Council Goes Ahead, Despite Merchant Outcry, to Keep Purchase Plaza Open
By Robin Jovanovich
One of the things that has distinguished Rye for well over a century is its quaint, tree-lined downtown. Trees are still being planted in the Central Business District, antique urns are replenished with seasonal plants by garden clubs, and holiday lights are happily strung along Purchase Street by DPW workers.
Rye has also been blessed with strong and caring community leaders who’ve understood that they were elected by the people and for the people, businesses, and organizations. They listened; they responded to every serious concern and more than a few complaints. They didn’t always come up with solutions all of us were happy with, but they strove to come up with ones that made sense and were never arbitrary.
But a crack in our strong foundation appeared in early summer, soon after a grassroots Love Rye campaign raised funds in aid of small service businesses and retail shops and sent a check to nearly all of them. As we head into the fourth week of fall, however, the crack has grown into a crater.
The root cause is easily understood. Soon after the City Council, with the goal of saving businesses, closed Purchase Street to all vehicular traffic and created a pedestrian plaza in late June, the restaurants have flourished, but retailers and small businesses are struggling, based on the feedback we received from the nearly 60 owners and managers we spoke to.
Retailers are suffering. Pink owner Judy Graham and her daughter, Abbie Durkin, who owns Palmer on Purchase, are the only two who’ve been vocal in their total and enthusiastic support for the Plaza. Meanwhile, merchants and many citizens, all of whom like the Plaza concept but not the current layout, have tried making their case to Mayor Cohn and most Councilmembers to no avail. Their view is that the City is not hearing them. Further, three store owners claim they have been threatened by a member of the Council with a boycott if they “choose the wrong side” of this issue.
Retailers were glad to hear that a survey was being sent out before the October 7 Council meeting. The trouble is that while the survey was posted on the Rye Moms Facebook page and mailed to many residents on Councilmember Carolina Johnson’s email chain, it wasn’t sent to merchants other than those on Rye Moms.
What wasn’t in the survey was noteworthy. The survey would have been more equitable if it had included some of the following questions:
- Have you found it a deterrent that the north end of Purchase Street has been closed to through traffic?
- What compromises would you make to aid retailers and small businesses and still allow restaurants to offer outdoor dining as long as weather permits?
- Would you be in favor of opening up parking lots to more dining to make shopping easier and storefronts more visible?
- How have you found the rerouting of traffic? Please elaborate.
- The results of the first Chamber of Commerce survey this spring showed that a majority were in favor of closing Purchase Street from Thursday through Sunday. Would you have voted yes if you had known that the City would decide to close the street seven days a week?
- Would you have participated in a public, non-Zoom workshop on the matter?
- Have you enjoyed the Plaza? If not, why not?
The qualities you want in a City Council are for them to be decisive, but deliberative and open to new evidence. Most merchants believe that their “evidence” is not being heard.
When the City initially announced that the closure was a temporary measure and would be reviewed and discussed at their July meeting, many businesses were surprised when the Council extended it for another month. Many retailers were alarmed when the Council extended it again until Columbus Day.
At the October 7 City Council meeting, Mayor Cohn pressed ahead with his plan to extend the street closure until November 30, subject to “exigent” circumstances and a recommendation from City staff.
Councilmember Sara Goddard was one of only two Councilmembers to share some of the negative feedback she’s received from business owners the past several months. When she asked whether anyone on the Council had contacted heads of other municipalities that have closed parts of their downtown, Councilmember Julie Souza said she had and learned that Rye was a “model for many.”
Councilmember Pam Tarlow proffered another view: “The problem for me is that this plan supplements some businesses, but not all. I need something to hold on to if I am to vote in favor of this.” Councilmember Souza countered: “We’re not creating winners and losers.” Unpleasantries were exchanged until Mayor Cohn asked that the meeting be moved along.
It’s critical to note that everyone wants Rye’s restaurants to succeed; it’s equally important that we help the retail shops and small businesses succeed. City officials shouldn’t be “writing off” retail.
We have already seen plenty of retailers close their doors. Has the Council seriously contemplated a downtown with more empty storefronts and only banks and restaurants? While the young moms I’ve spoken to are glad to be able to walk safely on the Plaza, none of them looks forward to a town with no strollers, and fewer pushing a stroller.
It’s worth noting that Larchmont and Mamaroneck businesses are thriving, even in the pandemic. Neither community closed their entire main street. Both are doing a much better job of policing their downtowns and keeping the streets clean.
The Council voted 6-1 to approve the extension, with Councilwoman Tarlow the only nay vote.
Following the vote, City Manager Greg Usry presented a “winter plan” for restaurants, beginning December 1.