place for individual owners to create a business, including restaurants. This allowed Port Chester to be as diverse and interesting as it is. Large, expensive lots only “set up small businesses for failure and reduce experimentation.” 

Even the construction process is being considered an economic cause for concern for surrounding businesses. “There’s just not a good plan for handling demolition downtown,” says Short. She explains how the Form Based Code planned for the developments to be made over a span of 20 years but have now been pushed to be built over five years. “There are a number of places that are under construction right now: 30 Broad street, The Tarry Market area, and 108 South Main Street are under construction right now. I just don’t see how business downtown will be able to survive with that level of interruption. People don’t like to go around construction zones, even on foot,” she adds. 

But the issues with the Main Street developments don’t end there. The main goal of the developments is to spur the economy of Port Chester by both attracting more business and more tax revenue from the greater population of people. However, it would take approximately 20 years for “tax booms” to be made and for Port Chester to benefit from them, but only under the right conditions. The developers, investors who put up money for the construction and are essentially in control of the developments, are only focused on planning a project that will give them the biggest financial return in the shortest amount of time. 

More often than not, they create projects that don’t have the town’s best interest in mind which explains the lack of attention to maintaining the characteristics of Main Street that are so important to its success. Ultimately, the economic benefits that have been promised to Port Chester may not even be fully accurate and the changes might result in being more harmful. “Whatever happens 10 to 15 years from now, they probably don’t care,” says Davis. 

Back in 2012, Port Chester’s Plan The Port project included plans for a park and other similar developments due to feedback from residents that stated they enjoyed the small-town feel of downtown PC and its diversity. With the current project being developer-driven, many of these plans have been forgotten. 

The Port Chester Main Street Association addresses other issues that are predicted to arise from the changes, including how the increase in population will affect Port Chester. Most of the buildings are planned to be dual-use properties with a business on the bottom and residential apartments on the top. With these new apartments, the population is projected to increase by a third, approximately 10,000 people. The increased density of people will worsen pre-existing traffic and parking issues downtown. One planned 12-story development on 18-20 South Main Street, for example, will include 120 units and only 54 parking spaces which is not suitable. 

“The thinking was that, well, these are all close to public transit so people don’t need to have cars. And I would love it if people would have fewer cars but that is not where we are, especially if people have kids,” explains Short. 

In addition, the amount of students that would be added to one concentrated area means that most will attend one or two schools in that area. Changes would have to be made to those schools in order to accommodate more students. Middle school and high school students who don’t qualify for school buses will also add to the intensity of the traffic downtown. 

Upgrading infrastructure is another major topic of discussion. Davis explains, “the roads are going to have to get upgraded, the electricity, the sewers.” These are costs that are dependent on the town, not the developers.” There’s a lot of cost that taxpayers need to absorb in order for these projects to be completed,” he adds. 

How successful has the PCMSA and Historic Society been in addressing their concerns to the Board of Trustees? Unfortunately, not much. 

“I wish I could say we changed hearts and minds at the board,” says Kikki Short. “Much of what we have done has fallen on deaf ears. We’ve hosted education hearings and put together educational material. We write letters and go to board meetings when we can. I don’t think that the Board of Trustees has been interested.” 

While they have been working towards educating the public in hopes more awareness will cause more people to speak out against these developments, the Board of Trustees has been negligent in having any form of outreach to get input from more community members. “I don’t recall seeing any kind of outreach about how they’re thinking of making this massive change to what Port Chester is going to be like,” she says. In addition to the lack of outreach, there are language and accessibility barriers that prevent a majority of residents from being present at public meetings that discuss the developments. “They have not moved to allow remote participation which a lot of people have been asking for because of the pandemic. And if you look at other legislative bodies in the area, they have found ways to have both online and in person participation.” 

It’s uncertain whether any changes can be made at this point, with many development plans already having been approved, but it is still possible for residents to express their opposition and delay or reverse proposals

“As long as there hasn’t been any significant demolition or put the foundation into the ground, if there’s enough community opposition, the board would have to stop the project and they would have to require the developer to resubmit plans,” explains Davis. 

Short and Davis both suggest writing letters to the Board of Trustees or even attending public meetings, “If they [The Board of Trustees] don’t hear opposition from taxpayers, they’re going to assume they’re doing a good thing.” 

Visit the Port Chester Main Street Association website to learn more about how Main Street could change and what you can do to help: 

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