New art, new life for a White Plains industrial zone

By John Golden

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On a morning in early spring, Simone Kestelman carefully unpacked long wooden crates in her new art studio and gallery space near downtown White Plains. The crates were shipped from her native Brazil, where Kestelman, president of SK Studio Art and Gallery Inc., made sculptures and other artwork in ceramic and glass and employed 18 workers in her 18,000-square-foot studio in Sao Paulo.

“Things are happening here more than in Brazil,” said the artist, who moved to New York last August with her family and husband, Leonardo Kestelman, managing director at Dinosaur Merchant Bank. Though she is still unpacking, some of her dramatic sculptural pieces will be shown by Ai Bo Gallery of Greenwich at the Context Art show that runs May 3-8 at Pier 94 in Manhattan.

“The U.S.A. – to stay, to live there, to some day maybe become a citizen, is my dream,” she said.

Kestelman recently rented out her studio in Brazil’s capital and has moved her well-equipped operation to 121 Westmoreland Ave., in an area of light industry rezoned last year by White Plains city officials to allow for mixed uses and encourage residential development near the city’s Metro-North Railroad station. The working artist and gallery owner is a pioneer on an industrial block more frequently visited by self-storage key holders, building contractors, auto repair shop customers and towing victims than gallery-goers.

Kestelman has leased 9,000 square feet of space, the entire second floor, of a 110-year-old, gambrel-roofed, red brick barn that formerly housed a dairy and more recently the building supplies and lumberyard business of CG Swackhamer Inc. Vacated in 2011, the architecturally distinctive building has been restored and expanded in an approximately $1.5 million renovation nearing completion by the building’s primary occupant and Kestelman’s landlord, Cum Laude Group Inc., a builder of luxury custom homes.

“I was looking for a studio space and somebody sent me to Mamaroneck,” said Kestelman. But she worried about damage from flooding in the flood-prone village.

Paul Fontana, a theology student at Harvard Divinity School who co-founded Cum Laude Group in Westchester 15 years ago after discovering he had a higher calling to custom construction work, was the contractor who built the Kestelmans’ home in Scarsdale. Five M Properties LLC, a company in which Fontana is a member, one year ago paid $1 million for the Swackhamer building as the White Plains Common Council was poised to adopt the rezoning plan pushed by a Westmoreland Avenue commercial property owner, Robert Martin Co., and Mayor Thomas Roach.

“It was slated to become another self-storage building to compete with Westy’s,” which operates a facility on Westmoreland Avenue, Fontana told the Business Journal during a tour of the renovation project last fall. “The mayor put the kibosh on that.” For the mayor and other supporters of redevelopment, “The vision is something like all those places in Brooklyn – people making cabinets but people living there also.”

Expanded to 23,000 square feet in the renovation, the preserved building will triple the space for Cum Laude’s custom woodworking shop, the company’s president said. Its newly installed boiler will be fueled by sawdust and waste wood from the shop.

Fontana showed the structurally deteriorated building to his Scarsdale client from Brazil. “This old building caught my attention,” said Kestelman. “I fell in love. It was almost destroyed. Paul said, ‘No problem.’”

The artist paid three years’ advance rent, in exchange for which Fontana did the build-out of her space at no charge to his tenant. The arrangement “gave me some much-needed capital,” he said.

Kestelman said she has invested about $200,000 to equip her White Plains studio, where she plans to employ student interns and invite area schools to stage showings in her gallery. She expects to open the gallery in one to two months.

The artist welcomed the prospect of drawing gallery visitors from a former factory building at 122 Westmoreland Ave., which has stood empty for about eight years directly across the street from her studio.

The six-story, 48,000-square-foot building was first occupied in the postwar 1940s by Norden Laboratories Corp., later known as Norden Systems, an electronics research and development company that evolved its business as a manufacturer of aircraft bombsights in World War II. The building later served for about 45 years as the headquarters of ARC of Westchester. The nonprofit service agency for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities relocated to Hawthorne about eight years ago and the property in 2013 was sold to a Massachusetts-based investor for $2.3 million.

An affiliate of Robert Martin Co. in Elmsford paid $800,000 to acquire the vacant industrial building in early 2014. Following its rezoning, the owner at the close of 2015 sold the property to Norben Lofts LLC for $4.3 million, according to county land records.

Norben Lofts proposed a residential redevelopment of the building approved in March by the White Plains City Council. The developer will convert the former plant into a 56,424-square-foot, 65-unit rental building with 42 studio, 18 one-bedroom and five two-bedroom apartments.

Principals of Norben Lofts have avoided the public limelight during the city’s review process. Attorney William S. Null, of Cuddy & Feder LLP in White Plains, who represented the developer before the city council, did not respond to inquiries from the Business Journal regarding the project and the developer.

Mortgage records indicate that David Ekstein, a resident of Monroe in Orange County, is a principal of Norben Lofts, the limited liability company’s registered name with the state Department of State. White Plains officials, however, have repeatedly referred to the developer as Norden Lofts after the building’s original occupant.

“The Westmoreland Avenue corridor has ‘great bones,’” Roach said in a prepared statement after the council approved the project site plan last month. “There are buildings in the area which have a lot of potential.” The mayor noted the industrial corridor, which borders the Metro-North tracks, is seen daily by train riders approaching the downtown station.

“We want people to look out the window and see a vibrant, urban neighborhood with a mix of uses that has maintained its unique character and think, ‘That looks like a great place to live,’” he said.

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About the author

John Golden
The Business Journal’s senior writer, John Golden directs news coverage of the county and Hudson Valley region as Westchester bureau chief. He was an award-winning upstate columnist and feature writer before joining the Business Journal in 2007. He is the author of “Northern Drift: Sketches on the New York Frontier,” a collection of his regional journalism.

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