Last night I spent an instructive couple of hours listening to the developers of the so-called “Tuckahoe Main Street” explain their proposal (basically a strip mall with some apartments, greenery and sidewalk cafes thrown in as window dressing), as well as the responses of quite a few Tuckahoe residents. The reason I found it so instructive was that it helped clarify my thinking on the subject of Planned Development Districts or PDDs. Until now, I had what could best be called a “feeling” that PDDs were generally not as beneficial to the community as they were intended to be. Now, I understand why I had that feeling, and that it’s right on the money.
Here’s some background for those of you who don’t follow the “planning” game as it’s played in the Town of Southampton, NY. PDDs, are usually proposed by developers who want to use a parcel, or parcels, of land in a way that does not conform to the current zoning of those parcels. Rather than ask the Town to change the zoning outright, which would be a difficult process, with little chance of success, the developer can propose that the Town create an “overlay district” or PDD, that would not change, but rather overlay the existing zoning. A PDD applies only to the parcels in question, and, theoretically at least, does not create a precedent that might lead other land owners in the area to also demand a rezoning of their properties. In return for granting the PDD, the Town is supposed to receive some “community benefits or amenities” from the developer, perhaps some parkland, open space or the inclusion of some affordable housing on the site. Granted, this is a simplistic explanation, but I think it covers the most important ground.
The 12.4-acre site of the Tuckahoe project consists of 4.4 acres currently zoned for residential development, and an eight-acre parcel zoned for highway business. Neither of these zoning classifications allow for the type of mixed-use development being proposed. Consequently, the developer has asked the Town Board to consider creating a MUPDD, (Mixed-Use Planned Development District) in which such a development would be permitted.
That’s the background. Now back to our story.
Not too long ago I was fortunate enough to attend a training session at the Project for Public Spaces in New York City. I owe my good fortune to the community group Save Sag Harbor for sponsoring my attendance there. The staff at PPS specialize in something they call placemaking, which is basically the art and science of creating livable places where people enjoy being. As Main Streets are very important places in communities, we spent a good deal of time in our training learning what makes a good Main Street work as an integral part of a thriving community. Of course this varies from town to town, but it always starts with a sense of place. The Main Street of a town or village has to reflect the history, values and aspirations of the community it serves.
When confronted with an unsuccessful place, say a dying Main Street in an aging town fighting against a proliferation of strip malls and suburban sprawl, the staff at PPS always starts by asking the community to identify what it is that is important, meaningful and useful in their town. They ask, “what works? What doesn’t? What’s worth preserving? What needs to be changed? What’s missing?” Only the people who live in a place can answer these question. Planners, no matter how skilled, cannot. Armed with this information, PPS can then make suggestions as to how to supplement and modify the working parts, integrating everything into a seamless whole that then has a chance of becoming a successful “place.”
Given the importance of the Main Street to any community, I could not help but apply some of my training in analyzing the “Tuckahoe Main Street” PDD. Three things were immediately obvious. First, this is not a Main Street in any traditional sense of the word. Second, the entire plan was conceived by the developer’s planning team without significant community input. Third, this was not a livable place where people would enjoy spending time. How could it be when the dominant feature was a 474-space parking lot?
I could go on for many paragraphs criticizing particulars of the design, but there is no point. The entire plan is ill conceived and should not go forward. But, I do not blame the developers for this. They are just doing what developers do. No, I fault our Town government for creating the tool that makes the kind of thinking behind Tuckahoe Main Street possible: the PDD.
Read the language in the section of the Town Code dealing with PDDs, and you would think this legislation is so pure and beneficial that only good could possibly come of it. Unfortunately, that has not proved to be the case. The reason why PDDs don’t work is simple: they don’t start with the community. Rather, they are a tool used by developers to be able to build what they want by simply making a small sacrifice in terms of providing some “community benefit or amenity.” The benefit extracted by the Town is supposed to ameliorate the damage to the community caused by the creation of the PDD, but rarely turns out to be more than a bandaid slapped on a gaping wound.
PDD’s don’t work because they ignore the basic tenets of good placemaking. To reiterate: first, find out what the community values, needs and aspires to, then preserve what is good in the community. Next, find ways to incentivize the development of any missing and needed features. And finally tie it all together with good planning to create a unified, livable, workable community, where people will want to be. The way PDDs work now, is to start with some “concept” put together by a developer that may or may not have any relation to anything the community actually needs. Then this “concept” is massaged into something that passes as “beneficial” in some way or another, and foisted on the community, often exacerbating existing problems. This is “planning” stood on its head. It starts with the result, and then tries to twist it to fit the need.
That’s what’s happening in Tuckahoe right now, and it’s a sham and a crime. The people of Tuckahoe deserve a say in whether their “Main Street” serves them or the needs of some developers and out-of-town merchants. This PDD should be denied. Then the entire PDD process should be revised to make it more responsive to the needs of the communities in which future PDDs are proposed.
What do you think? Leave a comment below telling me why I’m wrong or right, or how my ideas on this subject can be improved.