South Nyack Mayor Bonnie Christian watched the ribbon cutting for the existing Tappan Zee Bridge from the seat of her bicycle at age 10.
In succeeding years she watched as the massive 7-acre interchange built to feed the bridge created an economic dead zone where once there had been a prosperous cluster of small-town businesses.
Today, the mayor -- she was elected in March -- sees the construction of a new Tappan Zee bridge as a chance to make all of that right.
"Back in 1955, we lost our whole business district here," Christian said. "The village was divided into two parts; we're looking to reconnect the village and get some economic development in here."
Resurgence in the town's business district is needed to lighten a tax burden that in recent years has fallen too heavily on homeowners, Christian said.
"All the taxes are relying on the homeowners," she said. "It's getting expensive."
ADAPTING THE INTERCHANGE TO ENCOURAGE BUSINESSES
Christian hopes that reconfiguration of the interchange in connection with the bridge construction will create traffic patterns that can support new shops, restaurants and housing in South Nyack. She envisions bicycle and pedestrian paths along the Hudson -- attractions that would make her village of 3,500 residents an appealing place to visit.
The area is already popular with young people, with a median age of 31, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Christian sees that statistic as an indicator of economic potential.
"I want to make sure that our vision is what is going to sustain this village," Christian said. "Personally, I would just love to see South Nyack become revitalized, perhaps get some tax exemptions for the people who live here and really do something to make it prosper."
'IT'S JUST RESIDENTIAL'
The village, with steep roadways leading to the river's edge and an abundance of dead-end streets, shows little economic activity today. In neighboring Nyack, Broadway boasts a booming business strip. But South Nyack's half-mile stretch of South Broadway -- from the Exit 10 interchange to the Nyack border -- is lined with Victorian-style homes, with a few houses of worship, a chiropractor, a cat care clinic and a real estate office sprinkled among them.
One local Nyack business that is succeeding is Murray's Deli, which has benefited in recent months from the ramping up of construction activity relating to the new bridge. Every weekday morning, anywhere from 20 to 40 construction workers stop at the deli for breakfast. They continue to pop in throughout the day for coffee, cigarettes and snacks, said Pasha Khan, 36, a counter worker.
"Their favorite is the bacon, egg and cheese," Khan said with a laugh. "They all come here because there's nowhere else to go in South Nyack. It's just residential. On the other side is the bridge. On this side, it's us."
Residents have mixed emotions about encouraging development. One man held his hands out while seesawing them up and down, describing the trade-offs between lower taxes and increased traffic.
Laurie Needell, 52, is in the camp that favors lower taxes. She moved her family from Brooklyn's Park Slope to South Broadway eight years ago. In that short span, she said she has seen her property taxes skyrocket by thousands of dollars.
"I really didn't have a handle on suburban taxes, but I love it here. It's really pretty, which doesn't suck," chuckled Needell, who works at the nearby Nyack Library as an information specialist. "Everybody's in favor of lowering taxes."
Mia Joksimovic, 72, a Serbian immigrant who landed in South Nyack some 25 years ago, enjoys the quiet streets and view of the Hudson from the top of his 110-year-old, three-story home on Division Avenue -- and isn't worried about the taxes. He spends about $17,000 in taxes, he says, and figures a decrease in his bill isn't worth the trouble that commercial development would likely bring.
"We don't need it," Joksimovic huffed. "They're going to ruin this beautiful occasion on the river. People are hungry to view the river, not buildings and shops."
Joksimovic suggested that residents who feel the need to visit shops and restaurants should go to Nyack, next door.
"It's beautiful here," Joksimovic repeated. "This is why people now move here, not because there's businesses."
WORKING THE CONNECTION WITH THE GOVERNOR'S OFFICE
Christian now meets every few weeks with Brian Conybeare -- a special adviser to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on the bridge project and a key spokesman in the community outreach efforts that paved the way for the new bridge. Both Christian and Conybeare say conversations between the town, the state and the construction consortium that is building the bridge, TZ Constructors, are going smoothly.
"Moving forward, I think we've been getting along very well with Tappan Zee Constructors and New York State," Christian said. "They're on the same page the South Nyack residents are on, I believe."
TZ Constructors won points with Christian by installing air and noise monitors along the banks of the Hudson last Wednesday -- just two weeks after the issue was brought up, Christian said. She said she was elated when assurances were given that the toll gantries to be located on the Rockland side of the river during construction of the new bridge will be put back in Tarrytown, where they are now, once the new bridge is complete.
"It was a big issue," Christian said. "They're doing what we asked them to do and I have to give them kudos for that."
Conybeare said his goal is to continue working collaboratively with South Nyack.
"The New NY Bridge Community Outreach Team continues to hold regular meetings with South Nyack leaders to proactively address any concerns they may have about the project," Conybeare said in a statement. "We are working with them on a wide range of issues, from construction noise and environmental monitors, to traffic concerns, the future of Interchange 10 and more."
TASK FORCE TO PLAN THE FUTURE OF THE VILLAGE
South Nyack has formed a task force -- including an engineer, a planning board member and a former county legislator -- to keep track of the village's concerns as the project moves along. Christian is developing applications for grants that she hopes will finance development of a new master plan for the village. She feels the future of the area is closely tied to neighboring river towns.
"All this would not only help South Nyack in the long run, but it will certainly help all the river towns -- Nyack and Piermont," Christian said. "We have some ideas, but we need to get a study to let us know what will bring people to South Nyack and the other river towns and what we can do."
Christian taught in the East Ramapo school district before getting into the newspaper business. She worked in customer service, marketing, circulation and sales for USA Today and for several Rockland County community newspapers before retiring in 2011. Meanwhile, she served on both the planning and zoning boards in South Nyack. She was elected mayor after incumbent Tish DuBow decided not to run.
"When I came on, I knew exactly what I was getting into," Christian said of her first few months in the mayor's office. "It was a good time for me, because now I can devote myself full time. I have lived in South Nyack most of my life and it's time for me to give back to the village."