By Barrett Seaman—
It was more than two-and-a-half years ago that Richelieu Dennis strolled before a packed Board of Trustees meeting room in Irvington, mike in hand, painting an inspiring, if somewhat gauzy picture of his plans for the 34-room Villa Lewaro, which he had recently bought from Ambassador and Mrs. Helena Doley. It would be, he said, kind of a think tank devoted to fostering Black female entrepreneurship—a place where the best business minds could share their wisdom with small groups of aspiring businesswomen of color, giving them, he said, “an opportunity to come together in one place and talk about their challenges, their successes, get to exchange new ideas, get to share in their experiences.”
“We haven’t nailed it all down yet,” he cautioned at the time but then declared: “We now have an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done before.” And in the process, he added, give Irvington some recognition.
At the Irvington Board’s Aug. 3 meeting, half a dozen representatives of Dennis’s New Voices Foundation returned to the same meeting room and spelled out a plan that was both more detailed and more complicated than in the original sales pitch.
The core of their proposal, which will require board approval under Irvington’s allowance for “adaptive re-use” of an historic building for historical, educational or cultural purposes, is something that might still be compared to a think tank. It will be called the Madam C. J. Walker Institute for Women of Color Entrepreneurs. It will be funded by Dennis’s New Voices Foundation, a non-profit that derives its money from Dennis’s Sundial Brands cosmetics company, now a subsidiary of Unilever. It will sponsor seminars and workshops dedicated to “educating, empowering and uplifting women of color entrepreneurs.” An example, cited by attorney Jennifer Gray of the law firm Keane & Beane who represented New Voices at the meeting, would be a “pitch competition” (think TV’s Shark Tank) like one funded last year by New Voices.
That was just the beginning, however. A second use, also allowed under Irvington’s “adaptive re-use” statute, will be for special events that would be, said Gray, “related to the charitable purpose.” These events, of which there might be anywhere from one to five a year “and could include up to 400 people.”
A third use, said Gray, would be for private tours of the house, limited to 50 people. These would fulfill a requirement under the National Trust for Historic Places to open the house to the public periodically as well as to address a particular interest of Deputy Mayor Connie Kehoe in highlighting the house’s historic value that stems from Madam Walker’s extraordinary achievements more than a century ago.
Anticipating that the second use, potentially involving events of up to 400 people, would draw the board’s most acute attention, the team from New Voices prepared a three-tiered parking plan designed for each of the proposed uses but specifically to avoid the traffic snarls that accompanied the Pyer Moss fashion show held at the Villa in early July. At the first attempt to stage that outdoor event, torrential rains, a crowd that exceeded 700 and an ill-timed Con Ed excavation project a block away combined to create a massive traffic jam both ways along North Broadway.
To accommodate routine daily traffic, the Villa has 12 on-site parking spaces. A modest event might call for valet parking that would bring on-site parking to 21. The third tier, for those big events, would require off-site parking. The group has already made arrangements with the Immaculate Conception Church, about a quarter of a mile south of the Villa, to use at least part of their expansive parking area and use shuttle buses to bring guests back to the Villa.
Noting that the prospect of even 50 cars made him “a little nervous,” Mayor Brian Smith suggested that they might talk to the Episcopal Church of St. Barnabas and the Irvington Presbyterian Church, both across Broadway from Immaculate Conception, about using their parking as well.
It was clear that the Pyer Moss fashion event in July was front of mind for the Trustees as they considered the proposal for large events. “The special events part is the one we’ve really got to hammer through,” commented Mayor Smith. The fashion show brought a lot of energy to the village, he acknowledged, but “for every five persons who said that it was an absolutely wonderful event, we had one who said, ‘you’re an absolute moron for letting that happen,’ meaning me.”
Village Attorney Marianne Stecich reminded the board that the only other application of the “adaptive re-use” law, which was for the Octagon House, included a stipulation that any sizable event would require approval by the Board of Trustees. That, in turn, would allow for public comment. It was agreed that the village should be alerted of such plans as early as possible to allow for planning.
Entering the conversation by speaker phone late in the presentation, Richelieu Dennis (referred to by several on his team as “Rich”) said that the fashion event, which was livestreamed back to Paris to end Fashion Week there, “allowed Irvington to be seen by over a billion impressions around the world.” He spoke eloquently about “creating a virtual experience around entrepreneurship” and taking Madam Walker’s vision and her mission “and making it global—yet keeping it tight and local.”
The New Voices team will return with a formal application for the permit on August 30th, when the public will be allowed to voice their opinions.