Standing in what’s left of the corner office where DeWitt and Lila Wallace, the co-founders of Reader’s Digest, built a media empire starting in the 1930s, William Balter raved about one architectural detail in particular.
“These windows are huge,” said Balter, the president of Elmsford-based housing developer Wilder Balter Partners Inc. Eleven feet tall, they stretch nearly from floor to ceiling in the former office.
“Usually with a building like this, you’d rip the windows out and put in new ones,” he added. “But they’d be nothing like this.”
What to do with those windows and the rest of the features of the former Reader’s Digest headquarters building at Chappaqua Crossing is now a decision Balter gets to make. Earlier this month, his company was tapped by the property’s owners to convert the 77-year-old building, the iconic centerpiece of the former Reader’s Digest campus, into 64 apartments.
Called the Apartments at Chappaqua Crossing, the $21 million project was designed by Philadelphia-based architects L & M Design LLC. it will create a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments. Of those, 28 will be affordable housing units, 26 priced at market rate and 10 will be workforce housing. The four-story, 95,000-square-foot building will include two courtyards, a kitchen, clubroom, fitness room, library, playground and terrace space, plus 94 parking spaces.
Wilder Balter was selected to adapt the building by Summit/Greenfield Partners, a joint venture of two Fairfield County real estate companies that in 2004 purchased the 116-acre Reader’s Digest campus for $59 million. The final plans for the Chappaqua Crossing campus also include 500,000 square feet of office space, 120,000 square feet of retail, including a Whole Foods grocery and Life Time Fitness center, and 91 townhouses.
Reader’s Digest, which has rebranded as Trusted Media Brands Inc. and is based in Manhattan, moved its last employees off the site in 2009.
The Georgian-style headquarters Wilder Balter is tasked with adapting is the oldest and most recognizable part of the campus, especially for its distinctive cupola with four Pegasus statues.
On a September tour of the building shortly after construction began, Balter led a trip up narrow, dark winding stairs to the cupola, which offers panoramic views of the entire campus and the Saw Mill River Valley in the distance.
The historic cupola isn’t going anywhere. But Balter noted that other features of the former office building can lend themselves to great apartments, such as the 16-foot ceilings and the super-sized windows.
“You’ll have apartments with a tremendous amount of natural light,” he said.
There’s also the 1,000-square-foot library. Formerly used as reference room for the Reader’s Digest staff, the octagon-shaped room has striking wood paneling and book shelves that stretch to the ceiling.
“Our first thought was, what a freaking apartment this could be,” Balter said. “But then we’d have to tear it apart.”
Instead the room will be kept for its original use. Balter plans to restock the shelves with books and magazines, perhaps even some old Reader’s Digest issues, he said. Comfortable couches and other seating will be added as well.
“We’re going out of our way to use the natural amenities that we inherited with this building,” Balter said.
Felix Charney, president of Summit Development in Southport and a partner in Summit/Greenfield, said it was Wilder Balter’s background building affordable housing that made the company a fit for the development.
“They have a fabulous reputation for multifamily and affordable housing,” the developer said. “We felt that it is in our best interest to partner with someone rather than do them all on our own.”
Wilder Balter has a 99-year lease on the property. The 28 affordable housing units in Chappaqua Crossing will count toward a 2009 legal settlement between Westchester County and the federal government that requires the county to build 750 units of affordable housing in Westchester’s wealthiest, predominantly white communities.
Wilder Balter has built more than 2,000 affordable units throughout the tristate region, including 225 units that count toward the federal settlement. Balter said the company’s commitment to affordable housing stretches back 40 years to when his partner, Robert Wilder, started his career as a developer. The company also does both market-rate and luxury communities but has consistently built affordable housing units through the past four decades.
So when the county committed to adding the units in the settlement, Balter said he viewed it as an opportunity.
“I don’t think anyone has gotten close to doing as much for the settlement as we have done, so I think we’re a natural first call for people,” he said.
Balter said the company is often fighting perceptions about affordable housing with both local municipalities and their residents, such as a mistaken belief that they are all publicly owned or only built in high-rise buildings. Having a deep portfolio of completed projects helps in those instances.
“It’s almost always the first question: ‘What else have you done?’” Balter said.
He can point to more than a dozen different projects in Westchester and Putnam counties that included some percentage of affordable units. Recently completed developments include the 64-unit Bridleside Apartments in North Salem and 51 condos in Larchmont.
“People will see our developments and realize it’s not this big, scary thing they were afraid of,” Balter said.
For the Apartments at Chappaqua Crossing project, as with the rest of the Wilder Balter portfolio, Balter said the affordable units will be built the same as the market-rate units and blended with those apartments throughout the building.
“The only thing that makes it different is the financing,” Balter said. “There’s no difference in the units.”
Construction is expected to take about a year and a half. Westchester County, the New York State Housing Finance Agency, Citibank Community Capital and First Sterling all provided financing for the project.
Chappaqua Crossing’s owners broke ground on the retail portion of Chappaqua Crossing in March after an 11-year struggle to get the project approved. Whole Foods, Life Time Fitness and other retail tenants are expected to open by 2017.
Charney said Summit/Greenfield is still negotiating a purchase agreement with a developer for the townhome portion of the campus. Town of New castle officials must still approve a site plan for the residential development.
There is about 150,000 square feet of office space on the site still available for leasing. “We expect our leasing activities will pick up once the shopping center starts to come online,” Charney said.
“This property will be unique in Westchester County,” he added. “It has its own exit off the Saw Mill, a beautiful location, housing, restaurants, grocery stores and a first-class fitness facility and medical all on site.”