Walkability Is a Major Focus for Westchester Towns and Residents

Cities and towns across the county are reshaping their landscapes, from waterfront developments to reimagined downtowns, as they prioritize walkability for a vibrant and sustainable urban experience.

There are many factors prospective renters and buyers consider when looking to move to or within Westchester: school statistics, taxes, central air or window units. And the last several years, municipalities in the county — one where the automobile has generally reigned supreme — are betting that high walking scores will hold great appeal and transform downtown landscapes. Whether it’s a waterfront mixed-use development in Sleepy Hollow, a transformed New Rochelle skyline, or the reimagining of a shopping mall in White Plains, Westchester’s downtowns are putting feet on sidewalks.

“Walking has been a big focus of mine, both in tying the downtown to the transit hub and in the development of the former Galleria,” says White Plains Mayor Tom Roach. Rather than building a tourist attraction downtown, Roach supported a development where there’s “open space at ground level, where people can see through the space and can gather among trees and plazas.” The result does away with the lifeless feel of downtown. “You don’t want people grinding out their walk in a sterile landscape,” Roach says. “You want them to have an outdoor environment they can engage in.”

New Rochelle’s former mayor, Noam Bramsom, agrees. “Walkability is good for our economy, our environment, and our quality of life. It should be at the heart of any city’s forward-looking planning strategy,” he says. “Density creates an area where goods and services are available within a short walking distance to where people live.” Retailers generally follow residents to new areas, which in turn “makes the street fabric of a city more and more appealing,” Bramsom notes.

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That eye appeal is top of mind for mayors and other city planners in several of the Rivertowns, which are experiencing downtown growth and increased pedestrian activity. “When people walk, they experience a number of positives: a connection to the environment, a connection to their community as they start to recognize other walkers on their routes, and an awareness of their surroundings when it comes to the retail landscape,” says Mayor Martin Rutyna of Sleepy Hollow. People who are walking take in the city with their eyes and ears, Rutyna says, and cities should provide a good first impression with streetscapes that are attractive and properly lit. “The less people who choose to bring a carbon-fuel vehicle into the mix, the better it is for our environment,” he says.

Sleepy Hollow’s growth, much like Yonkers, is centered on the building boom along the Hudson River. “The foot traffic along the RiverWalk will drive business investment throughout the city, which then, in turn, has people walk into town,” says Rutyna. Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano echoes that sentiment. “We’re making our urban centers more walkable. Development along the waterfront has given us an opportunity to build more parks, to plant more trees, and to invest money in programming,” Spano says. With more people working a hybrid office-home schedule, a walkable city allows them to live in, work in, and have fun in a city’s retail and restaurant landscape. UNO at 1 Larkin Plaza, the result of the conversion of the 1923 Otis Elevator and 1933 Herald Statesman buildings, is one example of several new residential developments in the Waterfront District that scores high on the walkability meter. The library, Metro-North station, daylighted Saw Mill River, and dining options are within a short walking distance.

Cedar Commons, a four-story, 16-unit condo complex by The BDC Group, is in the works at 41 Cedar Street in downtown Dobbs Ferry. Rendering by Christina Griffin.

The desire for walkability may have been intensified by COVID, but it is being nurtured from several sources. Peekskill Mayor Vivian McKenzie says the city has seen a desire for more walkability from both newcomers and longterm residents. “We’ve worked to make the city more attractive by closing off certain streets to cars, which gives businesses more eyes on them,” McKenzie says. Peekskill is a very walkable city due to its compactness and geography, says Matt Alexander, Peekskill’s city manager. “Closing streets to cars extends the walkability of Peekskill and, therefore, extends the experiences available to pedestrians,” he says.

“The walkability of our town has definitely played a role in people looking to live here,” says Pleasantville Mayor Peter Scherer. And that is encouraging new business development. “We believe walkers want to support local businesses and look for retail that meets their needs, but we acknowledge there’s a different retail landscape now than a decade ago,” Scherer says. Tarrytown’s “economic development depends on walkability,” Mayor Karen Browns says. “We have to make sure downtown stores offer services to downtown residents.” Bramson of New Rochelle notes that retailers and restaurants generally wait for an anticipated population boom before investigating the viability of opening.

While pedestrians add to the vitality and economic strength of cities and towns, all mayors agree that protecting those pedestrians is a top priority. In an era of distracted driving (and walking), city planners are looking at ways to keep walkers safe. In Peekskill, there’s a Complete Street project being studied, aiming to build streets for as many users as possible with proper sidewalks, lighting, and greenery. New Rochelle has the LINC, which will reconnect what had been a historically African American neighborhood downtown with new pedestrian crossings and recreation and park spaces. The county’s cities are working with the New York State Department of Transportation to lower speed limits on certain roads and reconfigure dangerous intersections.

“We’re making our urban centers more walkable.”
— Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano

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UNO, a new residential development in downtown Yonkers, takes advantage of the city’s walkable layout with short walks to dining, recreation, and public transportation.
UNO, a new residential development in downtown Yonkers, takes advantage of the city’s walkable layout with short walks to dining, recreation, and public transportation. Photo by Vincent Garrison/ Flying Films NY.

“To have a readily accessible downtown with people living there is a smart economic development strategy,” says Bridget Gibbons, director of economic development for Westchester County. While there are some who will always desire a home with acreage, there’s an increasing desire for a lifestyle where residents live walking distance to a train, services, and entertainment. “Downtown residents value Westchester’s great schools and quality of life that draw and keep people here,” Gibbons says.

Developers Weigh in on Walkability

Whether constructing single buildings or changing a city’s landscape, the developers putting their mark on Westchester’s downtowns realize and embrace what walkability brings to an area.

“Key components that make a community vibrant include walkability, accessibility, and access to mass transit,” says Joseph Graziose Jr., executive vice president of development services at RXR Realty. With numerous projects in New Rochelle, Graziose says RXR is seeing a resident base of people with roots in New Rochelle, other parts of Westchester, southern Connecticut, and those moving up from the New York City. “People are looking for a true combination of urban and suburban living [in which] they have walkability downtown and access to great beaches, parks, and schools,” he says. And as far as services for the residents and walking population, Graziose is seeing “retailers … embracing what’s happening in the city, with new businesses entering and existing ones looking to expand their space.” People moving from New York City often come without a car, and those who move from other suburban areas generally keep just one car or use the vehicle less, he says. “Walking not only decreases our carbon footprint, but as developers, we can reduce the size and scale of a building if we’re not building parking garages,” he says.

Gary Hirsch, CEO of Elk Homes, the developer behind 15 Parkview Avenue in Bronxville, says, “If you build near shopping and mass transit and see an increase in walking, you drastically reduce the need for cars and decrease pollution.” Walkable areas demonstrate an excellent symbiotic relationship between tenants, small businesses, and the environment, he says.

Chris Cassidy, East Coast regional president of Quarterra, which developed The Mitchell in White Plains, says he’s also seeing residents “who want that urban feel but with more outdoor space and options.” People are choosing buildings with work-from-home amenities. “We offer them options to get out of their apartments and into spaces that enhance that sense of community,” he says.

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An aerial photo of Pleasantville shows the proximity of The Atwood (foreground) to downtown shopping, dining, and Metro-North
An aerial photo of Pleasantville shows the proximity of The Atwood (foreground) to downtown shopping, dining, and Metro-North. Photo by Vincent Garrison/ Flying Films NY.

Walkable downtowns benefit everybody, from residents to businesses and municipalities — regardless of age, says David Mann, president of Lighthouse Living, the developer and manager of Pleasantville’s The Atwood. “We see a third of the people coming here in their 20s as they move out of their parents’ homes or are just marrying; a third in their 30s and 40s as they have children and need more space or are divorced and looking for a new living arrangement; and a third are 50s-plus who are downsizing,” he says.

Walkability has always been key, says Jon Stein, managing director of PCD Development (Edge-on-Hudson). A community meant to be an extension of Sleepy Hollow, the mixed-use-development aspect of Edge-on-Hudson “serves to make it a truly comprehensive community,” he says. Also, anchored by two train stations and the waterfront, those connections serve to enhance a neighborhood feel, according to Stein.

The Mitchell at the corner of Mamaroneck Avenue and East Post Road in White Plains. Studios start around $2,600.
The Mitchell at the corner of Mamaroneck Avenue and East Post Road in White Plains. Studios start around $2,600. Photo by Luis Feliz.

Two Yonkers developers have embraced the waterfront as a jumping-off point for walkability. “As one of the pioneers in Yonkers, we saw that if what you see on the streets is interesting and there’s that sense of community, people want to get out and take pride in where they live,” says Eric Wolf, developer and partner at 66 Main apartments. He says developers should be aware that “to build a livable and walkable downtown, they need to participate in the community and offer retail opportunities that augment life in the area.” The more options people have in their own cities, the more likely they are to be proud of where they live, says Jesse Deutch, the developer of the Wheeler Block Lofts, slated to open late spring. “The people who are looking to live in a walkable community are looking for clean streets, good schools, and businesses that serve their needs,” Deutch says.

“The walkability of our town has definitely played a role in people looking to live here.”
— Pleasantville Mayor Peter Scherer

Two other Rivertown developments, one in Peekskill and one in Dobbs Ferry, are betting on towns’ compact sizes and retail scenes to be draws. “As one of the most affordable waterfront communities in Westchester, we see a great mix of people who want to live here in the heart of downtown,” says Steven Irizarry, licensed real-estate salesperson at SERHANT, which is handling the leasing at Park Place Tower in Peekskill. The building is seeing interest across the board age-wise, and a great deal of interest from retailers. “We’re looking to build a community within our community, by offering events to get people out of their apartments and meet their neighbors,” Irizarry says. People who love to walk are drawn to Dobbs Ferry’s connection to the waterfront, Old Croton Aqueduct Trail, retailers, and proximity to Manhattan, says Cosmo Marfione, managing principal of The BDC Group and its Cedar Commons development. “People are looking for an urban lifestyle without the congestion they find in the city,” Marfione says.

“For towns and their businesses to survive and flourish, there has to be a healthy walking culture.”
— Brian Orsi of Bucko!

The Walking Culture and Why Some Suburbanites Are Lacing up Their Sneakers Instead of Gassing up Their Cars

Peekskill Walks was formed in 2019, when a group of residents “looked for ways to make Peekskill more walkable and pedestrian friendly,” says active member Frederick Dennstedt. Founded in the pre-automobile era, the compact town had become pedestrian unfriendly over the years, says Dennstedt, a Peekskill resident for seven years. The group looks to address issues such as safe sidewalks, possible street redesigns, and closing some streets to vehicular traffic. “We’re also seeing more people in the younger generations question the need for cars, especially with their prices and the cost of gasoline,” he says. Pedestrian safety, Dennstedt says, comes from three Es: education, enforcement, and engineering.

“Walkability is directly tied to profitable small businesses,” says Brian Orsi, co-owner with wife Katie of Bucko!, a clothing and homegoods boutique in Peekskill. Towns such as his should lean into walkability to keep it accessible to residents. Coffee shops, restaurants, and services people need are often discovered when they set out for a stroll and really take in their surroundings, Orsi says. “For towns and their businesses to survive and flourish, there has to be a healthy walking culture,” he says.

For Ted Lai, the allure of Sleepy Hollow’s Edge-on-Hudson came from his familiarity with the area, the RiverWalk pathway, proximity to the train station, and the coming conveniences of a new DeCicco & Sons store and other retailers. “The work-from-home shift put a spotlight on communities like this,” Lai says.

A rendering of Park Place Tower in Peekskill, which is being built at the city square block along Broad, Brown, South James, and Park streets
A rendering of Park Place Tower in Peekskill, which is being built at the city square block along Broad, Brown, South James, and Park streets. Rendering by Scott McMenamin.

Next door in Tarrytown, Michelle Pacifico Edgemont, who moved from Brooklyn in 2019, recalls telling her husband “the only way I’ll move to the suburbs is if I can walk to get my iced coffee.” The mother of two does walk a great deal but feels that “there’s more of a car culture up here. I find it nerve-racking to have the kids try to cross some streets with me.” Tarrytown would be more of a walkable city if there were action steps taken to address crosswalks and stop signs, and if drivers would slow down and have more awareness of crosswalks, Pacifico Edgemont says. “I think walking is important,” she says. “It engages me as a resident. People become familiar to you. It creates an environment of community.”

The walkability of Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown was “definitely a factor in making my venture possible,” says Leah Bloom, owner of the Sleepy Hollow Bookshop. Bloom says the convenience of the store to her, her employees, and parents who can walk over to have a cup of coffee and browse, allowed her to open “a store I wished I could visit when I lived in New Jersey where there was no walkability.” The store draws residents who have lived there for years as well as newcomers. “Beekman Avenue is the hub of retail for the town, and I welcome the new shops opening in town and the ones who have been here for years — we all benefit when there are eyes on our stores,” Bloom says.

Business owner Brian Orsi (left) and Peekskill Walks active member Frederick Dennstedt walking on South Division Street in Peekskill.
Business owner Brian Orsi (left) and Peekskill Walks active member Frederick Dennstedt walking on South Division Street in Peekskill. Photo by Ken Gabrielsen.

Christine Peters of Yonkers has seen both sides of walking. She was a downtown resident of Yonkers for two years and moved to a different area of the city in 2021. “Walking was great in a number of ways: My daughter and I got to spend mindful time with each other, I lost some weight, I was more social, and the dog got walked more often,” Peters says. Walking created more opportunities for spontaneous interactions, and she took the train into New York City more often. “I still drive down to the riverfront, but everything is more planned now, and I find myself getting into the car to drive to the city rather than walking to the Metro-North station.”

Located downtown for nine years, Yonkers Brewery depends on foot traffic, says owner John Rubbo. Walkability brings his business “much-needed visits from regulars — customers who leave their apartments upstairs or walk a quarter mile to frequent the brewery,” he says. The more businesses found in a downtown area, the more it drives customers to all of them. Rubbo says: “To have a walkable city is truly a partnership between a city’s government, the developers, the business community, and, ultimately, the residents.”

Abbe Wichman recently gave up the open spaces of Lewisboro for the sidewalks of Tarrytown. She loves being able to walk to coffee shops, restaurants, and the liquor store. She eagerly awaits the opening of DeCicco & Sons in Sleepy Hollow and is eyeing an old-fashioned grocery cart for her visits there.

Related: What Does the Future of Business Look Like in Westchester

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