By Robin Jovanovich
The day before the arrival of spring, a City Council survey was sent to members of the Chamber of Commerce asking for “their input for Purchase Plaza 2021, which will extend from Smith to Purdy and include the first block of Elm. Our hope is to understand the needs of all business owners and make downtown Rye a place for all businesses to thrive. Entertainment, a new map, and an advertising campaign are all being planned. We’d love your help if you are interested!”
The immediate response from retailers was chilly with a chance of revolt.
As Wine at Five owner Cai Palmer was quick to point out, “This is not a survey but an endorsement supporting the mayor’s plan to close Purchase Street. A survey asks a member: Do you want the street closed or left open? If the street is closed, do you think your business will thrive or die? If the street is closed, will you leave Rye?”
Palmer continued: “How does the Chamber intend to make downtown a place where all businesses can thrive when you ask them only, ‘What time frame do you prefer for Purchase Street Plaza?’ This is a sham.”
All Paws owner Claudia Baker added, “If the City wants Purchase Street to remain a small shop destination, they need to keep the street open and shelve this plan.”
Love Bella’s Ellie Zieminski is not the only small business owner who wonders if the City Council cares about the survival of Rye’s hard-working retailers. “Covid is waning. The restaurants can now operate at 75 percent capacity. Why are the retail owners’ and landlords’ views about closing the street ignored? We know Mayor Cohn thinks that retail is dead, he shared that view on many occasions last summer. So why am I busy now? We made it through the pandemic and are still here. Why would we vote for something that will cause more small businesses to close or move out of town?”
She added, “None of us came to Rye to open a business on a closed street.” For 17 years, Zieminski has owned a shop in Larchmont, where she reports businesses work together and support one another “and the town didn’t close any streets.”
Woof Gang Bakery owner Debra Love sent out a plea to the City not to close Purchase Street again. “Our businesses are finally coming back to normal with the street reopened.”
Frank Kenny, a longtime resident who has owned commercial buildings in both downtown Rye and Greenwich for nearly 40 years, says he has no problem with the concept of a pedestrian plaza “but the plan has to work for everyone and not be at the expense of retailers.”
He decries the fact that most landlords and many retail tenants weren’t even consulted before last year’s plaza was put in place “too quickly and without any design parameters. There must be a cohesive plan in place with input from architects and landscape designers to create an attractive and uniform streetscape before the City puts up concrete bollards and allows all sorts of plastic furniture and awful signs again.”
Kenny, a land-use economist, says there are many good ideas circulating among retailers and residents which deserve to be discussed in a public forum.
He stressed the importance of encouraging and supporting a mix of businesses in downtown “because downtowns are important for young and old and they bring people together.”
Business owners were disconcerted to learn from City Councilmember Sara Goddard that the survey was not put together by the Rye City Council. On March 20, she emailed shop and business owners that this was the first time she had seen or heard of this survey. She commended those retailers who had spoken up and encouraged every business owner to share their views so that the Council could make an informed decision.
This week, the Chamber of Commerce advised its members that “the survey was created in response to a request by the City for a Chamber view on the street closure. It did not reflect any preference or decision.”