After watching the February 12 meeting, it is now clear that the New Rochelle City Council is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past with yet another development boondoggle that have served to decimate New Rochelle taxpayers. Once again, the notion is that any deal is preferable to no deal.
At last Tuesday's meeting, Council approved the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) as complete on a 5-2 party line vote.
Soon the public will have a chance to raise concerns over the proposed first phase of the Echo Bay development.
Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) are documents that project effects from every facet of a development project. They define the number of parking spaces, the amount of retail space, and various impacts on city services such as the demands on first responders to the number of school-age children that will attend pubic schools.
Developer funded Environmental Impact Statements are notoriously inaccurate, self-serving documents that should be taken with multiple grains of salt. The developer’s interest is to make a profit. It is up to Council and the Community to challenge each and every aspect of an EIS. In New Rochelle, for decades, the Council has been the handmaiden of developers resulting in one bad deal after another, among them the Avalon deal one of the worst (for taxpayers) development deals in the history of New York State.
This council is presided over by Mayor Noam Bramson, a candidate for Westchester County Executive. Listening to Bramson’s imagination run wild on Tuesday in defending the Echo Bay development by Forest City/Ratner, one would think that the waterfront would be re-energized and return hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxes a year once the proposed residential/retail complex is completed.
The Mayor gushed about a Forest City/Ratner project that will include 285 apartments, 25,000 square feet of retail space and up to six acres of parkland.
Oh how the worm has turned!
When Forest City/Ratner was awarded the RFP to develop Echo Bay, in 2006, they and our euphoric Mayor were gushing about a 26-acre development with hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space, over a thousand residential units and a water wonderland with parklands and docking facilities for boating.
Today they are talking about a project scaled down less than 25% from its former glory, limited to the confines of the City yard with less than 300 apartments, and retail space of 25,000 square feet.
The mudflats in front of the City yard will not be dredged so there will be no boating beyond kayaks, canoes and rowboats. The sewage treatment plant, which already blocked the water views for most of the proposed units, is now under construction, rising to its new height of over 10 stories tall. Residents in the supposed luxury housing units can look forward to inhaling untreated sewage when the wind is from the East and the foul-smelling mud flats when the tide is out.
In the EIS, Forest City projects parking on a one space per bedroom ratio down from the council requested 1.5 spaces per bedroom.
[DO STUDIO APARTMENTS COUNT?]
For decades now, the Idoni/Bramson development scheme has dismissed concerns about obscenely generous tax breaks for wealthy developers on the grounds that "some day" massive, long-term tax breaks will no longer be necessary.
Apparently, "some day" is still decades away.
Despite initial claims to the contrary, Forest City now admits in the EIS that they will be seeking a 20-year tax abatement. Instead of paying their fair share of taxes, the City will agree to accept a Payment In Lieu of Taxes or "PILOT".
The justification for accepting a PILOT rather than regular old taxes that homeowners pay is to create new jobs and collect extra sales tax from the retail space as well as from shopping by new apartment dwellers.
Perhaps when Forest City cut the retail space by 75% Council should have cut Forest City’s abatement accordingly, to 5-years. As far as the new apartment dwellers spending their money in New Rochelle, this is a myth, a holdover from the days when Avalon was securing their 30-year tax abatement. Back then New Rochelleans were told that “people with disposable income” would generate sales tax that would off-set the loss in property tax. These sorts of people did not come to New Rochelle and the sale tax never materialized. There is no reason to expect that to happen this time.
The new twist is that by law, the developer must pay an agreed upon figure to the school district for the 22 students the DEIS projects from 285 apartments.
You will not find many elected officials who actually believe that just 22 public school students will live in Echo Bay. The figure of 22 was arrived at by using the same method as Avalon.
At Tuesday's council meeting, council members were told that the "old formula" has been revised and that Forest City/Ratner used a “new formula” in preparing the DEIS. There is no "new formula" because there is no "formula" at all. The projections are based on the "Rutgers Scale" which is a simple table. To get the numbers, you just run your fingers down the left column and then, across the table to the right and plug in the number of Studios, 1 BR, 2 BR and 3 BR units. The numbers in the scale are based on decades of housing data not some "new formula".
During an August 2012 meeting of the New Rochelle Board of Education (NRBOE) Echo Bay discussion, it became clear that not a singe board trustee or the superintendent of schools believed the projection of 22 students is in anyway accurate.
During last Tuesday's meeting, the City administration claimed to have reached agreement with the NRBOE on a per-pupil cost of $17,500 after "hours of negotiation".
During last August's meeting, Schools Superintendent Richard Organisciak says a per-pupil cost for the Forest City/Ratner EIS was forced on the district. Organisciak has since denied there is any agreed upon figure for per-pupil costs.
Below are the dueling FOIL responses to my query of an agreed upon per-pupil sum charged to developers seeking tax abatements for new school children;
The response from the city administration:
Our Finance Commissioner confirms that the amount was $13,500 for 2011/12 and $17,500 for 2012/13.
Take care and enjoy the evening,
Bennie Giles [NR City Clerk]
The response from the NR School District;
In reference to your e-mail of 1/29/2013, I am informed by the office of the Superintendent of Schools that there is no agreed upon sum. The information you request is denied because it does not exist.
Records Access and Management Officer and Clerk and Secretary to the Board of Education (emphasis added)
The sum of $17,500 per-pupil cost is also interesting when examined. The raw cost per pupil, total budget ÷ total number of students is approximately $21,000. Councilman Fertel, a former NRBOE trustee, argues that it doesn’t cost $21,000 to add one new student because you don’t require new teachers, buildings, principals etc. While he is technically correct, he repeats the blunders of past councilmembers by expressing opinions that are formed in a vacuum. The 22 students projected will be spread throughout all levels of education BUT they are not 22 students alone. They are 22 students added to the hundreds that came before them in various tax-abated developments, the most egregious being Avalon’s current 146 students (58 students projected from the FEIS). These are not students 1 through 22 but rather students 147 through 168. There are other projects, Trump, New Roc City apartments, Bloomingdale Lofts etc. It is imperative that the NRBOE demand no less than $21,000 per pupil since the day of reckoning, when new teachers, principals and structures are needed, is fast approaching.
Compounding the negative impacts is the fact that all major residential development has taken place in and around the downtown business district whose associated schools are the most overcrowded (Trinity, Jefferson and IEY). Every project must be examined as having a cumulative effect, not with tunnel vision, on a stand-alone basis. This failed mindset also impacts city services as heavily as the school district. There will be more police; fire and sanitation personnel required yet the Avalon FEIS concluded no new personnel required for 1,000 apartments for Police, Fire and Sanitation. This is a direct result of the developer paying for environmental studies and the city administration choosing the same environmental firm to conduct them. The relationship between city and developer undermines the outcome of the environmental firm repeatedly chosen and paid to conduct these studies.
The council failed to publicly address the price Forest City would pay for the waterfront property, which is ZERO DOLLARS! Forest City claims the assessed value and the environmental cleanup are a wash. At the end of the day, Forest City wants 6 acres of waterfront property for free and in return New Rochelle taxpayers will have to bear the burden for a 20-year tax abated project with a minuscule amount of the original retail space, parking which does NOT meet council requested levels, a waterfront boardwalk, 5 to 6 acres of parkland and a per-pupil cost that the NRBOE has NOT approved.
The New Rochelle Recreation Department’s personnel, which maintains parkland, has been cut to the bone and the administration has repeatedly affirmed that existing parklands, 5 Islands Park, Davenport Park, Hudson Park etc. are grossly underutilized. As far as the boardwalk goes, State law regardless of the project or developer mandates public access to the waterfront.
Then there is the challenge of marketability. While initial occupancy levels should be high, what will happen to occupancy levels after renters experience the mudflats that exist at low tide? What will happen to occupancy levels once renters realize, by the smell, that their next-door neighbor is the County Waste Treatment Plant? Or experience the stink of fish kills from deoxygenated waters?
Have the East End and Sutton Manor neighborhoods, most impacted by this development, been consulted and signed off on the new, scaled down project?
[SUTTON MANOR WAS ON BOARD WITH THE ORIGINAL PLAN, NOT SURE ABOUT NOW]
In his statement, Mayor Bramson, implores the council and public not to lose sight of the big picture. The big picture I see is development of 26 acres of waterfront property, which went out for a Request For Proposal (RFP) and Forest City was chosen on that basis. That is the big picture not 6 acres in the middle that is a postage stamp size development with no future goals, neither planned future phases of development nor any central development theme. Let’s not forget the Bramson chosen Farmers Market that is part of Bramson’s big picture, awarded to Bramson associates and contributors, Good Profits. A proposal from associates and contributors that are unable to raise $50,000 required to implement a letter of agreement let alone pay for actual development.
I, as much as anyone, would love to see major waterfront development that is self-sustaining and adds dollars to New Rochelle’s coffers. What I don’t want is another mishmash tax-abated development that has and will continue to be used in a campaign strategy to make Noam Bramson the democratic candidate for Westchester County Executive!
The original Echo Bay RFP specified development of 26 acres of waterfront property and Forest City is the chosen developer on that basis. If Forest City can no longer develop Echo Bay on the scale specified in the original MOU the City should compose a revised MOU stating development of 26 acres of waterfront property either as a whole or in phases and reissue the RFP. Forest City has stated they are not interested in future phases so they should be eliminated.
Don’t allow Bramson’s political aspirations to devastate New Rochelle’s well being and leave the bill to your children and grandchildren for decades to come with higher taxes and over-crowded classrooms.