Theres a popular hashtag on twitter called #firstworldproblems. It’s when someone complains about some area of difficulty in their lives and appends their tweet with #firstworldproblems as a way to recognize that their problem is rather insignificant in the grand scheme of the world. Like this, or this, or this. A really important point to make when we’re talking about Penn Yan’s Charrette is that we’re talking physical characteristics. We’re talking about enhancing Penn Yan’s natural and historical beauty. This isn’t about feeding the poor, minimizing crime, or anything like that (you know, actual problems). This is about solving first world problems like visitors not knowing where our public parking is and how the view of the outlet can be enhanced near the not-built-yet luxury condos on Water Street. That is not to say that a more beautified village wouldn’t inspire solutions for the real problems we have. I am not trying to be negative, I’m just saying what it is.
First, let me just explain what the day was. It was a big group of people, sub-divided into topics, who brainstormed their assigned topic as it relates to Penn Yan. After a few hours, each sub-group presented their findings to the big group. You follow? My group was a really great mix of community folks who were all positive, knowledgeable, and cared about Penn Yan. I can sense a joke that starts with “so a web designer, bed & breakfast owner, real estate agent, school superintendent, and architect take a tour of Penn Yan…” but the rest hasn’t come to me yet.
Mr. Hylton’s lectures (there were two) on Friday were inspiring. He showed many photos of towns he has worked with in Pennsylvania, including Pottstown, PA where he has lived for several decades. He has been involved with a lot of community improvements and beautifications of Pottstown, and has vast experience. But as inspiring as Mr. Hylton’s talks were, I can’t help but to point out a completely unmentioned fact: Pottstown, PA is a suburb of Philadelphia–a major American city with very deep historic roots. Penn Yan, NY is not a suburb. It’s not even a suburb of a major city in New York. It’s simply not a suburb.
This got me thinking: what is a “small town”? It sounds like Mr. Hylton defines a small town in geographic terms. He told us about how Pottsdown is a “walking town” and how he walked to work every day (even showed us the route on a map). He showed us how Hershey, PA was designed as a walking town and could be walked in about 15 minutes (1 mile). But when I think “small town”, often I’m thinking socially, not geographically. There are family relationships, business relationships, social relationships here that are so very intertwined. When we say “small town” we mean everybody knows everybody, and everybody is related to everybody. It’s that kind of small town.
Takeaways from Friday’s lectures: 1) Pottstown, PA, though lovely, isn’t the kind of small town that Penn Yan is. 2) “If we want to encourage caring in America, we need to create places for people to care about”. 3) “Green belts” and growth boundaries (which preserve farm land and scenic vistas) are working in places around America and other countries–because if people have to build inside of town, people will build… wait for it… inside of town.
Saturday’s Charrette brought forth some really amazing ideas for Penn Yan’s future. Some are so simple, and seemingly easy (more trees, more signage), and others more difficult from a cost-perspective and a small-town perspective (that family/business/social interconnectedness that makes us a small town). Here are some examples that I can expound upon:
Signage. A lot of presentations (all, I think) included “we don’t have any signs!”. We do have signs, actually. We don’t see them because the are small, plain, and lack branding and uniformity. We also live here, so they blend into the landscape since we see them everyday (and we’re not looking for signs).
More on signage. One group presented some ideas for signs and light poles that are branded with a grape design. Lovely. Is Penn Yan known for grapes? Are we the grape capital of New York? Do we want to be known for grapes? I hope before anyone decides to brand our signage that a group on intelligent branding experts and citizens make these decisions. Grapes are wonderful, but there are not at all unique in the Finger Lakes region. Everyone and their brother lives in a place where grapes are grown.
Historical Preservation. I have a lot of opinions regarding this. I love history. I love when history is perserved. I love rights of property owners. I love when property owners decide to preserve their historical property. I do not love forcing property owners to adhere to a set of rules that can be financially burdensome, for the sake of aesthetics. One group presentation included tearing down the chainsaw repair shop on the corner of Wagener and Water streets. “It’s ugly, let’s tear it own”. Okay… It’s a historical building, and home to a functioning, long-time business. Tear is down? Let’s not and say we did.
Walking town. Our sidewalks suck. People break their ankles on them (seriously). You can’t walk a stroller down Clinton Street. Property owners are responsible for the repair of the sidewalks. How do you sort out that problem? And what about the historic slate sidewalks that some homes have out front? They are deadly! But historical. Where do we go from there?
Luxury Downtown Apartments. (ROFL, right?) There was some suggestion that downtown (Main St.) property owners with second and third story apartments receive tax benefits to enhance their apartments to a luxury level, thereby attracting a higher class of renter. I’ve had that same thought myself. There are some major hurdles to this. Some property owners don’t live here, and don’t care who their renters are, as long as they get a check (and if the rent money comes from the government, then they know their tenants will make rent). Secondly, is it fair to offer tax incentives to downtown property owners and not to other property owners who have rentals on the village? Where do you draw the line? How can a landlord on Clinton St. compete with landlords on Main St. who can offer more affordable, better looking housing because they have a tax incentive? One great thing about this topic is that Chrissantha Construction will be refurbishing the Water Street warehouses into luxury apartments, so within a few years we’ll be getting down to the nitty gritty of how luxury apartments in Penn Yan will work (or not work).
All attendees to the charrette were encouraged to think big. Think outside the box as if money, laws, relationships, etc. weren’t part of the equation. Everyone did just that. There were some really big ideas thrown out there. I am by far a future-thinking, forward-moving type of Penn Yanner, and I love that people came to throw ideas out there in an organized, civilized manner. But I can’t figure out my takeaway from Charrette. What’s next? We have a lot of work to do? We have a lot of agreeing to do? We have a lot of convincing to do? How do we get others on board? Given the small-town nature of our small town, before we get anything to move forward, we may need to find a cure for skepticism.