For 300 years, the development of Westchester County has been linked to the growth of New York City.
Early travel and settlement north from New York was shaped by the county’s topography, following three wide paths:
- Along the Hudson River
- Through the central valley systems
- Along the Long Island Sound shore
Centers of activity grew within these paths like “beads along a string,” in the graphic words of "Urban Form," developing at first around ports and stage stops on the early post roads. Rail lines were built through the county and new centers developed around the stations. With less definition, cross county corridors took shape to connect the original north-south paths of settlement and travel. Through the years, open spaces and farms continued to separate the centers.
A pattern of concentrated centers were firmly established by the mid-19th century
By the mid-19th century, a pattern of concentrated centers of various sizes, linked by corridors and separated by open spaces was firmly established in Westchester. That pattern is still apparent but blurred by auto-related and downtown spill-over development that began in the mid-20th century. However, the extent of dispersal of business and retail uses from traditional downtowns has been less in Westchester County than in many regions as most of the county’s municipalities have been making effective use of planning and zoning powers for nearly 80 years. The operation of rail lines through the county since the 1800s, first for passenger and freight service and then later for commuter service, created a solid base for “smart growth” around train stations. As a result of these regulatory and transit influences, dozens of Westchester downtowns continue to be vibrant centers of community life and commercial activity. Since the completion of "Patterns," many of our centers have grown taller. But others have lost the vital mix of uses that create a true center.
Large shopping centers challenged established downtown services
Over the decades since 1950, 30 shopping centers of over 100,000 square feet have been built outside of the downtowns. Many of these were intended to supplement the village or hamlet downtown, providing a nearby location for large “modern” uses such as supermarkets that could not physically fit in the traditional commercial core. Others were constructed at available sites, conflicting with the established pattern of development and having no design relationship with surrounding uses. As both types of centers were typically located on major roads, they have created challenges for corridor function and community character, often exacerbated by other business uses on nearby lots in separate structures surrounded by parking and accessible only via automobile.
Complicating the situation was a trend for public and community facilities such as schools, municipal buildings, post offices and libraries to relocate outside of centers. Many such moves were necessitated by the need for large enough tracts of land for expansion. Yet the adverse impact the relocations have had on the civic function of traditional centers is significant.
A prophetic statement in the Westchester County Planning Board’s 1975 publication, "Assumptions, Goals and Urban Form," framed the issue:
"The type of urban sprawl that Westchester faces is not the stereotype of endless landscape of subdivisions of sterile design… Westchester’s topography is too multiform to permit homogeneous distribution of urban or suburban development over the landscape. Westchester faces a more realistic danger of fragmentation – the relatively indiscriminate placement of key urban elements over too wide a geographical area – as opposed to locating these major activities within the existing urban pattern, thereby strengthening it. A key element is any major generator or magnet for human activity…"
Urban sprawl has changed the social dynamic of a community
The loss of a convenient civic, retail and entertainment presence at the center of a community changes its social fabric and raises difficulties for residents of the business precincts, especially for the elderly and working people without cars. Further, the dispersal of development strains the delivery of municipal services, such as fire and police, and imposes burdens on water supply and sewer systems. In all parts of the county, commercial activity outside of the centers has promoted auto use as a necessity, decreased the feasibility of public transportation service, increased traffic congestion and created a perception of urban sprawl as open spaces verge on becoming oases rather than connected as a system or bio-diversity corridor.
Westchester 2025 seeks to protect the historic center-corridor-open space pattern that makes Westchester unique
The historic framework for the county’s development remains the best guide for continued growth and revitalization. Westchester 2025, as "Patterns" before it, targets the problems of fragmentation head on in the conviction that county government, municipal governments and the private sector all have the most to gain by building on proven strengths – the land-use characteristics that make Westchester unique.
The health of Westchester County’s economy and environment depend on measures to protect the historic center/corridor/open space pattern. The basic premise of Westchester County planning is that existing centers, if nurtured by necessary infrastructure, can support commercial and residential growth; that existing strip development along corridors can be reshaped to capture some benefits of centers; and that not all land uses are appropriate to all locations. It will take a concerted joint effort by county, city, town and village governments to define and protect the balance of growth, density, character protection and dependable infrastructure.