Members of Chappaqua's school board expressed interest in Chuck Napoli's plan for overhauling part of downtown Chappaqua, while also giving concerns and asking for more details.
Napoli got his first chance to formally present his plan to the full board at its Wednesday night meeting, after running it by the board's facilities committee last year.
Napoli's proposal is called the Hamlet Revitalization Plan. It proposes building more than 300 parking spaces on the site of a school district-owned athletic field that lies to the north of Robert E. Bell Middle School and to the east of an existing town-run parking lot behind South Greeley Avenue shops. The new parking lot would be covered with a deck and feature a brand-new turf field, while a row of retail, a European-style market and a performing arts center would be developed as infill behind the existing South Greeley stores and on the site of existing parking.
The proposal was previously presented to the New Castle Town Board last fall, and to the town's planning board last month.
Key to Napoli's plan is acquiring a lease from the district, both for the field's land and for a portion of the parking lot. The district gave the Town of New Castle an easement for the eastern part of the lot, while landlords for the South Greeley buildings whose parcels stretch to the lot have a similar arrangement with the town.
Napoli, a local architect and Chappaqua resident of about four decades, described the field and parking proposal as a “gift of grass,” and argued that its importance. He stated that it would be configured to encouraged a short walking experience and make the area more pedestrian friendly because of its arrangement.
“Without the parking the hamlet has no place to grow,” he said. “So not to put any pressure on the school, but we sure could use your field.”
School board members are keeping open minds about the concept but quickly began to give their concerns.
Mester said the plan is a “a creative and novel idea” to hopefully help the downtown. He also had some concerns about setting up security for the mix-use proposal, and about the safety of an opening from the elevated field to the parking, which Napoli said would be for ventilation. Mester also said that, as a board member, he noted that the district is getting value in exchange for the field's use, adding “i think it's a good idea.”
Napoli, along with local supporter Lester Himel – he is a Chappaqua resident whose background includes founding an asset protection website – argued that the replacement field would be an improvenemnt over the current one. Himel described the existing field as “abominable” and rutted. Mester was sympathetic, saying that “right now the field is not playable.”
Board Vice President Alyson Kiesel, who grew up in and still lives in Chappaqua, had differing thoughts based on her official and personal capacities.
“First, let me say that it's very, very hard to sit here as just a school board member because we're also town residents. And so, the town resident, 40-year resident, in me is going 'yay, something!'”
However, Kiesel noted that she has a fiduciary duty as a board member, and raised concerns about security, including proximity of the plan's elements to Bell.
“My real, you know, the thing that's going to keep me up at night is the security issues,” she said.
Still, Kiesel said that her concerns were “not insurmountable but they need to be addressed.”
Board President Victoria Tipp wondered why Napoli is pushing forward with the proposal when New Castle officials are working on a major update of the town's master plan, which has not received a major overhaul since 1989.
“It sounds like you're in a hurry,” she said, in the context of the master plan.
Napoli responded by saying “i've only been waiting since 1985,” referring to an initial version of the concept, which he has touted ever since.
Napoli also said that the master plan, along with smaller-scale data collected for downtown Chappaqua in the 2000s, supports the type of concept he wants to build. He also stated that he would not need a zoning change for the project, although he admitted that he would need a zoning variance for the 5-story performing arts center because it would exceed height requirements.
Asked by Patch about the situation, Napoli noted that the town is still allowing for development while the review is under way, saying that “there is no moratorium.”
Tipp, who described the plan as being interesting, also wanted more information on financing, responsibilities the district could incur and future obligations for things such as safety and maintenance.
Napoli has said that the plan would cost around $40 million and be funded through a mix of bank lending and investors. However, he told Patch that investors, along with property owners he would need land lease deals from to building, are waiting on what the school district does.
Among the more skeptical of the board members was Karen Visser, who wondered whether someone would choose a location at his proposed retail given it is not as visible. Responding to an assertion from Napoli that a delivery service could be incorporated into the project, she wondered what incentive people would have to shop in person; Napoli replied that it would be for “the experiential part.”
Visser also felt that “this is one of our most valued assets and it feels like we're just handing it over.”
Assistant Superintendent for Business John Chow suggested that Napoli needs to provide more details and on paper, a suggestion that some board members agreed with. When asked by Patch about what he will do next, Napoli said that he would provide more information.