Reconnecting Rockland: Fearing the Bronx

A forward thinking (and backward looking) monthly column on zoning, planning, and development by Jared Rodriguez, a Stony Point native schooled in civil engineering, architecture, and real estate development.

BY JARED RODRIGUEZ

There is an acute fear that pervades the thoughts of many residents in Rockland. The fear began as soon as the first waves of Bronx, Yonkers, Brooklyn, and Queens natives began settling the cornfields and hamlets throughout the then-picturesque and village-centric county. They found their piece of pasture, their slice of what was then being touted as the American Dream.

The fields were carved up into high ranches, ponds, lakes and streams were filled, and air-conditioned shopping centers covered mature forests. Eventually downtowns declined and the malls sprung up from swampland.

The growth was unprecedented, and much of it was fueled by a creeping fear of the Bronx, and more specifically, the South Bronx. At the time of the great exodus, the Bronx was burning or decaying. Great highways had been jammed through the borough, eliminating whole neighborhoods and shopping districts and dividing up once-linked communities. Massive brick towers, all identical, sprouted from the remnants of demolished neighborhoods. Urban Renewal and highway building sparked a major upheaval. Crime spread and thrived, neighborhoods disintegrated – a tinderbox ready to ignite. And so it did.

City refugees watched in horror as their childhood memories dissolved on the nightly news. The Bronx that they had known was gone. The corner store and ice cream counter became flop houses. There was no going back. And so, Rockland County became home.

However, the fear kindled by the great urban decay of the 1960s, 70s and 80s remains. It is the most common reason used for opposing development plans in the county. “We simply don’t want to become the Bronx” echoes throughout planning and zoning board meetings. “We want our space and we don’t want ugly brick towers.” And the downtowns that remind the refugees of their childhood are suspect. At any moment these “too dense” enclaves could begin the same horrid transformation that destroyed the Bronx.

It makes sense: each of us projects our own past experiences into the future; it’s our only attempt to make sense of the changing world around us and possibly preempt what may happen next.

This reasoning is legitimate considering the past experienced by much of the population. Conversely, though, by opposing development entirely, current residents are setting Rockland up to become just what they’ve feared . . . the Bronx of the 1970s. Without embracing a plan to preserve true open space, not subdivisions and parking lots, and without embracing responsible development patterns that allow residents to limit car use, the county will ultimately morph into something not quite like the Bronx or Queens, but perhaps even worse. Traffic will rage, the air will become heavy with fumes, towers will rise amidst large asphalt fields. This is not the future Rocklanders want.

To change the vision of the future we mustn’t embrace fear and stagnation, we need to create a positive vision that drives development patterns that don’t damage the historic character of the area. Historic character, nature, safety and affordable living is what originally attracted most of our current residents.

We must preserve these qualities and allow development that enhances these aims. The current flavor of development forced by today’s zoning (as I discussed in previous columns) and misguided politics is pushing the county in the wrong direction. We can simply look to history and what has been demolished in Rockland since the exodus began in order to regain some of that original character.

We should rebuild those historic hamlets that have been razed, like Grassy Point or Old Stony Point, or Congers and downtown Nanuet. Economists now speak of a “Great Inversion” taking place, where downtowns and villages are being reclaimed by the millennial generation and outer suburban and ex-urban locations will begin to feel the brunt of decline.

Between 2005 and 2010, walkable downtowns, hamlets and cities grew significantly faster than car-oriented suburbs. How will Rockland fare under these conditions?

Unique character has been fading from Rockland since the exodus. So why should Rocklanders support development forced by the same old zoning codes, which allow only the common strip mall, the large parking lot, uninspired architecture, and ban heritage-styled development?

Let’s try something different, come up with a vision, and not become that image of the Bronx– choked with traffic, exhaust and ugliness.