When Main Street thrives, so goes the city
By Jeff Simms
In September, more than 100 Beacon residents attended the first of two public meetings (the second will be held Thursday, Nov. 17, at the Memorial Building at 413 Main St.) to provide feedback on the city’s review of its comprehensive plan. Typically updated every 10 years, it serves as a blueprint for Beacon’s development and growth. In a series of articles, The Current is examining aspects of the plan. (See also Drafting a Beacon Blueprint, Oct. 14.)
Perhaps the greatest indicator of Beacon’s turnaround over the last decade has been the steady growth of businesses along Main Street.
Today, Main is busy virtually year-round, with more than 200 shops and restaurants along the 1.5-mile corridor. That’s a huge jump from five or six years ago, when the city grew busy on weekends but often slowed to a crawl on off-season weekdays.
“We’re open seven days a week and we make money every day,” said John Gilvey, a co-owner of Hudson Beach Glass, a mainstay on Main Street after 15 years. “This place is always busy.”
The revitalization of Main Street dates back to the early 1990s, when city officials began reining in zoning and building code enforcement, gradually opening the door for Dia:Beacon, high-dollar living spaces and busy eateries.
Peter Forman, a Dutchess County Court judge who was city attorney from 1990 to 1999, points to the 1989 election of Mayor Clara Lou Gould as a turning point. From there, Forman said, two words describe the evolution: zoning and tourism.
“There was a change in perspective,” Forman said. “People began to realize that Beacon needs vision. I thought they hit that one on the head.”
While the 1970s and 1980s in Beacon were characterized by increased crime and a depressed economy, by the early 1990s city officials implemented a number of important initiatives, including a citywide restoration of sidewalks, increased investment in infrastructure, creation of the historic district and landmark overlay zone and other major zoning shifts.
With few retailers to fill the storefronts on Main Street, many building owners had converted their properties into apartments — often without permits — as a last-ditch means of recouping costs. The crowded buildings often weren’t adequately protected against fire and other emergencies and storefronts used as residential space did little to promote economic development.
By the mid-1990s, the city started aggressively fining building owners for violations. At the same time, Beacon officials phased in revised housing laws that gave the owners time to pocket a return on their investments while slowly encouraging commercial growth on Main.
Ron and Ronnie Beth Sauers also began developing apartments on the east end of Main by the early 1990s. A significant upgrade from the units that had occupied the buildings, Ron Sauers’ influence — along with the city’s efforts to improve sidewalks and streetlights — helped create an antique district on the east end while providing a template for restoring the west end.
“Ron was a carpenter, but he was really an artist,” Forman said of Sauers, who died in 2011. “He had a vision and he was a hard-working guy. All of the stars aligned for us.”
Not an overnight success
Still, for the businesses that did move to Main, growth was slow.
Gilvey said that when he and his three co-owners were drawing up business plans for Hudson Beach Glass, they expected only 1 percent of their sales to come from the community, with the remainder from tourists.
Today he says locals accounts for 25 to 35 percent of sales.
“Now we have strong local support,” Gilvey said, citing a customer base that includes “new people and people who have lived here all their lives. People like to give gifts that are made where they live.”
Recent closures, however, indicate that new issues — rising rent prices, for instance — could be looming on Main.
Karen Rokitowski, the owner of Get Frosted Cupcakery said the building she’d occupied at 323 Main was sold last December. Her lease expires next month and the increase in rent will be more than the business could absorb.
“I can’t raise my prices to cover the increase in rent [along] with the prices of other materials going up. The business has been steadily picking up, but by this time next year I’d be in the red,” if she stayed, she said.
“Any business that’s going out of business right now — I think it’s because of rent increases; it’s not because they’re not doing good,” Rokitowski added.
Addressing the corridor
The city’s 2007 comprehensive plan recommended additional measures to encourage continued growth on Main, including the development of a Main Street Corridor Plan to “address the urban design of the corridor, identification of activity centers, future parking improvements, public transportation improvements and outdoor public spaces.”
At the time, only five new buildings had been built on Main in 25 years. In the decade since, one — the Beacon Inn and Spa at 151 Main — has been erected with two others approved but not yet built.
The 2007 plan also recommended increasing the allowable development density in both the central portion of Main — between Digger Phelps Court and Teller Avenue (Route 52) — and the waterfront. Acknowledging that the stretch between Digger Phelps and Teller “is considered by many residents to be economically and aesthetically weak,” it called for the creation of a Main Street Transition Area Improvement Tax Zone where property tax breaks would boost development.
While the Corridor Plan and Transition Area Improvement Tax Zone were never created, Noah Levine of BFJ Planning, the firm hired to facilitate the comprehensive plan update, says drafts of the revised plan still include a focus on the middle of Main in “an effort to knit the entire corridor together so you get that sense of enclosure.”
Levine said that the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s recent “request for expressions of interest” for the redevelopment of the Beacon-to-Hopewell Junction rail line could impact Main as well. If a light rail, for instance, is established along that line, something similar could one day work on Main, allowing riders to stop at various “nodes of activity.”
The Corridor Plan and other Main Street developments “are still good ideas,” Levine said. While the updated comprehensive plan will be broader in its goals, the City Council could adopt area-specific strategies.
Overall, Levine said, resident feedback has been positive about the evolution of Main. “It’s working well,” he said. “It’s just a matter of connecting both sides.”
Longtime residents may derive a particular sense of satisfaction from the metamorphosis — from boarded-up storefronts to crowded Second Saturdays — of the city some felt years ago wasn’t worth the investment.
“If you keep your Main Street strong, that’s the key to keeping your neighborhoods strong,” said Forman, the former city attorney. “We’re the gold standard now. Because so many talented people have been attracted to our city. there’s now another generation that’s taking it to the next level. It’s wonderful.”