21 Big Ideas
Our best minds on how to make Westchester even better.
(page 3 of 3)
 Use the River
One way to make Westchester an even better place to live would be for everyone who hasn’t been out on the Hudson recently to get out and enjoy it—it’s never been easier. Kayak, swim, boat, and lie in the park. And, after you get down to the river, find one thing you can do to help keep it clean, which is the key to everything good that the river has to offer us.
/// Paul Gallay, Executive Director and Hudson Riverkeeper, Riverkeeper
 Make Our Streets Bicycle- Friendly
While Westchester County has a world-class system of parks and recreational trails, when it comes to safe roadways and enough adequate sidewalks for bicyclists and walkers, we are lacking. Study after study show that communities that are bicycle-friendly or have higher walk scores (walkscore.com) have comparatively higher property values and better price appreciation for their homes. So whether it allows your child or aging parent to go places safely and independently (and increase their health) or if you simply care about increasing or maintaining the value of your home, safer cycling and walking facilities are a win-win for all residents in Westchester County.
/// Michael Oliva, Co-founder, Bike Walk Alliance of Westchester & Putnam
 Reduce Chronic Truancy
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” If we want to make Westchester an even better place to live and work, we need to do a better job building our youth. High school graduation rates in the U.S. are poor in comparison to other developed nations, with only a 68.8-percent nationwide graduation rate. In New York State, the numbers are worse: 64 percent. Even more disturbing are the racial, ethnic, and gender gaps in graduation rates. One report found that only 25 percent of African American male students graduated with the college preparatory Regents’ diploma in New York State in 2007 to 2008. We can do better.
Keeping kids in school keeps them on track to become successful adults. Chronic truancy is linked to gang activity; use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; and other risky behaviors. When Yonkers studied this issue, it found that students with 20 or more unexcused absences in grades seven to eight had a 21 percent greater chance of being arrested within three years. As Westchester’s chief law enforcement officer, I know that reducing juvenile crime enhances public safety.
Our schools no longer have truant officers. My office has been working with the Mount Vernon and Yonkers public schools, local police, courts, and the Department of Social Services to identify chronic truants and get them back to school. By looking closely at the reasons for absences, schools can offer families the support necessary to keep their children in school. During the first year that Yonkers introduced its truancy reduction program, the number of chronically truant students in grades one to eight dropped by 18 percent.
While we look first to families to ensure that their children are in school every day working toward success, we, as a community, ultimately share this responsibility.
/// Janet DiFiore, Westchester County District Attorney
 Give Businesses Tax Credits
Westchester County is a fantastic place to live and work. It is, however, a very expensive place to do both. What we need is to create an atmosphere where businesses receive incentives to open, which, in turn, will help relieve the exorbitant tax burden our citizens are carrying.
Tax incentives are the best way to solve the problem. If businesses have incentives to hire by allowing for tax credits, they will be able to better afford additional manpower at their companies. More man-power equals more production. If production leads to additional profit, companies can hire more employees, or use the profit to spend in the local economy.
/// Tony Lembeck, CEO, NAI Friedland Commercial Real Estate Yonkers/Manhattan
 Begin a Candid Discussion on Race, Class
Our county is currently faced with a $50 million Federal Housing Settlement that demands that the richest and whitest towns of Westchester (24 were identified) build 750 units of affordable housing for minority buyers. Whether people like the federal government’s directive or not, let’s seize this opportunity to begin a candid conversation about race and class in our communities. Having resided here my entire life, splitting it happily and evenly between a Southern Westchester childhood and a Northern Westchester adulthood, I know that the issues of race and class can often impact many of our decisions about where we choose to live, where we send our kids to school, where we dine, shop, and even where we choose to picnic, swim, and spend our leisure time. Studies have proven this, but few of us will admit to it.
Race and class no longer need to be the big elephants in the room. As legislators, land-use experts, and the media examine housing locations, environmental-impact statements, and determine the space, environmental, and infrastructure challenges in these 24 towns, the rest of us should use this time to come together around race and class, and give each other permission to share our opinions, our fears, our dreams, and our aspirations for an open-minded Westchester.
/// Lawrence Otis Graham, Author Attorney at Cuddy & Feder, White Plains
 Make More Money Available to Small Businesses
The best thing we can do to help make Westchester an even greater place to live, work, and do business in is provide more support for the small businesses that are creating jobs and bringing new and innovative products and services to market. This past September, Congress passed legislation I introduced raising the maximum amount that small businesses may borrow to expand by investing in new equipment and inventory. This is critical for businesses in our high-cost region, especially as it remains difficult to obtain lines of credit from many banks. Helping small businesses invest and expand will help create jobs, grow our local economy, and make more and better products and services available to consumers.
/// Congresswoman Nita Lowey Representative for New York’s 18th District, Harrison
 Increase Access To Fresh, Local Food
It would be hard to imagine that anyone would disagree with the premise that we’d all like to have access to and eat fresh, local, healthy food.
Sure, we might have a hankering for chocolate bars and the exotics and even junk food now and then, but in our hearts, heads, and stomachs, there is a broad consensus (and data to back it up) that eating local and having access to fresh food is a good thing.
Unfortunately, equal access to such food is not a reality for many in the county. Local, organic food is not widely available. One has to seek out farmers’ markets, which are open on a limited basis (generally once a week) and for only part of the year. That which is available can be expensive (not surprising given the cost of land, labor, and supplies). To top it off, the growing season in our region is limited, making year round access to fresh, local food tricky.
I believe the issue has the potential to unify an otherwise fragmented county. It cuts across demo-
graphics, economics, and social structures. We don’t have to wait for national reforms to the Farm Bill or for local municipal budgets to be passed before acting. We can create a public/private response to the issue. We need a centralized group to help broker, coordinate, and facilitate the effort. Here are my suggestions:
Create more community gardens. Utilize parkland—there are ways to get around public access constraints (e.g., Rockland County model Cropsey Farm).
Construct incentives for landowners to lease unused land.
Support Hilltop Hanover Farm in Yorktown Heights, a magnificent county resource whose current under-productivity and cost is negatively catching the attention of legislators.
Allow those without financial resources to work to earn produce as their wage.
Let farmers pay land rent in produce.
Allocate affordable housing so farm help can live in proximity to their land.
Facilitate more markets in more communities.
Nurseries, farmers, and Cornell Cooperative (to name only a few) can help teach growing skills.
Utilize the county’s talented chefs to teach young and old about cooking/buying/storing/preserving.
Food festivals could highlight the diversity of cuisines and bridge communities.
/// Lisa Schwartz, Founder and Proprietor Rainbeau Ridge, Bedford Hills
 “Green” Our Schools
We adults are not willing to face the messes we’ve made. It borders on criminal to continue to ignore the fact that we’re living unsustainable lifestyles. We don’t need more stuff to make us happy. What we need is to establish connections—to each other, to the land and the food that comes from the land, to our water sources, and to the very air we need to take the next breath. The place to start this is in
The many efforts to “green” our schools are, unfortunately, often scattershot. Studies show that everything gets better when we look at our schools in a holistic way—meaning all parts individually and then as they each affect one another—and weave cross-curricular lessons with experiential learning. This is being done but only in pockets. Why not take the lead? Make Westchester County the place where we put our kids first, where we take on today’s challenges together.
/// Jayni Chase, Founder Green Community Schools Bedford
 Embrace Diversity
One of the characteristics of Westchester that we celebrate is its diversity. A look at U.S. Census Bureau population projections indicates that more diversity is coming. There will be 100 million more people by 2039, among them more people of different races, national origins, and household compositions. This is an opportunity to be embraced.
While many Westchester towns, villages, and cities have outpaced the nation in adopting inclusionary housing ordinances and providing affordable housing, the county settled a lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who claimed that in some communities, neighborhoods are too homogeneous. Westchester agreed to work to build affordable housing.
The world is becoming more complex and is challenging us to learn to share ideas and values in much more civil and productive ways. There is a saying in Spanish, “Mar tranquillo hace mal marino,” which, loosely translated, means “A calm sea makes for bad sailors.” Our waters have been disturbed by fierce weather, frequent flooding, a tough economy, and now desegregation. My hope is that most of us are secure enough in this great county to navigate the journey ahead with grace, an open mind, and confidence in our ability to solve the toughest problems.
/// John R. Nolon, James D. Hopkins Professor of Law Counsel
Land Use Law Center, Pace University School of Law, White Plains
 Make Community Contributions
When we use the word “wealth” today, we generally mean riches or material possessions. However, the word “wealth” originally referred to someone’s welfare, their good and happiness.
Here in Westchester, we boast one of the toughest-chugging and prosperous workforces in the nation. But imagine our county’s people suddenly, wholeheartedly unselfish—no longer catering to the trinity of Me, Myself, and I, but hustling and bustling to seek the wealth (the welfare, good, and happiness) of others.
David Packard, co-creator of the Hewlett-Packard Company, once said, “Many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being.” John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who is buried in Sleepy Hollow, was quoted as saying: “The poorest man I know is the man who has nothing but money.”
There’s a legend that years ago in London, the Salvation Army held its annual convention in a large auditorium. General Booth, the Army’s founder, could not attend the convention due to poor health but agreed to send a message in his absence. The moderator began the meeting and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I regret to inform you that our leader and founder General Booth is for the first time unable to attend. He has, however, agreed to send a message to be read at this time, as follows: ‘Dear Delegates of the Salvation Army Convention: Others. Signed, General Booth.’”
If wealth is your guiding star, then you’ll strut like a peacock when it feels like you’ve got the world on a string or jump out of a high window when you lose it all. Money is a vital variable in your life’s equation but not your ultimate bottom line. Great men and women who not only rise to the top of their fields but make enduring community contributions are always people with a nobler mission because money is neither the journey nor the destination—it simply funds the mission and makes it possible to love, serve, and care for as many people as possible as we go.
Ask yourself: How can I gain great wealth (not personal affluence, but good, betterment, well being, and happiness) for my family, workplace, school, neighborhood, house of worship, and community?
/// Rocco Dapice, Husband, Dad, and Pastor of People’s Church, Tarrytown
 Form a Sustainability Master Plan
Maybe there’s never a good time to spend money, but our nation became great by standing up for important causes and leading during adverse times. We must continue to lead. It is time to act on the most important cause facing our communities—creating an environment that is sustainable for us and future generations.
Every village and town should take stock of their public buildings, evaluate the costs of preserving and maintaining the value of their real estate, inventory their physical facilities and infrastructure and analyze their energy consumption. The data gathered can form the basis for a Countywide Sustainability Master Plan, a shared tool for intelligently preserving and improving our county’s public facilities and the character of our communities while lowering our carbon footprint.
I want my great-grandchildren to enjoy the same visually rich environment and character that Westchester residents cherish. Through our public architecture, Westchester’s towns and villages can collectively lead the way to a sustainable future, provide a model for other municipalities, and preserve the quality of the environment and setting we all cherish.
/// Erik Kaeyer, Vice President KG&D Architects, Mount Kisco
 Revitalize Our Downtowns
When vibrant, our downtowns and Main Streets enhance the social character and quality of life that makes living in Westchester County so
attractive. In addition, vibrant downtowns contribute significantly to Westchester’s economy and employment base. However, their vibrancy is increasingly being challenged, not only by today’s Great Recession, but by dramatic changes in spending habits, land-use patterns, administrative codes, and transportation.
Our downtowns largely comprise small businesses. These mom-and-pop businesses are the lifeblood of our county’s small business community, creating local jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities. It has been documented that Main Street expenditures have a significantly greater ripple effect within the community than national stores. Furthermore, downtown buildings and infrastructure represent billions of dollars of investment that would be impossible to recreate if lost. Finally, when we lose our Main Streets, we also lose a part of our history.
Today, revitalizing and managing a downtown requires access to expertise beyond most local organizations, business owners, and residents. Communities need access to specialized expertise in marketing, development, transportation, building codes, design, finance, legal issues, and market assessments to help arrive at informed plans for action. If Westchester County could organize teams of professionals to consult with downtowns where there is community commitment and effective local organizations, they could significantly empower these local efforts.
/// Ralph DiBart, Executive Director, New Rochelle Business Improvement District