Back to Square One…, Nicholas Robinson on Rethinking the GM Development

It has been almost 3 years to the month since we sat down and talked with Sleepy Hollow’s Planning Board Chairman, Nicholas Robinson. That March 2005 story entitled "Lighthouse Landing… Getting It Right The First Time" can be read on the Web at RiverJournalOnline.com under "Sleepy Hollow."

We met with Robinson on a sunny day in early May at the Pace University School of Law where he is a Gilbert & Sarah Kerlin Distinguished Professor in Environmental Law. The topic of discussion was the same — "Lighthouse Landing" —

however, the factors determining the project’s success could not have been more dissimilar.

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Nicholas Robinson at the Pace University School of Law

"I think the Village and all of us in the region have to recognize that this proposed development is a new ballgame now. We have to go back and rethink where we are," Robinson said.

When asked to clarify the factors facing a successful redevelopment of the General Motors site, he talked about five. "The first reason is new. We are entering or are in a recession which is likely to last two to three years. It’s a complicated recession because of the sub-prime mortgage problems and the insolvency in many banking investment centers. This means there is no credit, no money for real estate investment, and until this plays out no one is going to be interested in the potential economics of this site. When Roseland and General Motors could not reach an agreement on their financing arrangement for the site, Roseland basically pulled out," Robinson said.

The State of New York is another determining factor according to Nicholas Robinson. The State is amending the "brown fields" law. It is before the legislature, and he pointed out that the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) was to have revealed the status of the contamination in the Hudson River’s sediment adjacent to the former GM plant. In addition, the DEC was to have come up with a remediation plan for those sediments. "The State has simply stopped doing that. It’s inconsistent with what they promised the Village and the public. So, where much of the brown field contamination has been removed (the Planning Board did a site

inspection with General Motors), no one knows what the new legislation is going to look like. What you have is the DEC waiting for the legislature’s new law that will say how clean is clean," he added.

The lawsuit by General Motors against the Village of Sleepy Hollow with regard to the "findings" in the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was the third factor mentioned by the Planning Board Chairman. "In that lawsuit General Motors objects to parts of the FEIS findings and it is a lawsuit against the Village Trustees. With Roseland being gone and GM not having picked a new partner I think it is reasonable to assume that the project proposed and the project that goes forward will evolve over a longer period of time, like 5 years. So, we don’t really have before the Village a plan of action that everyone including the owner has agreed to," Robinson said. As a result Robinson believes that the Village has "time on its hands" and that it has to "get its act together" to make this redevelopment a "first class project." He wants the Village to rethink its position. "We have been very isolated and have been fixated on General Motors as the biggest property problem in the Village. This has meant that we have not been a part of the region. It is the region that is economically developing and not just our Village," he said. To counter what he sees as local isolation he recommended that Sleepy Hollow join the Hudson Valley Greenway which could provide a consolidated approach to planning in the Hudson Valley. "If we were part of the Greenway we would get New York State planning assistance and coordination with a lot of other municipalities. We’d learn what other communities are doing to revitalize their waterfront and economies. It’s time to join the Greenway and start to think like a Hudson Valley community," he added. In addition, Robinson stated that the Village needed to coordinate and become more involved with Scenic Hudson. "They have full-time planners and are very creative. Scenic Hudson is the entity that secured the money for the restoration of the Bath House at Kingsland Point Park. For us not to be closely aligned to Scenic Hudson has been a mistake. They are the leading planning group in the Hudson Valley and it’s time to collaborate with them. They can bring in the best practices nationwide," he said. Moving out into a wider circle of cooperation Robinson cited the need for greater coordination with the New York State Parks Department especially for Pocantico River watershed area. He mentioned that the Pocantico River could retain a great amount of its storm water upstream rather than have it run through the Historic Hudson Valley restoration at Philipse Manor, onto the General Motors site and into the Hudson River. "We need a plan to retain as much floodwater upstream as possible. That can only be done in close coordination with the State Parks Department which owns the Pocantico watershed. To do that we have to become a partner with them and not just say, ‘come and fix our problem.’" Robinson went on to add that "flood control is one of the major problems at the General Motors site."

The general theme of a "good neighbor policy" is of great importance to Chairman Robinson. From the Greenway Council and Conservancy to Scenic Hudson and the State Parks Department he repeated the need for greater coordination and cooperation. That cooperation was not lost on Tarrytown. "Tarrytown also has a lawsuit pending against Sleepy Hollow about the "findings" in the FEIS," he noted. With traffic issues looming large in the current Lighthouse Landing plan, the need for alternative transportation to automobiles which include mass transit, trolleys, jitneys, pedestrian and bike passways cannot be overlooked.

"We have to create ways to have people come and move around without moving their cars every two blocks. When I say it is time to rethink ourselves these are the issues that have to be the focus of our efforts over the next two to three years of inter-municipal planning," he concluded.

The Village of Sleepy Hollow needs a Comprehensive Plan for its development and economic longevity moving into the future, according to Nicholas Robinson. Being dependent on New York City for its water supply has put the Village at risk. "With the Hudson River next to us we are the OPEC of water," he said. "Do we want to put out fires and flush our toilets with clean drinking water or do we want to use alternative sources for these uses?"

With regard to the General Motors site he talked about the need to plant trees, and a little known fact preventing that. "The GM site is nothing but ash landfill from the Con Edison and New York City garbage incinerators. It was trucked up and dumped into Sleepy Hollow Bay. That was common practice during the day. One of the problems with the Roseland/GM development plan was that no consideration has been given to the fact that healthy big trees like those at Kingsland Point Park will not grow in ash landfill." Addressing the tidal nature of the Hudson River, Robinson noted that within the next 100 years climate change will cause up to a three-foot rise in the River’s waters. "We can’t hide and say this is not happening. We need to redesign our waterfronts, and Tarrytown’s also, to accommodate the flood surge. By the time this new development gets going we will have to redesign the waterfront to accommodate the climate change," he said.

The points that Nicholas Robinson made during the interview have been points that he and the Sleepy Hollow Planning Board have addressed and written about since the first Saturday morning meetings on "Lighthouse Landing" were held at the firehouse on Beekman Avenue. "I think the reason our concerns have been neglected is because of the narrow focus on the General Motors site. We should have a ‘good neighbor policy’ and bring in the best and brightest information from all over America," Robinson concluded.

On April 15, Sleepy Hollow’s newly elected Board of Trustees (David Schroedel, Thomas Caposella and Karin Wompa) along with Trustee Ken Wray voted in lockstep against going into an executive session with John Blanchard, the Director of General Motors Worldwide Real Estate Planning. Blanchard had traveled to Sleepy Hollow, along with another company executive and two GM attorneys to discuss litigation which General Motors has initiated against the Village and to address "Lighthouse Landing" in broader terms. The new Board’s insistence to have sensitive issues discussed in a public setting prompted the representatives of GM to walk out of the meeting.

Call it inexperience, call it political posturing, call it anything but a "good neighbor policy."

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About the Author: Robert Bonvento