By Peter Russell
The Examiner’s October 6-12 edition reported that Pleasantville’s Village Board has postponed acting on the Manville Road streetscape improvement and civic space projects until late 2021 and 2022 because of understandable pandemic-related budget constraints.
The report also noted officials are considering not only delay but “other options,” including a “smaller budget,” limiting “the scope of the civic space” and breaking the project into phases for even longer delays.
In spite of the civic space’s approval in 2019 and the availability of substantial matching grants to the village for this project, the board is reported now to see the future of the civic space as a trade-off in order to satisfy the need for the village pool renovation.
The worst outcome of this discussion for the village would be to see the extent and design quality envisioned for the civic space degraded and diminished. The pool and the civic space are both valuable long-term investments for the village.
Over the past seven months, impacts of the pandemic have reminded everyone how valuable it is for residents of all ages to have access to public areas where we can walk, be outside and have serendipitous encounters with neighbors and even new acquaintances. We are all more acutely aware of the critical importance of accessible and well-designed public space for pedestrians, shoppers and business people requiring distanced and secure interactions in our compact village center.
One participant at a recent meeting reminded the Village Board of “the bigger picture of the village budget.” Let’s consider other critical aspects of the bigger picture framing the combined Manville Road streetscape improvement and the civic space.
First, these projects are the result of a decade of careful analysis, public forums and planning to make Pleasantville’s downtown core even more walkable, environmentally pleasing with safe and calming traffic flows.
Secondly, there will soon be roughly 170 new apartments with perhaps 200 to 300 new residents living in the center of the village. They will find their new surroundings with quite minimal public spaces to stroll, rest and gather, limited, in fact, to a) Nonna Park, b) the small park behind Ashbourne Hall and c) the small green spaces near the memorials and the green border next to the train tracks. Other parks, such as the ballfield, are not in proximity to the center of the greatest pedestrian activity.
Third, even before the recently revised village Master Plan and related zoning changes made possible greater but reasonable density and height in the downtown, many had come to realize that the village needed to explore ways to balance the land use equation between space dedicated to pedestrians moving about the village and the blacktopped expanse given over to roadways and parking.
All these issues come together conceptually and physically in Memorial Plaza. The relatively small area planned and budgeted for the civic space at the north end of the plaza has been criticized by some who contest any reduction in parking (even though compensated by additions elsewhere in the center), express concerns about unsupervised youth gathering (even though the village has formulated activities there for all ages) and think no public funds should be spent on such an amenity in the business center (even though the new mixed-use and residential projects under development will throw off added real estate tax revenue for generations to come).
Memorial Plaza, while the largest relatively open area of downtown Pleasantville and is the pivot point where people connect with transit and local shopping, is primarily a mundane parking lot.
In contrast, imagine a Green Heart of Pleasantville, the whole of Memorial Plaza, honoring the name it carries, where roadway and parking is restricted to bus and train drop-off and pick-up and parking for those with disabilities and bikes, where the greater part of the plaza is well-designed landscape with green plantings, walkways and gathering spaces for music, the farmers market and other events. New apartment residents would find all these amenities just steps from their doorways. Such a plaza would be a truly lively core for the village and dynamically link the downtown business, restaurant, arts and entertainment offerings.
Will there be challenges to conceive, budget and implement such a transformation of the village core from static parking to a place for vital social and civic interactions? Undoubtedly, and the place to start is to carry forward with the modest but very well-designed civic space approved by the Village Board, delaying as necessary for prudent fiscal reasons but keeping faith with the vision.
Peter Russell is a Pleasantville resident.