NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- The City of New Rochelle and its Planning Board are struggling with a dilemma over a conflict of interest involving the board Chairman and a real estate developer.
Doug Hocking is an architect working for Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates in New York City. RDRXR, a real estate development partnership venture involving RXR Realty and Renaissance Downtown, is the designated Master Developer for downtown New Rochelle. Under a recently approved "zoning overlay", the Planning Board, which Hocking chairs, has been granted unprecedented authority over the future development of downtown New Rochelle.
The two elements of the conflict of interest arose concurrently; Hocking's firm was beginning work on a high profile RXR Realty project at Rockefeller Center while RDRXR was bidding to become the city's Master Developer.
RXR Realty signed a 99-year triple-net lease for 75 Rockefeller Plaza in January 2013. Soon thereafter RXR Realty announced it had retained Hocking's firm to oversee a $150 million capital improvement project of the iconic Manhattan skyscraper. In January 2015, KPF announced its plans to remake the former world headquarters of Standard Oil into a model of environmentally-sustainable architecture with an eye towards achieving LEED Gold certification: energy-efficient storefronts, energy-efficient mechanicals, thermally improved aluminum windows, a green roof, and more.
In early 2014, while RXR and KPF were moving forward on the 75 Rock project, the City of New Rochelle completed a variety of planning studies for transit-oriented development. In May 2014, the City issued a Request for Qualifications to "fulfill both existing revitalization concepts and to formulate new ideas for the design, construction and operation of mixed use development for key 'cluster parcels' in the downtown: the Transit-Oriented Development Cluster and Downtown Cluster". Two companies responded to the RFQ, just one was determined by the City to be qualified:RDRXR.
In October 2014, the City Council designated RDRXR as New Rochelle’s preferred downtown development partner, authorizing the City to negotiate terms of a Master Developer Agreement.
RDRXR gave a presentation to the New Rochelle City Council in October 2014. On December 15, 2014 the City Council gave its unanimous approval and New Rochelle signed a Master Developer Agreement with RDRXR.
The MDA details the roles and responsibilities of both the City and its Master Developer.
Development Commissioner Luiz Aragon said that under the MDA, the City would retain full control over potential zoning changes that could facilitate development on multiple downtown sites.
Mayor Noam Bramson promised “an inclusive, transparent planning process, every resident of New Rochelle will have a voice in shaping our future.”
Over the course of the next year, the Development Office and RDRXR worked together to “co-create” a Recommended Action Plan. The "RAP" was presented to City Council in a special meeting on August 18, 2015.
In September 2015, a presentation on the RDRXR proposal was made to the Planning Board including a Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement.
The DGEIS was presented to Council the following month. A Final Generic Environmental Impact Statement was presented to the City Council in November, 2015.
On December 8, 2015, the City Council adopted the proposed City of New Rochelle Downtown Overlay Zones and Zoning Map Amendments. Through the "DOZ", the City Council handed a great deal of control of downtown development to the New Rochelle Planning Board although they retain the authority to change the zoning at any time.
Supporters say this streamlines the process by eliminating some of the politics from what would otherwise be a tedious, building by building discussion of the merits of each construction plan. Critics say this places the future of New Rochelle in the hands of bureaucrats and appointed officials on committees stacked with political cronies in a City with one-party rule. It may be a bit of both: the DOZ offers a faster, business-friendly development process that attracts investment but one that could easily devolve into clubby backroom deal-making without complete transparency and strong oversight.
Under the DOZ, downtown developers do not need to go back to City Council to build a new building. So long as they operate within the DOZ framework, they can go to the Planning Board for just about everything — electric and gas supply systems, traffic investigations and any mitigation, parking mitigation, erosion control measures, shadow impact analysis, impact on police protection, fire safety, concerns of the Historical and Landmark Review Board and more. Construction management plans for each site-specific development proposal must be reviewed by the Planning Board. Those plans must take into account any other known or planned construction that could combine to increase the area of influence and might therefore require special construction management considerations. The only exceptions to this long list are the HLRB Certificate of Appropriateness and tax abatements which are granted by the New Rochelle IDA (apart from this there have been negotiations with the New Rochelle Board of Education to determine the per-student formula for payments to be made in lieu of taxes, PILOT).
There is no doubt that Doug Hocking, an experienced architect, is an asset to the City in his role as Chairman of the New Rochelle Planning Board.
KPF: "Doug has more than 25 years of experience in architectural design and has worked on some of KPF’s most respected and well-known projects. He has a reputation for his attention to detail and pragmatism in design, resulting in award-winning projects built throughout the world…Passionate about his chosen profession, Doug is very active in the architectural community. He has been an adjunct professor and studio instructor for many schools, including the University of Hawaii and the University of North Carolina. He also serves on the Cornell University, College of Architecture, Art and Planning Alumni Advisory Council, and is Chair of the College’s Careers Committee. Doug is also Chair of the New Rochelle Planning Board, and has served on the Westchester County Planning Board."
Hocking, highly accomplished and widely respected throughout the City, has the full support of Mayor Noam Bramson.
"I have the utmost confidence in Doug Hocking’s integrity,” said Bramson. “His performance as Planning Board Chair has been exceptional, and he has earned nearly universal admiration for his wide-ranging knowledge and thoughtful, respectful demeanor.”
Hocking’s conflict of interest involving RDRXR has raised some concerns but many would likely agree with Bramson that Hocking is more than able to manage the conflict of interest issue in a professional manner.
“Any conflicts associated with Mr. Hocking’s professional relationship with RDRXR can and will be fully managed through the recusal process,” said Bramson.
On March 23, 2016, Talk of the Sound filed a Freedom of Information request seeking copies of Hocking's Financial Disclosure forms over the past three years. The three sets of records were provided on March 25.
Hocking's file includes his filings made in 2014 and 2015 as well as his most recent disclosure form, received by the City on March 24, 2016, the day after the FOIL request was made and the day before it was provided to Talk of the Sound. It is the only one of the three filings which mentions RXR.
Talk of the Sound could not find any public record that Hocking had publicly disclosed to the Planning Board that RXR Realty was a client of his firm prior to September 29, 2015. This is almost a year after the City Council designated RDRXR as New Rochelle’s preferred development partner and two years after RXR Realty hired KPF on the 75 Rock project.
Hocking led off the September 2015 meeting of the Planning Board by recusing himself:
"It’ll be important for me...my firm has a relationship with RXR...I’ll be recusing myself from this presentation but also for the meeting on October 13 at 5:30. In my stead will be Sarah Dobbs-Brown who will be acting as chair for the presentation."
Reached by telephone earlier today, Hocking said he may have been a bit naive in what he needed to include on his disclosure form and admitted that he should have included RXR Realty on the form he filed in March 2015. Hocking said he did not seek an advisory opinion from the New Rochelle Board of Ethics which exists to address these very issues.
During the call, Hocking disclosed that he had another conflict; he said he was part of a team from Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates that did work at no charge for RDRXR to evaluate property on Lawton Street in March of 2015. He may have needed to note that on the 2015 form and certainly on the 2016 form.
Told there have been some concerns in and around City Hall about him remaining on the Planning Board due to the RDRXR conflict of interest, Hocking said he liked being on the Planning Board and saw no reason to leave. He noted that so far few RDRXR and DOZ issues have come before the Planning Board since RDRXR was named Master Developer and that new projects appeared likely to come at "a measured pace". In the meantime, Hocking said that most of the projects before the Planning Board have nothing to do with RDRXR issues in the DOZ.
Hocking readily acknowledges he would need to recuse himself when RDRXR comes before the Planning Board but feels confident the board can pick up the slack in cases where he would "pass the gavel" and abstain from voting.
"If there is a recusal for me or any other Board member the rest of the members are more than capable to pick up the work load," said Hocking.
The more challenging question is how he would handle applications before the Planning Board involving non-RDRXR business within the Downtown Overlay Zone where RDRXR is the dominant player and would have an interest (not necessarily financial) not only in the properties they develop but properties developed by others within the zone.
Over the past few months the Planning Board considered just such an application; an application to construct an eight story, 78-room hotel at 43 Church Street. The property is privately owned and the deal does not involve RDRXR but the property, near the intersection of Church Street and Bonnefoy Place, is close to the municipally-owned Church-Division garage which is one of the property reserved for development by RDRXR.
Hocking did not recuse himself on the hotel application. He said he did not consult the Board of Ethics or the City’s legal department or anyone else, he consulted himself and decided there was no reason that he recuse himself.
As it happened, Hocking found himself in the unusual position as Chairman of being the sole member of the Planning Board to vote against the application.
Whatever the outcome with Hocking’s tenure on the Planning Board, there appears to be little doubt that if the City intends to deliver the sort of transparency Mayor Bramson spoke of the City will need to beef up the activities of the New Rochelle Board of Ethics. They could start with a page on the City’s new web site listing board members, providing contact information, an explanation of how to file a complaint, an archive of advisory opinions and financial disclosure forms, and information about any public meetings.