YORKTOWN, N.Y. – More than a year ago, the Democrats nearly swept the local elections and took control of the Town Board for the first time in about a decade.
A prominent campaign issue for the Democratic ticket of Ilan Gilbert, Vishnu Patel and Alice Roker was their insistence that the business vacancy problem in Yorktown had become untenable and the Republicans in charge were doing nothing to fix it.
To illustrate the point, one prominent Democratic supporter went around town, taking pictures of every vacant storefront he could find and posted them to Facebook.
The candidates, for their part, promised to “revitalize existing commercial districts and attract tenants to vacant stores and office space.” To counteract the “deteriorating” appearance of downtown Yorktown due to the increasing number of vacant offices and businesses, the candidates said they would “act fast and aggressively to amend tax laws so that landlords stop receiving huge write-offs (tax abatements) for holding on to vacancies.”
Eric DiBartolo, president of the Yorktown Chamber of Commerce, was blunt in his critical assessment of the new Town Board, saying it has not lived up to its promises.
“My personal feeling is that the current administration is not business friendly,” DiBartolo said. “That’s truly how I feel. I just don’t think they’re all warm and fuzzy with new businesses coming in.”
Gilbert, from his office in town hall, defended himself, pointing to the work he does behind the scenes, which might not immediately manifest itself into something tangible.
“It’s very easy for the prior administration who was here for six years to criticize me for not accomplishing everything they wanted to accomplish in six years in nine months,” Gilbert said in October.
Specifically, Gilbert talked about the Food Emporium building on Downing Drive, which has been vacant since he was a town justice in 2010.
Gilbert said he has it on good authority that his Republican predecessors made just one phone call to Oster Properties, the owner of the Yorktown Green Shopping Center, in six years.
“I have since spoken with [Oster] on maybe four occasions,” Gilbert said. “I’m pursuing it.”
His predecessor, Supervisor Michael Grace, said Gilbert’s claim is “absolutely not true.”
“We had constant contact with them,” Grace said. “We always had our fingers on that pulse.”
Gilbert, in relaying his phone conversations, said that a “couple of places” were interested in the 45,000-square-foot building, but nothing concrete.
As for why the location has failed to attract a tenant in nine years, Gilbert said, Oster seems to think that Kmart has been “the problem.” Whenever a new round of Kmart closures is announced, Gilbert said, Oster has been “hoping and praying” that the Yorktown location is among them.
“People view Kmart and its economic viability as a detriment,” Gilbert said. “They’re not willing to come in and invest in Kmart because they see it as an anchor that’s on its last legs, which is fair.”
On the other hand, Gilbert said, Kmart could be revitalized if a “major mover and shaker” takes over the Food Emporium location.
“We may be able to resuscitate and bring life into Kmart if we resuscitate that shopping center,” he said.
Though many residents would like to see Yorktown develop a downtown area similar to Chappaqua, Katonah and Mount Kisco, Gilbert said, its geography doesn’t lend itself to that type of development.
“We’re all struggling with sort of the ad-hoc way the town was developed with urban renewal back in the ’60s and ’70s,” Gilbert said. “You don’t have a downtown area or street scene.”
In plain English: Don’t hold your breath waiting for Trader Joe’s.
“You can wish for a Trader Joe’s all you want, but if Trader Joe’s doesn’t see you as a viable location, it doesn’t matter,” Gilbert said. “I’m not going to get businesses here by wishing for them.”
But, Gilbert said, that doesn’t mean Yorktown is without its strengths:
• With its many farms, it has the potential to create an even-stronger agritourism market.
• The North County Trailway, a popular trail used by cyclists and pedestrians, runs right through Yorktown Heights and near many businesses.
• Yorktown has an additional 24.5 miles of interconnected trails that run through about 2,500 town-owned acres of parkland.
Though Yorktown Stage puts on many wonderful productions, Gilbert said, he sees the potential to make it something even more special, into something along the lines of a Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. A drive-in movie theater at the county-owned Hilltop Hanover Farm is also something he would like to see.
Gilbert also has dreams of bringing a hotel to Yorktown, saying there is a desperate need for one in northern Westchester.
“You have people that come here on a regular basis for weddings and stuff and there’s no [hotel],” Gilbert said, noting that many families with students in Shrub Oak International School, a private school on Stoney Street for people with autism, will also look to stay nearby.
That sentiment was shared by virtually every member of the newly formed Economic and Business Revitalization Committee, Gilbert said. The seven-member advisory board was formed in March and has been filled by volunteer members in addition to “at-large” positions held by members of the Yorktown Chamber of Commerce and the Yorktown Small Business Association.
“I want to look at new ideas and understand, look outside the box and get some fresh ideas about business revitalization in the town,” Gilbert said. “In that vein, we moved forward with a committee.”
Keeping with what Democrats said during the campaign, the committee, he said, may explore such things as high rents and tax abatements. For example, Gilbert said, it might be time to penalize commercial property owners who keep their stores vacant.
“Because they’re empty, they’ll go and try and get their taxes reduced because they have a vacant storefront,” Gilbert said. “I think you need to make it a little bit more…difficult to get an abatement. They have to show good faith effort to have rented the place at what are market rates.”
In February 2017, the Town Board, then led by Supervisor Grace, adopted a tax abatement plan for new developments. Under the plan, just half of an assessed tax increase is required to be paid in the first year. The exemption decreases by five percent each following year for 10 years until the business eventually pays in full.
Gilbert, from his office in town hall, has a front-row seat to a development that will likely benefit from this plan. A three-story, 40,000-square-foot retail/office building is in the works and will be built primarily on properties owned by Grace and formerly by the Murphy family (including Sen. Terrence Murphy).
Gilbert said the new development may only serve to create more vacancies in town while getting a tax abatement in the process.
“I understand, from conversations, that several of the businesses in the town are going to be emptying and moving into that building,” Gilbert said. “We may lose some revenue because of the tax incentives that were given out. I just had trouble with the vision.”
Grace, however, said comments like those reflect Gilbert’s unfamiliarity with business.
“It’s like saying there are used cars for sale. So, until all the used cars are sold, we shouldn’t manufacture new ones,” Grace said.
Government, he said, should try to accommodate businesses rather than regulate them. He pointed to what he said was Gilbert’s indecisiveness regarding the proposed Weyant housing complex and the redevelopment of the Roma Building. The Town Board voted to table these projects as a mini-master plan studying the area was completed.
“If you go to every other community, they are proactive in trying to invest in their downtowns,” Grace said. “These guys just don’t get it.”
Grace, who was supervisor from 2011 to 2017, said he has not reached a decision about challenging Gilbert in 2019. But, he said, he is “frustrated.”
Gilbert, though, said being opposed to a particular development doesn’t mean his administration is “not business friendly,” as DiBartolo and Grace accused him of being.
“I had always maintained—and that’s not going against my concept in terms of the promises I made in election time—I did say I was going to be proactive in trying to make changes and fill stores, but part of the thing was I also wanted to be smart in development,” Gilbert said. “One of my campaign pledges is I wanted to try to fill vacant stores before I built vacant stores.”
DiBartolo still sees it differently. Democrats did not ask voters for patience, he said; they boasted a “fast” and “aggressive” approach to solving these problems.
“The current administration said they were going to fill all of the vacant spaces, and we were looking forward to that, but we look around and nothing is filled,” DiBartolo said.
Grace agreed, saying the Economic and Business Revitalization Committee will serve to create more red tape, despite the praise he had for the committee’s members.
Gilbert, though, said these types of changes don’t happen overnight. To make thoughtful progress, he said, requires taking stock of what you have, identifying your strengths and exploiting them.