Will More Development Benefit New Rochelle?

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Will More Development Benefit New Rochelle?

April 25, 2011 - 18:51

In the April 21 Westchester Guardian

The new Development Commissioner in New Rochelle, Michael Freimuth, according to the April 4, 2011 issue of the Westchester County Business Journal, is planning a new strategy for development. The City would participate as a "public partner" especially by assembling properties needed for large scale development. Although Freimuth wants the North Avenue transit center to be the focal point for new development, Mayor Noam Bramson is calling for additional sites.
This new strategy came to light because Cappelli Enterprises is rethinking its LeCounnt Square proposal which was not granted an extension by City Council. Now Cappelli Enterprises is preparing a smaller plan for the site. This is the second developer that has asked for a downsizing. In February Forest City Residential asked and was granted a memorandum of agreement for a much smaller plan for development at the waterfront. Freimuth was asked a series of questions about his statements in the article. Here are the questions and his answers.

Godfrey: While I know you are assigned to the development of the city, I wondered how you decide where and how you will encourage developers who approach the city.
Freimuth: Usually a developer or property owner has a site in mind. If not, I first determine their interest (residential, commercial etc), the market (affordable, market rate, mixed income or for commercial: retail, office, warehouse, service etc) and the project’s scale and then begin to discuss options. The guiding principle is to follow the existing code and/or development patterns, resisting the obvious when it comes to density and use. This, combined with known available (actively marketed) properties or known site assemblies (per conversations with variety of property owners), gives me the information that I use to guide them. There may be a need for zoning changes, but these are ultimately made by the City Council and a public discourse evolves as appropriate.

Godfrey: Do you look at the City and decide what you think would be the best development areas and types of establishments and then seek out developers?
Freimuth: Yes, in the case of two recent city requests (Main Street Core and the Transit Center areas) this is true, but with public properties. When it comes to private assemblies, there must be some interest among the property owners before I would venture too far with such an idea. Regardless, in the recent 2-3 years, the development community has been very quiet and the opportunity to market the city or specific sites has been limited. I do believe that the city needs more commercial office/R&D/back office buildings and they ought to be near the transit center and/or interstate ramps to have their highest potential.

Godfrey: The City has no master plan. Do you have any kind of master plan in mind? What would be the major components of this plan? If you have no master plan, is there anything you think the citizens of New Rochelle should be aware of in planning for this particular City? Do you think a committee to develop a master plan would be beneficial?
Freimuth: Whether it’s called a master plan or the 1995/6 Comprehensive Plan, there is a need to update the document and yes, a working citizen committee(s) will be critical to its usefulness and ultimate success.

Godfrey: You talked about the brain in reference to developers and assembling plots of land. Can you spell this out a bit more?
Freimuth: Simply put, the exercise to assemble land (plan, negotiate, purchase, re-subdivide, re-zone, clear, site work, regulatory approvals etc) is too time consuming and demands too much effort in today’s market. Developers pursue large open parcels and avoid older areas demanding such effort (read: ‘brain damage’) in assembling urban sites such as found in New Rochelle. By brain damage, I meant that there is limited time to earn the return investors seek. A developer, or for that matter, a business looking to expand, cannot afford the mental effort in site assembly that consumes their time, energy, and administrative/legal work and consequently he/she must forego the more fiduciary tasks of achieving the best design, construction and fit out pricing and even more critical, the securing of tenants.

Godfrey: At what point do you say to a developer that you don't think their plan will work out?
Freimuth: If the land use issues can’t be resolved, it becomes obvious to all parties. After that, it’s a math test. Either the deal makes economic sense or not. If it needs a subsidy, it becomes a cost/benefit analysis measured against other opportunities and political realities.

Godfrey: I have heard you favor less parking than Council members and long time residents think is necessary. What is your justification for not providing sufficient parking for new development?
Freimuth: Stacked structured parking often kills development. Paying for it, increases the cost of construction that can only be made up by higher rents (which the market may not pay); lower returns (which keeps developers away) or requests for public subsidy (which are difficult to secure). Rather than exacerbate development any more than the market place and regulatory process already do, why not find alternatives eg. shared parking, (mixed use development where commercial uses have the parking in the day, residential have it at night), greater use of transit and less reliance on car? There are quite a few households that don’t want, need or demand two parking spaces per unit. There is a considerable inefficiency in the way garages are used in New Rochelle, not allowing for smart economies that may help development. Further, I personally don’t think urban areas “work” with huge parking garages lining the streets. More parking options can actually mean more traffic (creating incentives to drive). In an effort to mitigate

Elaine Waltz, President of the South End Civic League, expressed reservations about these plans. She felt "We need to stop spot zoning and instead to create a master plan for the City which has been destroyed. The urban environment has replaced the suburban way of living."
Questions were raised about a downsized project by Larry Talt, President of Lawrence Talt Realty. Talt mentioned Cappelli Enterprises only owns one building in the LeCount Square area, the former Miami Night Club which was originally the Standard Star building. There are a number of other buildings in the LeCount Square block such as Planned Parenthood and a daycare. The owners of the apartment at 5 Anderson Street have a lawsuit pending against Cappelli and the building was damaged. Talt wants to know what Cappelli is trying to do. Similarly, with Forest City Residential he states, "Outside of scaling down this project, the public has no idea of how it is being scaled down and how the residents are going to profit." He does not understand if the City is getting into the real estate business and feels they should work with real estate brokers instead of competing with them. In his experience, "This is a very closed government. In Mount Vernon former Mayor Ernie Davis welcomed his participation." .
Another resident, George Imburgia, also does not feel the City government should get involved in development. The City has potholes to repair and should be improving the infrastructure, and not be involved with developers and other private businesses. He asks: "Are pressures to show 'progress' causing officials to do things which may be unethical or occasionally illegal as what has happened in Yonkers."
Councilman Lou Trangucci said he did not support the previous LeCount Square development because its size was out of contrast with the downtown. This is a "a continuing effort by the Democratic Party to organize the southern part of our City and place burdens on residents in many ways such as fire and police, department of public works, and traffic. All these will create demands on the infrastructure and services that even now we are finding difficult to support for the downtown development."
Several emails and a phone call to Councilman Barry Fertel were not returned at press time.