We recently Interviewed Ruth Katz and John Duvall two building owners in Irvington, New York about their choice to pass on offers from great businesses to rent their Main Street storefront. They’re holding out for something more. More than an immediate income stream they are holding out for a community asset. They are looking for the triple bottom line for their community in a very personal way. They want a business to rent their storefront that will bring creative, local, slowed down, practical community driven value to the neighborhood. Why? Because they live here. They are investing in the community and want to help shape the future and beauty of their chosen Rivertown.
Ruth and John are passionate sustainability experts, Ruth being the Coordinator for Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Group and John who’s innovative portable sawmill business, Local Sawyer, is all about utilizing great local trees, building fine furniture with unique and reclaimed woods. Managing Director, Lea Cullen Boyer, interviewed them about their philosophy in action:
Lea: How long have you lived in Irvington? What drew you here? What do you love about the community?
Ruth and John: We’ve been in Irvington for just over two years. We came here to be closer to our work and each other. John was living in Fairfield, CT, I was living in Brooklyn, and we were both working near Tarrytown in Pocantico Hills. We knew a nice broker who showed us a great rental in Irvington. We love many things about the community here. The small town feel, the people, the proximity to NYC, the parks, the Croton walking trail, the Hudson River, the ever-changing light and river views, the barges, tugboats and trains. More recently: the huge chunks of ice flowing with the tide on the river. And then there’s the history. I love imagining Washington Irving’s characters coming to life, especially since we have a real (bronze) Rip Van Winkle lounging across the street. The library is a wonderful resource and place to hang out, and the restored old Lord & Burnham greenhouse factory buildings are inspiring. The estates provide plenty of inspiration as well: Lyndhurst and Sunnyside, and the old mansion of Madame CJ Walker, the first African American woman millionaire. For such a small town, there are some great restaurants and coffee shops, and the bakery and Eileen Fishers lab to boot. Irvington is so hilly, charming and interesting; it’s like a mini San Francisco.
Lea: Why did you invest in a building in Irvington?
Ruth: I grew up in an apartment building in Chicago that my grandparents owned. Three out of six apartments were family: cousins, grandparents and immediate family. It was a great way to grow up and a smart investment. John and I walked past this building and liked it. The time seemed right.
Lea: You’ve had proposals for non-green businesses to rent your space and turned them down. Why would you choose to offer your storefront in one of Westchester’s most attractive business neighborhoods, for less than market value, to a Green business?
Ruth: We would love to rent to a viable business, a green business and a desired business. This is our building; we want to feel good about what goes in here. We both come from careers and practices in sustainability; I’m in sustainable agriculture and John has worked with trees since he was a kid, and now has a portable sawmill with a green mission. So it’s just natural that we would love to work with a green business, something that the community likes too. We did some unscientific polling and asked people what they’d like to see at our address. There was a universal response of “no more pizza, no more nail salons, no more beauty salons, no more dry cleaners.” We have plenty of those already! While we prefer it, we can’t promise that the new tenants will be green. But we’re trying to make the building itself as efficient as possible, so that whoever rents will be in a green space. We installed super efficient radiant heat with a “tankless, gas condensing boiler for on demand hot water,” and more efficient windows.
We also wanted to bring back the building’s historic storefront style, with a tile entryway. The old entry way had been obliterated in a 1970’s renovation. Now it looks more like it did in 1900, but is much more energy efficient, and ADA compliant. We hope to find a tenant that values these changes.
One sunny weekend day we sat outside the storefront with a piece of flip chart paper titled IMAGINE… What kind of store would you like to see here? And the people of Irvington responded! We received many comments, especially from kids. Here are some of the suggestions, many of which are green and local:
• Organic gardening and landscaping supplies, and quiet tools, including push mowers and rakes
• Green cleaning products
• A local and organic food business, specializing in one or two items that are lacking in the river towns. Like pickles and pickled items.
• A mini “Chelsea Market” with a few vendors, like an indoor, year-round farmers market, or with specialty food or crafts.
• Dairy store filled with Hudson Valley cheeses, milks and yogurts.
• Fresh pasta and pasta making classes
• Ballet studio
• Martial arts studio
• Another good, but different restaurant: Lebanese or Ethiopian
• Crepes (a very young child took the marker, looked up at me and said how do you spell crepe?)
• Arts and Crafts
• Gourmet store like Mint (in Tarrytown)
• Olive oils
• French pastry shop
• Soap Store
• Book store / used book store
• Captain Lawrence beer joint
• Shoe repair
• Shoe store
• Solar panel demo and supply store
• Pharmacy like Greenleaf (in Hastings) or Kiehl’s
• Homemade chocolates
• Organic chocolate shop, with chocolates molded into the shapes of Washington Irving characters, like Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman
The passersby who responded had some very good ideas. We hope to find the right fit. We understand that current market value and long-term value do not always walk hand in hand. A good tenant brings an added value that’s not always measured in dollars.
Lea: How do you envision your choices as a building owner shaping the community?
Ruth and John: We just want to be good neighbors. We’d like to make smart choices as we update the building to make it more energy efficient, while meeting the codes of today. We also appreciate the historic beauty of the whole row of buildings on our block, and wanted to reveal it again in our building. Many beautiful, historic details had been hidden or blocked off, like charming — and energy efficient
— air shaft and transom windows. Other homeowners might be interested to learn about the energy efficiencies and savings involved.
Lea: Have you ever done something like this before? If so, do you have experience you would like to share with other building owners?
Ruth and John: We have not done anything like this before, and we’re learning a great deal. We’d be happy to share our experiences with others. Some of our energy saving choices are working out quite well.