A unique planning process was undertaken to revitalize Ossining's downtown, through the creation of a central public space, a "market square." The square has resulted in a positive shift in people's attitudes toward the downtown, stimulated a range of new community events and activities, and is acting as a catalyst for community development.
Planning efforts for the revitalization of the village of Ossining's downtown have been underway since the early 1970's. In the late 1960's, a new shopping mall opened on the south side of town luring stores away from the downtown. Subsequent racial tension and demonstrations added to people's perception that the downtown was not safe. In 1975, as part of an urban renewal effort, the village cleared a number of downtown sites including a centrally located half-acre site along Main Street with hopes of encouraging new retail development. Fifteen years later, the vacant sites were serving as parking lots and the downtown remained in dire need of revitalization.
Starting in 1990, a farmer's market was organized on a portion of the central site. Held on Saturday mornings during the summer, the market became a popular attraction. Six years later, the village applied for and received CDBG funding to develop about a third of the site into a public square around the farmer's market. The county planning department, which was responsible for designing the square, prepared an initial plan for a passive park space, moving the farmers market to the adjacent parking lot. A volunteer committee, troubled by the passive plan and its treatment of the market, organized an evening workshop with residents and representatives of local organizations to brainstorm ideas for events and uses for the proposed square. The group asked Project for Public Spaces, Inc. to facilitate the workshop.
Ideas generated from the workshop included such diverse activities as markets, exhibits, concerts and performances, festivals, contests and competitions, antique evaluations, food tasting, movies, ethnic celebrations and activities, the annual village fair, and graduation ceremonies. Workshop participants also envisioned the square as a place for use by local groups, such as the Boy Scouts, garden clubs, the public library, churches, and the local prison--Sing Sing.
Guided by the village planner, an alternative design for the space was developed from the list of activities. "Basically, we took a passive park design and turned it into a plan for an active community place," said Steve Davies, vice president at Project for Public Spaces. In the new plan, a small stage was included along with areas for small, medium and major events; a section for passive use and people watching with seating and landscaping; a vending corridor connected to events; and a mosaic mural sponsored by the local Arts Council behind the stage. The remaining portion of the site (used daily as a municipal parking lot) was to be used for additional activity space for the weekly Saturday farmers market as well as for other major events. After the square was completed in June 1998, the village board appointed a management committee with broad community representation as the permanent entity to manage the square and seek sponsors for new events.
A small grant from Citibank funded the community workshop, and a grant of $195,000 in CDBG funds from the county allowed the village to develop the site. The village provided the funds to prepare the site. Citibank and other corporate sponsors have recently offered to sponsor a number of events in the square and local corporations sponsored an electronic bulletin board and information kiosk to be added to the square. Plans are also underway to organize a community participatory art event to improve one of the cement walls in the adjoining parking lot with mosaic tiles this spring.
According to Ray Curran, the village planner for the square, "The completed square has rapidly become recognized as the heart of the village and its most significant public space." A variety of events and activities have taken place there since it has opened, including the annual village festival, Hispanic and Jamaican festivals; a fall family fun day, and an arts and crafts day for kids and families. Some spontaneous gatherings have taken place in the space as well; most notable were five Friday night "rallies" organized and sponsored by the NAACP that combined community building activities for African-American teens with music. The farmers market continues to be held and serves to anchor the site as a constant weekly presence. Curran says that the increased downtown activity is playing a beneficial role in the village: "The activities give people a reason to go downtown and to feel comfortable there" he notes, "thus gradually changing people's attitudes towards the downtown. The merchants are picking up on the shift and are responding with both renewed interest and new retail investment."
Market Square has also stimulated other downtown development. Four new downtown projects have been initiated in buildings directly facing the square. One project, the renovation of a landmark building, is currently proposed to be a combination of commercial and residential uses. Another commercial building is on the verge of being sold and renovated for continued commercial use and a cybercafe has recently opened in a building across from the square. Plans for development along the waterfront and a proposed station stop on a new bullet train are expected to increase the numbers of visitors to the village.
According to Marilyn Occhigrosso, chairperson of the square's management committee, plans for new programs are in the works for six musical performances by the local school system in the Spring, and a corporate-sponsored weekly concert series will be held in conjunction with those currently performed along the waterfront. Many local groups such as the Lions Club and FIST, a local African-American organization, have expressed interest in sponsoring events and there are thoughts of expanding the winter holiday event into a mini-winter festival. Other uses of the space during the winter have incorporated a popular carol singing holiday event that in previous years had centered around the lighting of a large spruce tree adjacent to the square.
The success of the square has encouraged other village groups to contribute to the process of shaping and maintaining the space. With the management committee's focus on the square's programming and further development, the village's beautification committee saw the need for and assumed the responsibility for the square's ongoing maintenance.
Occhigrosso says that the committee is attempting to use the square to create alliances with other downtown groups as a way to build community and work toward revitalizing the downtown. She notes that attracting people downtown is a re-education process: "People who have lived here for many years have learned to go out of Ossining to go shopping, to eat, and for entertainment. Now we have to re-educate people to get them to come downtown."
Getting events organized was critical for the success of the square and in bringing new attention and people to the downtown area. In this regard, Curran felt it was critical to organize a management committee at the beginning of the planning process and to hire someone to oversee the management role on a part-time basis, at least. Curran also stresses the importance of determining from the start which public agency will be responsible for maintaining the space, overseeing the development of new elements to be added (such as a kiosk), and for officially dealing with applications for events.
Ray Curran, Urban Works, 212-431-7294
Project for Public Spaces, 212-620-5660
(Spring 1999 )