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Walsh: MTA Project is Harrison's 'Last Chance'

HARRISON, N.Y. - Mayor and Supervisor Joan Walsh said in a letter to Harrison residents Wednesday that the ongoing MTA project to revitalize the downtown district is the town's "last and best" chance to breathe fresh air into the area.

In the letter, Walsh said a developer for the project should be chosen by early January as ongoing meetings are scheduled until then.

For the past weeks and months, even years, there have been complaints about our downtown business district. There are undoubtedly those with better memories, but I believe its heyday was in the late 1970's when, in the central area, there were two hardware stores, three pharmacies, a dress shop, a Hallmark store, a hat shop, a shoe store, our remaining florist, a Five & 10 and Butler Brothers where CVS now stands.

By the early '80's, then-Supervisor Passidomo was so concerned about the visible decline that he commissioned a pollster to take a week-long survey to ask people why they came to downtown Harrison. The overwhelming answer was "to eat." Not to shop, or to stroll, or to window shop, but to eat. As you go along Halstead Avenue today - the delis, bagel shops and restaurants far outnumber any other type of store.

The reasons given for the decline varied, from high rents, to too small store areas, to lack of parking. One major reason given was the "blight" of the RR parking lots that so divided the shopping areas. Various supervisors in the past, with the cooperation of the MTA, which owns that property, tried to interest developers in building on that land. A hotel and apartment house were two suggestions but neither went beyond just "ideas." No developers would even talk to the town fathers.

Fast forward 20 years. Then-Mayor Malfitano, with the blessing of the MTA, developed an idea for half of the site: a parking structure for commuters and shoppers surrounded by apartments, plus a central block of apartments, both with retail on the ground floor, to match the existing business area. The present largest parking lot, the one nearest the Harrison Avenue bridge, was to be reserved for future, undetermined "municipal purposes." This proposal was shown to town residents early in 2008, to generally favorable reviews. When I became mayor, I asked Councilman Cannella to work with me and the MTA to move it forward. Then the economy fell apart, and the idea had to be put on hold.

Two years ago we revived it, and moved it forward as developers expressed interest. A Request for Proposals was sent out this summer, and we received two viable proposals from two well-respected, well-financed developers. One hurdle will be that these developers' proposals do not conform exactly to Mr. Malfitano's concept. The parking structure is included as it is a requirement of the MTA (in exchange for giving the town the land,) plus the retail stores and apartments, but their proposals do not match Malfitano's original design, and both developers state that to be economically feasible, the entire site of 3.5 acres must be used, again not to Malfitano's original design.

I have met with a number of knowledgeable people in the past four years who assure me that this development will be a catalyst for the upgrading of the entire business district. Certainly that is a most desirable and long-sought goal. Apartments bring people into the downtown area, which will benefit the present stores as well as the future ones. Will there be pain as the project is built? Yes. There will be noise, and traffic disruptions, but there will also be jobs and money spent in our area, and the end result will be more than worth it.

The increase in commuter parking will not affect us any more than it does now as most cars will come from Rye as at present, arriving before 8AM and going home after 6 PM. Of course, that good result will require that the development as approved attract the right kinds of stores, which will require compromise on the part of the town in regard to the design. This is a very costly building project, in part because of the proximity of the railroad tracks and the costs associated with protecting the tracks and trains.

Meetings have been scheduled between the town, the MTA, and both developers between now and Dec. 31. Certainly there will be modifications of the proposed designs but it is doubtful if either developer will consent to use only part of the site. The current schedule calls for the developer to be chosen by early January. With the cooperation of the present Town Board, and of the incoming Board, it may well be that we will finally have the long-discussed, long-desired "revitalization" of our downtown.

I do believe that, after all these years of effort and talk, this is our last and best chance. I doubt that anyone would believe in our good intentions if we turn down this opportunity. Keep your fingers crossed, and perhaps your eyes and toes as well.

- Mayor Joan Walsh

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