Revealing Arlington

By Rebecca Hyde '92

The curtain rises on a new beginning as Vassar partners with Poughkeepsie’s property owners, business people, and residents to revitalize the Arlington area.

Vassar has purchased the former Juliet Theater property north of campus and is continuing to partner with local government officials and business owners to revitalize the neighboring business district. With this purchase, in August 2001, the college now owns roughly 20,000 square feet of commercial property in the Arlington area. Current tenants include the Juliet (now a billiards hall), the longstanding Three Arts bookstore, the Beech Tree Grill, and a more recent favorite, Babycakes (formerly the Cobbablu bakery).


Aerial view of the Juliet
Aerial view of the Juliet

Aerial view of the Juliet Theater on the corner
of Raymond and Collegeview Avenues.

There’s been talk about returning the Juliet to its former self as a movie theater. “We’re going to do whatever makes sense,” said Gerald Mason, director of administrative services at Vassar, when asked about plansfor the Juliet. “My goal over the next year is to get ideas from other theater revitalization projects, such as the Bardavon [in Poughkeepsie] and the Apollo in Harlem.”

It was important to the Town of Poughkeepsie that the property remain on the town tax roles. To that end, the college established College Properties LLC, a for-profit entity that officially owns the property. Also, because College Properties is a profit-making entity, the college is able to have representation on the board of the Arlington Business Improvement District (BID), an organization dedicated to the economic health and stability of the area.

The purchase of the property, which borders Collegeview and Raymond Avenues, is part of a much largereffort to revitalize the Arlington area, which is considered the historic heart of the town of Poughkeepsie. In the past, the Juliet movie house and restaurants flourished alongside banks, churches, libraries, schools, and other institutions, including Vassar.

In the wake of suburbanization and the growth of shopping malls during the last several decades, the Arlington area suffered: reinvestment in shops and buildings declined, infrastructure became shabby, and the vacancy rate in retail spaces began to rise. To address these problems, in 1998 college administrators began meeting informally with property owners, business people, and residents. An informal public/private partnership called the Arlington Revitalization Steering Committee resulted, bringing on board representatives of the Town of Poughkeepsie, the Dutchess County Economic Development Corporation, and the Dutchess County Planning Department. The steering committee has since been replaced by the Arlington BID, established under state and local law and with the power to levy taxes. The Arlington BID will begin collecting taxes from the commercial property owners within the district boundaries in 2003.

Since 1998, the partnership of business and property owners and residents has grown stronger and more structured. But all along, regardless of the umbrella organization, there have been people coming up with ideas and giving their time and energy to make Arlington a healthier business area.

For more than two years, Andrew Meade, assistant to the dean of the college, has been helping to organize programs and events in the Arlington area. The Arlington Street Fair, held annually in the fall, draws people to the area and highlights all it has to offer, and gives the businesses a chance to welcome new and returning students. The farmers’ market, held weekly in the summer and fall on the lawn of Alumnae House, has become a popular draw. An annual tree-lighting festival celebrates the year-end holiday season. And Vassar’s new-student orientation lineup now includes a scavenger hunt, which is designed to introduce new students to their retail community.

Meade, along with Associate Executive Director of Buildings and Grounds Services Jeffrey Horst and others, has been working with local and state Department of Transportation personnel to look at improving the roads and traffic flow in Arlington.

This past summer, several residential roads north of campus were repaved and widened. Still in the discussion and planning stages is a proposal to redesign the intersection of Raymond and Collegeview Avenues. “The idea is to turn Raymond Avenue back into a boulevard, with a divider down the middle, wider sidewalks, and several [single-laned] roundabouts,” said Meade. One roundabout is proposed for the intersection of Raymond and Collegeview. Two more are proposed for the main entrance to the college on Raymond, and for the intersection of Raymond and Hooker Avenues.

James Challey, a lecturer in physics and director of Vassar’s Science, Technology and Society program, sat on the Poughkeepsie town board in 2000 and 2001 and was able to be a liaison between town departments and the college and business district. Vassar as a whole, said Challey, has been “invaluable” in its support of the ongoing development of the area. Not only did the college help pay for a consultant to propose a plan for the area, it also provided photocopying, meeting spaces, and refreshments. “It’s not a lot of money, but it’s meant an enormous amount to the people in the area…. Many people thought Vassar didn’t care about the area, but this made it clear that the college wants to work with them,” Challey said.

Vassar’s partnership with its neighboring communities is not new. The college has been sending students out into the community, as interns and field workers, for years. But, as Meade noted, Vassar’s involvement thus far has been primarily departmental, through field work. “We’re only now trying to grapple with it from a college standpoint,” he said, pointing out that when he first began working at the college 10 years ago, there was little if any relationship between the college and the Arlington businesses. “If students discovered Collegeview Avenue before they were seniors, it was surprising,” he said. “I’ve heard students say, ‘I didn’t know this was here.’”

Vassar is not alone among East Coast schools committing money and other resources to the commercial areas surrounding their campuses. Last May, Lehigh University promised Bethlehem, PA’s South Side ornate planters, plus the plants and staff to tend them; Yale invested $12.5 million in a $108 million retail and residential project in downtown New Haven, CT, and $4 million for renovating a major shopping street; and Connecticut College worked with the New London Development Corporation to spearhead a $175 million revitalization of that city.

Since the mid-1980s there has been a dramatic increase in university engagement in local community building, noted Cornell University Professor Kenneth Reardon, who is working on a national survey of university development partnerships. Clearly, colleges and universities recognize that the benefits of community partnerships flow in both directions. Last spring, college administrators and politicians from upstate New York met for two days at Union College to discuss how they might help improve the region’s economy and civic life. And in Pennsylvania, the University-Community Network held its first statewide forum on town-gown issues.

Robert Raisch, who owns the John Lane Gallery in Arlington and has worked there since 1958, believes that the image of the Arlington area influences whether prospective students choose Vassar. “Vassar has a beautiful campus and is a highly regarded educational institution,” he observed, “but people have choices [of where to go to school]. Parents want to be confident that they’re leaving their kids in a safe and comfortable place.”

Vassar students themselves have been involved in revitalization efforts, performing at public activities, contacting vendors for the farmers’ market, meeting with residents about what to do with an empty lot, and initiating projects such as a painted mural that adorns one of the buildings. There will also be opportunities for students to intern with the manager of the Business Improvement District, Challey noted.

The potential for student and staff involvement in the Arlington district is far-reaching. And improvements to the district will give members of the Vassar community more opportunities to enjoy themselves off campus. “It’s nice to have different things to do, different restaurants to eat in,” Mason said. “If your parents come to town, you may want to have nice off-campus options. It all adds up to make the whole college experience better.”

— Rebecca Hyde '92 

Rebecca Hyde ’92 is currently completing her master’s degree in graphic design at SUNY New Paltz. She is also the Class Notes copyeditor for the VQ.

One Community

For years, optimists have touted the City of Poughkeepsie as being on the verge of revitalization. But with the recent renovation of the Poughkeepsie Train Station, an aggressive site plan for the city's waterfront, and the reopening of Main Mall in 2001, the efforts of city planners and developers may be nearing realization.


Downtown Poughkeepsie
Downtown Poughkeepsie

The former M. Schwartz & Co. building, along the stretch of
Main Street that was once a thriving shopping district.

Colette Mericle Lafuente '63, a philosophy major at Vassar and a native of Indianapolis, has been Poughkeepsie's mayor since 1996. As mayor, Lafuente has focused on improving the city's business climate and reducing crime. "The future of the City of Poughkeepsie is indeed bright," she said, "and many, many people have worked very hard to bring it to its level of development and level of promise now." Students returning from break or from trips to New York City via train now arrive at Poughkeepsie's newly renovated $23 million train station and parking garage. A walkway from the station leads to a steel gazebo on Main Street in the city's riverfront district, in anticipation of future restaurants and shops.
Further up Main Street, traffic flows freely through what was once the Main Mall. When it was built in the 1970s, this failed pedestrian mall (located
between Academy and Market Streets) seemed to knock the wind out of the downtown area. The mall's construction coincided with the building of the roadway known as the "arterial," a stretch of Route 44/55 that carries drivers through the city, circumnavigating the downtown center. Since the street's reopening, businesses, as varied as a Mexican bakery, a jazz club, and many non-profit organizations, have flourished in the area.

Alumnae/i graduating in the 1920s to the 1980s may recall the Luckey-Platt building on the corner of Main and Academy, once the largest store in the Hudson Valley. Renovations to this site, too, promise to bring new spirit to the city. The building has stood empty for about 20 years but was recently purchased by the pop-artist Peter Max, who plans to convert the space into an artist live-work space.

"Ideally we should not view Vassar and Poughkeepsie as two separate communities, but rather as one greater community," said Emily Bennison '02, who is now serving an AmeriCorps term at Children's Media Project (CMP), a non-profit organization on Main Street. Bennison completed an internship at CMP during her senior year and worked there as a Vassar Community Fellow after she graduated. "It took me until spring semester of my senior year to really experience downtown Poughkeepsie," she said. "I feel like I am part of the community. My friends and some students live in downtown Poughkeepsie, and I spend most of my days here working with youth and adults from the community."

Photo credit: Spencer Ainsley, Poughkeepsie Journal