By Linnet Tse
Although downtown development is not a new priority for New Rochelle, the city’s current downtown revitalization plan – launched one year ago – is the most ambitious plan in the history of the city, according to New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, speaking at the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit’s breakfast program of February 14.
New Rochelle Commissioner of Development Luiz Aragon explained that preparation for the current comprehensive plan began soon after he assumed his post four years ago. The city began asking “what New Rochelle could be, who we are, and how we relate to surrounding neighborhoods”. The redevelopment plan aims to preserve the 90-95% lower-density residential portion of the city that residents love and to focus on the downtown area in order to create a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly downtown hub that surveys show is desired by the local population.
Innovative Redevelopment Plan Facilitates Process for Developers
After decades of flirting with economic development plans, which brought some successes and some setbacks, what is different this time around? Why does this particular plan seem to be gaining the attention of developers? According to Aragon, it’s because they have “eliminated the political angle.”
Aragon explained that in December 2015, a year after city officials approved a master development agreement with RDRXR, a joint venture between Renaissance Downtowns and RXR Reality, the City Council passed a master zoning plan that created a Downtown Overlay Zone (DOZ). The DOZ encompasses 279 acres of land around New Rochelle’s downtown area and train station, and consists of six zones with varying densities. In total, this mixed-use, form-based zoning plan allows for over 12 million square feet of new construction including 6,400 new residential units, approximately 1 million square feet of new retail space, and over 2 million square feet of new office space.
At the same time, the City also completed the lengthy and often cumbersome State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) requirements for the entire redevelopment area, essentially making the DOZ “shovel-ready” for developers. Aragon shared that The City has taken it a step further by guaranteeing site plan approval by the Planning Board within 90 days for projects in the DOZ envelope; no City Council approval is needed prior to getting building permits.
A key piece of the development plan, especially for residents concerned about the impact of development on the tax base and on services, is the creation of a Fair Share Mitigation Fund. Aragon noted that all DOZ projects are required to contribute to the fund, which will cover public costs associated with the redevelopment, including an estimated $6 million of improvements required by the New Rochelle public schools to accommodate additional students resulting from the development. Although tax abatements are a reality of development, Bramson assured the audience that the Fund will ensure that New Rochelle tax payers will not bear the cost of development.
Key Downtown Projects Underway
Aragon reported that there has already been a flurry of interest from developers. The City has already approved development plans for about 1,000 new housing units.
One key project that is just underway is RXR’s $120 million, 28-story mixed use building at 587 Main St, on the former site of Loews Theater. It will house 280 luxury rental apartment units, with commercial space on the ground floor and a 10,000 sq. ft. black box performance theater which will be managed by the City.
Aragon described several other nearby projects in the works, including two mixed-use buildings on Huguenot Street and the newly completed residential building, The Lombardi, on the corner of Park Place and North Avenue. Already nearly 90% occupied, The Lombardi is changing the face of that neighborhood, and has been so successful that the developer is considering another project in that area, according to Aragon.
Near the Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital, on Burling Lane, a developer has bought all the properties except one, in a plan that calls for a total of seven luxury rental buildings. Two have been completed and plans for a third – the Millenia – was approved by the Planning Board in July; it includes plans for a tropical forest atrium running the height of the building.
At the northern end of the DOZ, in a depressed stretch of North Avenue between New Rochelle City Hall and Iona College, a developer has purchased property on both sides of the street. Mixed use residential and commercial spaces are planned for both buildings, with 114 units for the building on the east side of North Avenue, and 74 units planned for the building on the west side.
Other approved projects mentioned by Aragon include a 300-bed dormitory for Monroe College students on Locust Avenue, on the site of a parking lot, and a 200-unit apartment building at 10 Commerce Street.
Waterfront Development Plans
In addition to the downtown redevelopment plans, New Rochelle has just completed its Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan (LWRP) and is awaiting state approval. Although much of the New Rochelle waterfront is private, the plan seeks to create more public access, potentially using the New Rochelle marina and Echo Bay as gateways.
With regards to Echo Bay, City Council recently approved relocation of its Department of Public Works main facility, clearing the way for development of that area. Aragon shared that the Planning Board is currently reviewing a proposal that City Council just approved with developer Twining Properties to transform Echo Bay to a “South Street Seaport type of experience.” The plan calls for four city blocks to be created with 450 residential units, 200 hotel beds and 100,000 square feet for retail space.
Further Opportunities and Challenges
The New Rochelle Transit Center and train station, home to Metro-North, Amtrak and bus service could become an even bigger draw by the early 2020’s. Referring to Metro-North’s plans to complete a link from New Rochelle to the west side of Manhattan and to Penn Station, Aragon described the New Rochelle train station as a future “Grand Central North.”
Anticipating the need for more high-quality retail as new residential units are completed, the City has just retained Buxton Consumer Analytics to help identify retailers that meet current and future needs.
Regarding the potential impact on residents of lower-economic means, Mayor Bramson pointed out that social equity issues were a huge part of the conversation as plans were formulated. He emphasized that New Rochelle’s diversity is a quality that this plan strives to preserve, and that ensuring a robust supply of affordable housing is key. The City requires 10% of new housing units be affordable housing; in addition, developers can get bonus points for an additional 10%. While the proportion of higher-income housing may increase, in absolute numbers, there will be an increase in affordable housing units. Responding to a question about lower-income residents potentially being displaced by the development, Aragon explained that most of the new construction will replace parking lots and commercial structures, not residential facilities. Any displaced residents will be given priority for the affordable housing units.
With the downtown development projects potentially creating thousands of jobs over the next decade, the City will be creating a First Source Referral Center, which should also benefit lower-income residents. The Center, which will be managed by WestHab, a regional not-for-profit, and funded by developers, will work with the construction trades, labor unions, and developers. According to Mayor Bramson, the Center will be a job-training, job-placement program that will help New Rochelle residents take advantage of short-term job opportunities while acquiring long-term career skills.
Responding to a question about flood mitigation issues, Mayor Bramson noted that most of the building is on land that are already hardscaped; in addition, projects must submit plans showing that there is no additional water runoff.
Finally, Mayor Bramson and Luiz Aragon confirmed a rumored change in New Rochelle traffic patterns. As part of the redevelopment plan, Main Street and Huguenot Street will both become two-way streets. Although the mayor initially was skeptical, he was persuaded by discussions with retailers and with the results of computer modeling, which showed that by enabling people to reach their destinations more directly, traffic would also be reduced.
Looking beyond the immediate impact to New Rochelle, Mayor Bramson spoke of more far-reaching benefits to its neighboring communities, such as Larchmont, as well as the entire county. The mayor hopes the redevelopment plan will enable New Rochelle to attract millennial and empty nesters from the larger New York metropolitan area and compete with cities like White Plains and Stamford.
This breakfast forum was hosted by the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Local Summit, an informal community council that seeks to make life better for all in the tri-municipal area. Its monthly meetings are held at the Nautilus Diner in Mamaroneck at 7:45 a.m., usually on the third Tuesday of the month. The next meeting will take place on the fourth Tuesday of the month, March 28; the program, “What’s Behind the County Budget?” will be a follow-up to the December’s meeting with Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, and will provide a look at the Westchester County budget from a different perspective.