By Grace Bennett with Zarah Kavarana
Editor’s Note: On what they touted as an Independent ticket challenging an all Democrat one, Team New Castle persevered this fall. A month post victory, Zarah and I were delighted to catch up with new Town Supervisor Robert Greenstein (RG), Deputy Supervisor Lisa Katz (LK) and new Council member Adam Brodsky (AB) prior to their official swearing in ceremony. Greenstein, Katz and Brodsky join long time board members Elise Mottel and Jason Chapin. At a first Town Hall meeting in January, the five ultimately appeared united in an effort to move forward. At the Swearing In Ceremony, perhaps acknowledging a Democrat ticket loss to an Independent one (following an unusually contentious election), Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton related a common question she was asked repeatedly on one State Department mission to the Pacific region: “How could you work with President Obama after losing to him?” “I realized that for much of the world, you can get exiled or killed after losing…not be asked to serve in the same cabinet!” That kind of wonderment, she said, made her appreciate “how we govern ourselves here and the rule of law.” As for Inside Chappaqua, we had fun meeting in town with a lit up King Street as a backdrop, and hearing in depth the trio’s thoughts about various hot button topics–and also those falling a little below the radar. The following is the opening to an edited version of the conversation. The team seemed happy, comfortable and excited about the cover story opportunity and freely shared! You can read Eileen Gallagher’s more up to date reports from Town Hall via the “New Castle News” link at the site too.
Photos by Carolyn Simpson
Everyone wants to know about Chappaqua Crossing (CC). Can you update IC readers?
RG: One of the first things that we did was reach out to (the developer) Summit Greenfield [SG] and say that we look forward to working with them. There’s no doubt that we probably were not the slate that they wanted to win. We’ve had some very productive meetings and we have a dialogue going. We’re starting to develop mutual trust. We’ve asked them to be part of the Master Plan process because we often said during the campaign that we can’t just look at Chappaqua Crossing, because what we do there is going to affect downtown Chappaqua. We’re trying to look at both things together so that if we do anything at Chappaqua Crossing that’s a positive, we have to have a positive downtown to offset it. You can’t build up one and hope for the best with the other. You have to build up both.
LK: I agree with Rob. In the past, I think the Town Board was just bowing to what Summit Greenfield wanted without looking at the town holistically. What goes there (at CC) has to make sense for our town and the neighbors, including the high school and the residences because it’s in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It seemed as though the residents, merchants, and everyone else who spoke out were not being listened to. We really want to open a dialogue, and Summit Greenfield has to be a part of that, as do the residents and the merchants. It really needs to be a collaborative process that’s going to start now so that whatever is done there works for everybody.
AB: I agree, and think the idea is that we’re not behind closed doors. We want to have a transparent process. Collaboration and transparency were two of the key values that Team New Castle ran on. How we achieve that is by reaching out to the residents in the Lawrence Farms Roaring Brook Road neighborhoods , and the constituents who surround the property and are directly affected on a daily basis. We then look at the community as a whole. I agree that we need to look at it holistically and that it’s one piece of the overall pie.
What is the status with Whole Foods at CC?
RG: That’s something that [SG] wants and that many residents want as well, but it has to work for our community. We have to look at what else is there, and downtown. It would be a problem if we just built up one area and didn’t build up the other.
During the campaign, there seemed to be very anti-Summit Greenfield sentiments from the community. Do you worry that people will think that you’ve shifted now that you’re elected and it’s easier to sit down and work with SG than to push them away?
RG: The plans that [SG] presented were good for them, and many felt that the Town Board was trying to sell it to the public and ram it down their throats. We’re trying to bring SG into the process and have a conversation with them and residents at the same time so that we come to a consensus that we all reach together. It’s a different approach. I’ve often said that it would be better if we work together. Now we’re in a position to do that, so I haven’t deviated from that point.
How fast will the process go?
RG: We spoke to Felix, one of the [SG] principals. We said we needed a little time because of the Master Plan process. He needs a little time because he has constraints by Whole Foods. We did agree to a 4-5 month time frame. We’re going to do an intensive public outreach process from January to April, via the master plan committee. We’re meeting with them because we’re trying to start a dialogue, we’re trying to build a relationship. You also have to understand what their wants and their needs are, and what our wants and our needs are. We’re talking about things that are possible.
Has SG been receptive to your ideas?
AB: They did a lot of listening. We only spoke in the big picture because we’re not in any capacity to talk about what the community wants yet, so the initial steps thus far have been to open a dialogue and say this is who we are, we’re reasonable people, and we’re willing to engage you as well as everyone else. Opposed to fighting and litigating, let’s talk and see what we can do for all our constituents.
Can you address the traffic concerns surrounding CC development?
RG: If they do stuff up there, they’re going to put money into the infrastructure and make some improvements. We can make some improvements within [Greeley], crosswalks and things like that, which will make traffic flow a little better. There is an opportunity to get some improvements that we need right now, even if nothing was developed [at CC]. Whatever comes up there, there’s going to be traffic. The point is to get to where the positives outweigh the negatives. We’re trying to alleviate the traffic, not just from a street point of view, but from a use point of view as well.
What is your latest thinking about the Napoli Plan?
RG: The Napoli Plan should be put on the table. We’ve also talked to Summit Greenfield about possibly moving Town Hall to Chappaqua Crossing. They were receptive. Maybe people don’t want Town Hall up there, and maybe some people see it as a tremendous opportunity to develop downtown Chappaqua with that space. These are things we’re going to talk about, and Chuck Napoli’s plans will be part of the discussion. Maybe the Town Hall location should be all residential with some affordable housing, and then you can add retail consistent with the Napoli plan. We’ve talked about possibly putting a Rec Field, town pool or tennis court up at Chappaqua Crossing. These are all things that we need to put on the table to see if people are receptive.
Please update us about Conifer and affordable housing plans.
RG: [Conifer’s Hunts Place plans] have been temporarily shot down. The state had a variance hearing a few weeks ago, and said that the decision would be issued in February. We argued to county legislators that there were safety concerns raised at the variance hearing.
Since the state reserved decision, our position with county legislators is that [the project] shouldn’t be approved because the safety issues should not be ignored, and that the project that may not be in the same form because if [Conifer] doesn’t get the variances, they have to go back to the drawing board. The funding was shot down because they can come back after that variance hearing. If the variance is granted, they could be in a strong position. If the variances are not granted, then they’re going to have to totally redesign the building, or make it smaller.
AB: We support affordable housing, it’s just that we don’t support the location in which they want to place it. We think [affordable housing belongs] in an appropriate residential setting, not between the train tracks and the highway. We’re thinking about another location on Washington Avenue, and a few other locations are possibilities.
LK: It’s really just the right issue, wrong location.
RG: We’d like to do a feasibility study on the Washington Avenue location, and prove to county legislators that we are not against affordable housing. When 20 affordable housing units to Chappaqua Crossing were approved, there wasn’t a peep; there was a lot of opposition to the actual number of market-rate condos. The best approach to affordable housing is where it’s 10 percent of a new building; that way, there’s integration.*
Are there any topics “under the radar” that you hope to address soon?
RG: We want to work on communication on all fronts. When there’s a storm, it’s even more important. After the recent storm, the head of the Department of Public Works sent an e-mail and told us how many crews were on, and gave a summary of the challenges. I was thinking that should have happened earlier: we would be able to tell residents that we have so many crews, so many trucks on the road, working 24 hours a day, but the snow happens to be challenging because of the cold. Just keep people informed, keep them in the loop, tell them what’s going on. We’ve developed a new website (released January 1st ) called www.newcastlecodered.org that links directly to the [registration] page. We’re just going to promote the heck out of it to get people to sign up.
LK: Code Red existed, but no one really knew about it. We’re trying to make a big push in hopes of enhancing communication to make sure that people do sign up because by having everybody’s phone number and e-mail address, we can get that information out.
AB: We have all these fantastic departments, and we want to make them completely accessible to residents. We’re looking at creating a 311 system, or other things that will allow residents to have seamless communication with different town departments so that we can help them to get access to the services that they need and they have progress as to the repairs they’re requesting, how they’re prioritized, when they’re going to get done. It’s not just leaving a paper message on some guy’s desk; it’s going to be a program where there’s responsiveness and accountability that the things people need done are getting done in a timely fashion. People pay a lot of money to be residents in this town and they should get the services that they’re entitled to.
RG: We’re going to revamp the town website so that it becomes more user-friendly, and make it easier for people to report and track problems. We’re also promoting a way to ask the Town Board questions via email at email@example.com., and we’ll answer them at Town Board meetings. We’re going to be hiring a communications person, and have reached out to the school board and started working with them. I’ve spoken to a number of people about forming committees. We’re going to have a Chappaqua Crossing Neighborhood Association–not just with people concerned about it, but with people who have the expertise to deal with some of the issues raised. Adam has already started the Downtown Business Corporation and reached out to landlords so that when a store becomes vacant, we know in advance and can help that landlord find a new tenant.
AB: When you lease a store, there the initial enticing the tenant, but then there’s a whole other process. They have to get building permits and know if [the intended] use is permitted in that particular location. Government shouldn’t be a barrier to things happening in our downtown. We’re going to be integrated into the process to allow the landlords and the storekeepers to have as streamlined a process as possible.We can change the reputation of our community that we are business-friendly.
Tell us about the new “Community Conversations.”
RG: Every week we’re going to try and touch on another subject. You’ll see our logo and you’ll know that it’s a call to action: we’re looking for opinions. That’s part of the cooperation to get people involved. We’re going to bring people to the process to help us choose a logo.
AB: Everything doesn’t have to be about the catastrophic, community-changing topics of the day. There are a lot of issues that affect other people and maybe it’s more on an individual basis, but people have concerns, so we’re here.
Any agenda on how to continue to address the coyote issue?
RG: The website has to be revamped because it doesn’t make sense to track every coyote. You’re only really supposed to track the aggressive coyotes, those that no longer have a fear of humans: you’re screaming at it and it’s not moving. If they’re coming into your backyard, they’re aggressive because they’re supposed to be scared to do that. If you see one off in the distance in the woods, then you don’t need to track that one because it’s not aggressive. We also talked about training residents, the DPW staff and the Parks and Recreation staff on hazing. Let’s give a seminar on how to haze, which is basically to yell at them and make noise. We have to assure people that they’re not going to get attacked if they haze. The goal is to instill the fear of humans in coyotes.
Please share your hopes for the Chamber of Commerce, which you founded.
RG: Solveig McShea is great as Executive Director. We asked Nancy Shenker to take over as President because of her strong background in marketing, most important for the Chamber of Commerce. As far as the relationship between the Board and the Chamber goes, if a new store opens, we’d like to invite them to a Town Board meeting to let them talk about and promote their business. We’ve also talked about doing new town-sponsored garbage cans that have maybe three different bins for paper, garbage, and plastics. These are things that the Town and the Chamber can work together on. I’ve told both Solveig and Nancy to think about things that we can do as partners. Town Hall was always friendly, but I think now you have a Town Hall that’s going to be an advocate. Instead of just approving things, we come up with suggestions.It’s all about win-win situations.
LK: We want to make Town Hall friendlier. We were talking about inviting students one night and having kids’ night at Town Hall to hear their issues or things they would be interested in. We could bring in pizza and have kids come, and then merchants, and just make it a place where people can come to understand what’s going on.
Will there be internships for high school students at Town Hall?
RG: We asked our campaign interns if they would like to stay on board and they all said yes, so we are going to have interns, but we haven’t started anything with that yet.
What did you learn from the campaign?
LK: I met a ton of people, and realized the incredible people we have in this town. The assets that we can tap into of people who historically haven’t been involved, but actually have opinions and great ideas. As much as the election did get a little contentious, I think that people did feel a sense of community. We had the highest voter turnout there ever was. I think that it was the first time people really came out to vote for the issues and for the people instead of for a party. I would like to build on that sense of community.
AB: You mistakenly believe that you have your little circles and through that, you know the community. Then when you’re out and knocking on doors, you’re going to areas that you didn’t even know were part of New Castle, and you meet these fantastic people who are interested and have concerns, and say, “Please help me on this,” and “Can you make this happen for me?” and “I’m trusting you.” It was very humbling. The thing that I’m starting to realize now is that it’s easier to be a campaigner and to have a goal to be successful on November 5th, as opposed to being an elected official. The issues are not black and white and there isn’t always a correct answer. The decisions you make are going to make some people happy and some people unhappy. It’s very hard to have that responsibility that the town has entrusted you with when they think that you’re the individual who can make a proper decision for the community, and sometimes there really isn’t a right or wrong answer.
RG: There’s always been a lot of apathy in this town, but it doesn’t have to be like that. When you ask people to get involved, they’re anxious to help. I think that the voter turnout proved that people are willing to get involved in places other than the schools. The trick is to continue and build on that energy.
How can we make downtown more inviting? What are upcoming beautification efforts?
AB: The downtown has some significant infrastructure issues. Some money has been set aside to make those improvements. This is a fantastic opportunity to look at the sidewalks and the layouts and the power lines-things of that natureand that’s going to be one of the first issues that we’re going to tackle now, and then work in the spring and summer. We think that the downtown is beautiful, but needs some TLC and we’re going to be working diligently on that.
RG: Downtown has some major issues. Beautification is important, but little band aids aren’t going to fix them. We have some major problems that have to be addressed. That’s not to minimize the beautification effort, but it has to be part of the bigger plan.
What do you foresee regarding Town Hall interactions with the school district?
LK: We’ve already spoken with members of the school board. They really want to have a great relationship with the town. Our schools are our most important assets, so we want to make sure that we work well with them and make sure that they’re at the table too for significant decisions like Chappaqua Crossing.
RG: They want to be part of the process,, so we intend to include them.
Grace Bennett is Publisher and Editor of Inside Chappaqua Magazine.
Zarah Kavarana, a Boston University sophomore majoring in journalism, was an IC intern this past summer and winter break. Special thanks to contributor Debra Hand for editing assistance.