Will a New Look Bring Chappaqua’s Downtown District New Life?

With an arduous infrastructure-improvement project finally behind them, Chappaqua’s cautiously optimistic merchants hope for a brighter future.

Photo by Laura Schaefer

The rumbling of bulldozers and backhoes has finally faded in Chappaqua’s downtown business district, much to the relief of the merchants who endured more than two years of disruption that threatened their survival. Mission One for them now is to bring customers back to the hamlet to see the graceful streetscape and improved traffic flow that the heavy machinery made possible.

Chappaqua’s downtown business district is modest but vibrant, with a collection of local specialty retailers, sophisticated restaurants, and friendly boutiques that welcome customers with personal service and small-town charm. Ten minutes away is Chappaqua Crossing, a mixed-use residential development with a modern retail component that is bound to affect the downtown merchants to some degree.

Chappaqua is a decidedly white-collar place, with two-thirds of the 730-person workforce employed in management, business, science, or the arts. The largest-single job categories are managerial occupations and education instruction and professional services (see sidebar, page 21). The population is well-compensated, too: Median household income is greater than $213,000, or 3.5 times the national average.

“The people in the community are absolutely incredible. There’s no way our business and so many others would have survived the catastrophe of the construction project without them really making a concerted effort to shop and keep us in business.”

— Laura Schaefer, owner, Scattered Books

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One important asset the hamlet has, according to every business owner we spoke with, is a fiercely loyal customer base. “The people in the community are
absolutely incredible,” says Laura Schaefer, owner of Scattered Books on King Street. “There’s no way our business and so many others would have survived the construction project without them really making a concerted effort to shop and keep us in business.”

When the construction started, the business-district infrastructure — utility, water, and storm sewer mains under the downtown streets — were decades beyond their “use-by” dates. Among other difficulties, blockages caused persistent flooding of streets and surrounding buildings. In 2017, the New Castle Town Board began an ambitious construction project to replace the offending lines, iron-out confusing traffic, parking, and pedestrian flow, and beautify the streetscape. The project was supposed to be completed in time for the Christmas shopping season in 2018 but dragged on for another full year and wasn’t completed until November 2019.

“The infrastructure was something that needed to be done,” says Chappaqua Wine & Spirits owner Kirk Sprenger. “But it should have been thought out a little better, to accommodate the merchants and the residents. Perhaps it should have been done in stages instead of ripping up the entire town and then trying to put it all back together.”

“Many of our customers didn’t want to come into the downtown area,” adds Sprenger, who’s owned his King Street shop since 2002. “They didn’t want to sit in traffic jams for 15 or 20 minutes, so they bypassed the village. For months on end, there was no parking on both lower and upper King Street and on South Greeley Avenue. Even though there were places to park in lots on the ends of town, most shoppers don’t want to walk that far to purchase a bottle of wine or a piece of jewelry or a shirt, so they shopped elsewhere for two and a half years. Many of us lost our customer base.”

Chappaqua Employment

Source: 2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

Says Schaefer: “It was very bad for almost three years, and one of them was really terrible. [Our sales] were down roughly 60 percent. The street was torn up; it was periodically closed; it was often blocked. We had excavators parked in front of the store for four months at a time.”

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Newly elected New Castle town supervisor Ivy Pool points out the $15 million undertaking wasn’t optional: “It was critically necessary, and we are fortunate that our merchants have been patient as we completed the project.”

Damage had been done, however. Sprenger says, “It’s going to be pretty tough to get those customers to return. It’s going to take at least a year to get them to come back to town.”

Pool agrees but says the town is working to ameliorate the damage. “We’re creating a plan to help those merchants who have been impacted by the construction work,” she says. “The first thing we did was to launch a new website, www.discoverchappaqua.com, designed to market Chappaqua to both residents and visitors. We are going to build on that to mount a campaign to bring people into the hamlet to see our new streetscape, sidewalks, and gathering places.

“We’ve also been discussing a façade-improvement grant program. It’s a concept that will allow property owners or merchants to get a matching grant from the town to improve their façades. It can be painting, building up the brickwork, putting in a new awning, et cetera. We’re trying to be creative and partner with the businesses in town as they get back on their feet,” Pool explains.

Schaefer says the town is doing the right thing by the merchants. “The façade-improvement matching grants will be helpful to many of the merchants,” she says. “As a result of the construction, everything is filthy; a lot of trees and signs were messed up. It is truly needed, since many of us can barely take a paycheck much less spend money sprucing things up.” At press time, the initiative was in the legislative process.

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The Chappaqua-Millwood Chamber of Commerce isn’t sitting on its hands, either. “We have many plans for 2020 that will involve nearly every store in town, to draw shoppers from out of town,” says chamber president Dawn Dankner-Rosen, owner of DDR Public Relations. She is confident that the tight-knit business community will be behind the efforts: “Through the streetscape project, everyone supported each other. There wasn’t a spirit of competition — it was a spirit of cooperation.” That spirit is expressed in one of the most popular events sure to be on the calendar, Wine Around Town, during which retailers serve wine and treats. “People walk around town, shopping and seeing friends. It’s really a festive event,” Dankner-Rosen says.

Photo by Stefan Radtke

Pool says the infrastructure project laid the groundwork (literally) for the future. “Now that we have finished it, we have created the conditions for Chappaqua to enter the next phase of revitalization. It is now a place ready for business and ready for development in keeping with the town plan.”

The next step is to revamp the zoning code, which was adopted in the 1970s. The town imposed a development moratorium for Chappaqua to allow time for the zoning code to be revised. Pool says, “We need to act quickly to get out from under that moratorium, so property owners can make the changes they want to make. The town board is working with the planning board to implement a form-based code. The town has established a downtown working group that includes the town board, planning board, and residents who have expertise in architecture, property ownership, and development.”

Pool explains that whereas a traditional zoning code determines zones based on use — industrial, retail, residential, etc. — a form-based code doesn’t dictate where uses can happen. Rather, it dictates the form of the buildings without being proscriptive about what goes into those buildings. “It opens up the possibility for property owners and developers to build based on market demand. At the same time, it allows the town and its residents to retain control over what the town looks like. Questions like how tall buildings can be, what they look like, what are the setbacks, how wide the sidewalks should be — they are all baked into the form-based code,” she notes.

The business community can only hope that the planning process doesn’t take as long as it took for the town to allow Chappaqua Crossing to be created on the Reader’s Digest site. From acquisition in 2004 to groundbreaking on the first phase, that project took 12 years. Chappaqua Crossing is a mixed-use development that includes 450,000 square feet of office and medical space, rental apartments and town homes, and 120,000 square feet of retail space anchored by Whole Foods and Life Time Chappaqua. Other tenants include Chase Bank, Pet Valu, Fidelity Investments, and ROCKS Jewelry Gifts Home, a boutique shop  owned by Chappaqua resident Tanya Tochner.

Chappaqua At A Glance

Source: Data USA & 2017 American Community Survey.
Note: Chappaqua’s boundaries were substantially redefined by the Census Bureau between the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Censes.

The effects of Chappaqua Crossing on the downtown merchants remain to be seen. Schaefer isn’t concerned, since her independent bookstore/event space is very much one of a kind. In fact, she believes she might have the potential to draw new customers from the apartment-and-townhome residents.

Vincent Milazzo, the second-generation owner of Chappaqua Village Market, a gourmet butcher shop, is less optimistic about the new competition. “DeCicco’s in Millwood opened a couple of years ago,” he says, “then came Whole Foods in Chappaqua Crossing. It’s going to cannibalize all the little guys, so we have to continue to offer better products and better service.”

One small-business owner who isn’t concerned is Richard Pandich, an antiquarian book dealer who opened Blind Dog Books on King Street in the midst of the construction imbroglio in the spring of 2019. He and his wife, Susanne, have lived in Chappaqua since 2008. “I wanted to stay in town if I could,” he says. “The rents in Chappaqua were reasonable, and the process of starting a new business in town is fairly painless. I didn’t find I had to go through many hoops to open the business here.”

The Chappaqua business community hopes the worst is behind them, although they recognize that future success isn’t assured. “The streetscape looks really good now,” Schaefer says. “We just need to get people back here to see how good it looks. With time and effort, we can make it happen.”

Dave Donelson lives and writes in West Harrison and is a great admirer of the Chappaqua Library.

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