Hamlet will decide what to be and not to be

HILLSDALE–When local government looks down the road to development it’s often called “strategic planning” or “managed growth” or “smart growth” by urban planners. These days it usually includes all the ecological buzzwords like “organic,” “sustainable” and “green.”

Hillsdale adopted its first Comprehensive Plan in 1995 and revised in 2000. Now the town is again updating the plan with input from residents and help from specialists.

Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a non-for-profit organization that specializes in advising smaller communities about growth, has a staff that includes planners, building and landscape architects, and arts administrators with expertise in everything from environmental design and psychology to urban geography and information management. For the past year, PPS has been consulting with Hillsdale town planners and conducting surveys of residents on proposals for a Design and Development Plan for the Hamlet.

This week members of the community get to hear the first draft results from PPS and town volunteer work. Residents and business owners are invited to a series of meetings to discuss the initial plans and contribute more ideas for the revitalization of the central hamlet area in an ongoing effort by the town to steer its own development and growth.

In addition to the initial meeting that was scheduled for February 2, sessions are scheduled for the Hillsdale Town Hall Thursday, February  4 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, February 6, from 10 to 11:30 a.m.

“The purpose of a Design and Development Plan is to give a vision to the town,” says Tom Carty, chairman of the town’s Comprehensive Plan Review Committee. “In other words to put down on paper what the town is like now and what you hope the town will be over the next 10 to 20 years.”

The committee also has more than half a dozen subcommittees: Historic Preservation, Renewable Energy, Hamlet, Natural Resources, Agriculture, Scenic and Affordable Housing.

“One of my roles as overseer of those committees is to make sure we have representation of different points of view from members of the community,” says Mr. Carty. “All the members are volunteers and either full-time or weekend members of the community.”

“Our Comprehensive Plan is divided into two parts. One part is the vision for the town. The other part is the supporting zoning ordinances to help us achieve our vision. We hope this process will create a downtown Hillsdale that is alive and vital, attractive and useful,” he says.

On March 6 another, larger, public meeting will be held at a place to be announced to unveil a more complete vision for the hamlet. “PPS will give the results of all the information they have gathered since they started work,” Mr. Carty says. “They will present a draft proposal for a design and development plan, pulling together everything they have heard from everybody into a PowerPoint presentation.”

All of this strategic thinking is being informed by a variety of surveys conducted last year to find out what Hillsdale residents want for the future of their town. One survey form was distributed to residents by hand, available in stores, and online at the town website. Another form went to local merchants.

In December some 65 people attended a public meeting held by PPS to solicit identification of areas for development in the hamlet, walked those areas and shared suggestions on how those areas could be used and improved.

The search for local input went even further, selecting 34 stakeholders, including business owners, politicians, residents and officials who were interviewed by PPS.

PPS will present preliminary results of the surveys and town residents can respond. “We think we now have a framework that will allow them to better think about the kind of Hillsdale hamlet they want to have. This allows them to say yes or no, this kind of change but not that kind,” Mr. Carty says.

Among the things that the resident surveys indicate the people of Hillsdale want in the hamlet are:

*Improvements to the junction of Routes 22 and 23

*Extending the Rail Trail to come all the way into Hillsdale Hamlet so residents can walk or ride bikes from the hamlet to the new library or Roe Jan Park, for example

*More sidewalks

*Slower traffic

*Stores like a drugstore, a drycleaners, a café, and places for nighttime activity)

*Maintaining the rural character of the hamlet center

*Building interest in the historic district

*New outdoor public spaces in the area of the new town hall (the old library).

Mr. Carty says some of these improvements will depend on actions by outside agencies, particularly the state Department of Transportation (DOT), which he says has shown interest in the group’s ideas.

The town must raise a small percentage of the total cost, because DOT gives priority to municipalities that have seed money for design elements approved the community’s comprehensive plan.

Once the committee has a draft PPS will produce a final plan suggesting an order in which projects should happen. “Then we have to go out and look for lots and lots of grant money over the next 10 years,” says Mr. Carty.

PPS has a $65,000 consulting contract, $10,000 of which was budgeted by the town in 2009, with another $4000 allocated this year. The bulk of the funding is coming from various foundation and government grants. “All of the rest of it is from fund-raising and resident contributions,” says Mr. Carty, who adds that the committee is close to having the money it needs.

One member of the PPS team is the nationally known urban planning author Norman Mintz, Ph.D., a resident of Claverack. With 25 years of experience in urban planning, Dr. Mintz is co-author of Cities Back from the Edge, a widely known guide on how to revitalize downtown areas. He was in charge of the successful Main Street Project in Philmont.

He and Sara Crowley from Chatham are working with the committee on business development and on the look of the hamlet. But Mr. Carty makes clear that the future direction of development in Hillsdale with be self-driven. “This is not a top-down plan. It’s a bottom-up plan. It’s what people say they want. It’s an opportunity to get the kind of hamlet they want to have.”

Much of the downtown area’s development will be determined by the limitations of its geography. “The Hamlet of Hillsdale is geographically difficult to work with,” he says, because it is at the intersection of two state highways and because of the hilly terrain. “Our concern is making the hamlet of Hillsdale cohesive and not a pass-through, something livable, walkable and attractive.” 

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