Last Monday night, November 22nd, Mayor Bramson invited neighbors to a community meeting at the colorful and beautiful offices of Cross Cultural Solutions at 2 Clinton Place. Cross Cultural Solutions offers programs where people can volunteer around the world. Their brochure says "With CCS, you can enjoy the flexibility of choosing from 12 countries, start dates year round, and programs from 1 to 12 weeks long." Their offices are filled with photographs, cultural artifacts, pottery and sculpture. To get upstairs, you walk up a wide staircase made of rough hewn logs.
A diverse group of approximately 45 locals met in a round open auditorium with three levels of platforms with chairs on them. The mayor stood at the bottom and the entrance and encouraged all to sign in. A large skylight was centered above the room, which was very warm.
Mayor Bramson started by talking about the big economic challenges that the city is facing. He spoke about how the economy has impacted the budget and how people have rightfully filed grievances on properties that have reduced the overall amount of money collected by the city. The retirement expenditures required of the city are up from $200K in 1990 to $10M now. The city has cut expenses, instituted a hiring freeze, deferred programs and cut the capital budget. They have adopted an alternate revenue stream that includes a new hotel tax that generates $.25M per year. They have been aggressively seeking grants, such as the North Avenue corridor project (federal grant), Lincoln Avenue (95% matching grant), city park (county legacy grant/FEMA grant from 2007 storm). The city has done an efficiency audit of its three largest public buildings.
The mayor blamed the high property taxes on the state, saying that our taxes pay for schools in Troy, Utica and Rome, for example. He said that the school taxes are 2/3 of our tax bill, but the schools are well run and not wasteful. He said that New York was a strong union state, and that had its challenges, though he is a strong union supporter.
The mayor then spoke about the economic development of New Rochelle. He spoke about (1) Church Street & Division Street project that is in the planning stages with Albanese Developers; (2) the city is updating or refreshing the comprehensive plan; (3) the city is participating in a regional plan, where HUD awarded New Rochelle a $3M grant to improve access to the train station; (4) the city council may soon vote on the sustainability 20 year plan. He said that the downtown shows distress as well as vibrancy, but that more residential was needed to 'create a tipping point' and to 'increase the number of residents that will go to downtown restaurants'. Not enough people live in downtown yet, he said, to achieve a fully economically viable downtown.
As the mayor spoke about the different development projects, I learned that Nelstad, the cement company with their facility along the waterfront near the water treatment plan, has stopped operating. I hadn't seen their trucks in a while, but didn't realize that they were not working anymore. The mayor said that they were closely watching. He also said that the city should soon be receiving a modified plan for the Echo Bay development and was looking forward to seeing it. He was open to their suggestions, but was not willing to sign off on a 30 story apartment building, for example. He acknowledged that some residents were opposed to certain features of the last plan, likely referring to armory component. The city is also waiting for the Albanese plan for the Church and Division Street parcel. The mayor said that the plans would have to fit into the scope of the parcel and meld with the city. The infrastructure would have to accommodate the plans, he said, and environmental impact statements would have to past muster.
The mayor opened the floor for questions or comments. Despite the mayor speaking on broader topics, the people in attendance largely wanted to talk about quality of life issues on the sound end of New Rochelle. Most spoke about the deterioration of their neighborhoods and feeling less safe. Many were long term residents, but some were newer residents.
• Very dirty and smelly C-Town bottle dispenser on Main Street
• Dog waste on city streets
• Overflowing garbage cans
• Leaflets on sign and light posts advertising rooms for rent
• Visitors parking on the sidewalks at Westhab housing project
• Shopping carts abandoned in neighborhoods
• Feeling unsafe in their neighborhoods
• People doing and dealing drugs in the streets including behind the bank near New Roc City
• Taxis parking on city streets
• Not enough parking spaces
• Illegal housing
• That the 24 hour parking policy is unfair because for many years people have been able to park for free.
• Calling Trinity and Isaac Young 'wild' schools that they couldn't even send their children to.
A group of residents of 30 Clinton Avenue were in attendance, represented by their co-op leadership. The group were concerned that more development in the downtown would adversely affect their quality of life by increasing congestion, traffic, creating more parking issues. The mayor said that the new development would have ample parking built in for the new residents. For example, the Avalon is 1000 units and has 1000 spaces, one space per unit, he said. The older housing stock in the downtown is the cause, the mayor said, of the current parking problems.
When I had a turn to speak, I said that the shopping cart in front of my house was abandoned four weeks ago and was still there during this meeting with the mayor. The crowd cheered in agreement. I had called Stop & Shop 12 times and spoke to the store manager with no success.
Stop & Shop sends a cart collector down from Stamford, CT to collect carts. He does all the Stop & Shops in the area, but seems to keep missing our carts.
One Locust Avenue resident said that after calling Stop & Shop in New Roc City numerous times to pick up carts, she collected 12 shopping carts herself and stored them in her back yard. Then she called Stop & Shop and said she wouldn't give them back. Other residents return the abandoned carts to the store to keep their neighborhoods clean. Can the city insist that Stop & Shop install the locking wheels on the carts to prevent or reduce this problem, the people asked the mayor. He was going to meet with the new owner of New Roc City and broach the subject.
There were several homeowners from Fairview Place. One man said that residents have to fight back against blight, call the police on drug dealing, garbage cans left improperly on the streets, and illegal housing. Only vigilance will improve your neighborhood, he said, and was proud that all but one of the houses on his street was owner occupied. He said his taxes were $18K/year.
A long-term Pelham Road homeowner eloquently spoke, he said that there a 'sense of Dodge City' in southern New Rochelle, that you were 'on your own and there was lawlessness'. The city was 'undergoing a transformation' from a suburban place to an urban place and the south end was bearing the pain. He felt a lack of safety and order and his wife would not send his daughter to Trinity. The mayor said that New Rochelle has the lowest crime rate in 50 years and is one of the safest cities of its size in New York. It was a perception of lack of safety, but was not unsafe, he said.
The residents in the audience were knowledgeable about local issues and even commented on the traffic flow issues of various development proposals. One resident proposed instituting a city income tax in order to reduce property taxes, which thankfully the mayor did not like. No one would move to New Rochelle, the mayor said, if there were an income tax.
The meeting wrapped up at 9:00pm and the mayor thanked everyone for attending and the crowd left. During all the conversations about development, there was no mention about the schools. As we walked home I wondered, with the 6th grade advanced classes at Isaac Young at or exceeding 30 students and some classes at Trinity at 29 students last year, where would all the new students from the new developments go to school? Also, no mention of pension reform, if that is the big ticket item causing the pain, why not somehow address it?
The shopping cart that had been in front of our house for a month disappeared within two days of the meeting with the mayor.