By Cai Palmer
I do not believe that retail is dead. The Mayor of Rye may believe that retail is dead — he is on record as saying so — but try telling the millions of retail owners in this country that their businesses are over. If a Presidential candidate did that, I am pretty certain he or she wouldn’t get elected. Has the pandemic hurt retail? Obviously. And yet the vast majority of retail businesses around the country have done whatever it took to remain open, to remain in business, to remain alive.
Last year, the Mayor made the unilateral decision to close all of downtown Purchase Street and the abutting roads. He reversed one-way streets and extended the fee-based parking in all the municipal parking lots to 9 p.m. That’s just what the restaurants needed. Please come and eat, but in this town, you have to pay to park until 9. As if, in a budget of $50 million, he needed the little bit of extra revenue to prevent raising property taxes. Yes, it was a question of a little bit of extra money. The fact that it added yet more stress and pressure to the very industry he thought he was helping was of no consequence. And did it prevent property taxes from rising? We will see.
This year I understand that plans are afoot to close Purchase Street again. We have had two inept and flawed surveys. Both conducted by the Chamber of Commerce – the first, supposedly at the bidding of the Rye City Council, which later recanted and said it was nothing to do with them. The second done by a member of the board of the Chamber of Commerce who emphasized that this “walk-about” survey was being conducted purely by the Chamber and had nothing to do with the Council. It was the Chamber reaching out to gauge the opposition to closing Purchase Street. Unfortunately for that board member, Councilwoman Julie Souza threw him under the bus by stating: “The Council is awaiting feedback and recommendations from the Chamber on the needs and wants of the downtown business district and will weigh that with other important factors.”She goes on to say that there are no ulterior motives to closing the street. So why do a few members of the City Council still want the street closed?
It’s not to help the restaurants – they are presently at 75% capacity, and with the expanded outdoor seating that some of them have been able to negotiate, that figure could even be higher. With Governor Cuomo likely to allow restaurants to return to 100% in the coming months, the street closure becomes moot in the face of that argument.
It can’t be to augment the beautiful aesthetics of the Downtown Business District. If it were, I suspect that 100% of all residents, landlords, and business owners would prefer the Council to make good on their promise to repave Purchase Street, rather than close it. The street and pavements are already a disgrace. Dropping concrete bollards haphazardly around town, putting up ineffective warnings of the dire consequences if you use the plaza as a bicycle and skateboard park, allowing trash to remain on the street for weeks and months…no, you can’t seriously think that closing the street will make the town look prettier.
Car traffic on Purchase Street is an enormous advertising boon to all the businesses lining the street – from the upstairs architects, the restaurants, the salons, the retailers – we all want that auto-traffic that drives 3,000-4,000 cars every day through our town. We pay our landlords top dollar for that privilege. Take it away, Mr. Cohn, and why should we pay that crazy rent? Take the last few Saturdays on Purchase Street – buzzing, comes to mind. Packed. Loads of pedestrians, loads of shoppers, loads of families. And all because there is plenty of parking, and plenty of shops and restaurants to visit. Close the street Mr. Cohn and you will see a very different buzz on a Saturday. You will see very few residents roaming the street, you will see lots of hooligans doing wheelies in the middle of the road, loads of skateboarders taking advantage of the absence of cars, and just a few people sitting outside a restaurant having a meal. That’s not a very good reason to close the street.
And so, I try, very hard, to understand the motive behind your relentless desire to shut down Purchase Street. It’s not to help the hospitality businesses. It certainly isn’t to help the upstairs businesses. Save for one or two retailers (who have their own ulterior motives), it certainly isn’t to help the retailers – who you think are already “dead”. It’s not to make the town look prettier – last year it looked like Beirut in the ‘80s. So why Mr. Cohn?
Could it have anything to do with an election coming up in November and an attempt to gain votes from mothers who like the idea of their small children being able to play in the middle of the street whilst they have coffee and a salad? It would be a shame if that’s all you end up with on Purchase Street. A few restaurants, a chain coffee shop. No pretty clothing stores, no pet stores, no wine stores, no home goods stores, no dry cleaners, no jewelers. Just a bunch of banks, realtors, and restaurants.
I wonder what will happen to property prices when potential buyers drive down Purchase Street and see boarded up stores, ‘For Rent’ signs and empty lots with chain-link fencing?
You are dealing with the lives, and livelihoods of hundreds of people – many of whom live and vote in Rye. You are putting at risk businesses that have thrived well before you decided to enter politics. This is not a game. This is not politics. This is business.