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Westfair panel: How Westchester and Fairfield can capitalize on live, work, play model

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Greg Belew, city president of the NY/Tristate Area of Lennar Multifamily Communities.; Peter Chavkin, managing partner of Biddle Real Estate Ventures; Clayton H. Fowler, chairman and CEO of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners; Roxana Q. Girand, president and CEO of Sebastian Capital; and Tim Jones, CEO of Robert Martin Co. LLC. Photo by Bob Rozycki

In a “golden time” for real estate development in Westchester and Fairfield counties, a group of real estate developers gathered April 24 stressed the importance of building communities with energy and life.

To a crowd of about 230 at the C.V. Rich Mansion in White Plains, the panel of developers discussed trends pushing young professionals to Westchester and Fairfield and the challenges in meeting that demand and creating the type of communities people want to live in.

The discussion was in line with the panel’s theme, “The Next Generation: Live-Work-Play Developments.” The event was presented by Westfair Communications, the publisher of the Westchester and Fairfield County Business Journals.

On the dais were Tim Jones, CEO of Robert Martin Co. LLC; Clayton H. Fowler, chairman and CEO of Spinnaker Real Estate Partners; Peter Chavkin, managing partner of Biddle Real Estate Ventures; Roxana Q. Girand, president and CEO of Sebastian Capital; and Greg Belew, city president of the NY/Tristate Area of Lennar Multifamily Communities.

To open the discussion, Jones said the traditional barriers to multifamily live-work-play type projects, including regulation or a lack of viable land, have been helped by municipal officials in places such as Yonkers, White Plains and New Rochelle becoming more open to development.

“Recently what we’ve seen in the last several years is what I would consider almost a golden time for real estate development in Westchester, particularly in the cities” Jones said. “And that’s been driven by the recognition of the municipal authorities that this is really important, so they’ve really allowed the market to speak.”

While Fowler joked it’s a “pain in the ass” to work in Westchester, his Spinnaker Real Estate Partners has completed more than 3,000 housing units between the county and neighboring Fairfield. Lately, he said he’s focusing on train stations in Fairfield where he can build village-type neighborhoods that have appeal to all demographics.

“(People) all want the same things: they want to be able to talk to other people and go downstairs, maybe there’s music, or next door to a bar,” Fowler said. “It’s important to have those recreational opportunities.”

Multiple panelists stressed the importance of attracting young professionals priced out of New York City.

If apartments in White Plains or New Rochelle can offer the same level of amenities and a quicker, one-seat train ride to midtown Manhattan, it’s possible to lure young city-dwellers to cheaper rents up north to areas such as White Plains and New Rochelle.

That was part of the goal described by Belew. Through Lennar, he’s leading two major development projects in White Plains: two apartment towers expected to total more than 700 units at the former Pavilion Mall site and a 434-apartment project on Mamaroneck Avenue.

Related: With new base in Stamford, Lennar Multifamily takes on two major White Plains developments

“We’re trying to design a product that’s going to be appealing to someone that’s been living in Brooklyn or the Lower East Side and amenitizing it in such a way that they don’t feel like they’re giving much up,” Belew said. “They have a better lifestyle and a lower rent check every month.”

And by attracting those new residents, Chavkin said job growth and opportunity will follow.

“To me the opportunity is not so much’ live, work, play’ as it’s ‘live, play, work,’” Chavkin said. “Let’s create housing solutions that give people a reason to want to be here, the creative class, and once we are able to harness that, jobs will come. Companies will relocate, whether it’s through co-working satellites or jobs will follow the community.”

Chavkin is a lead consultant on the billion-dollar Edge-on-Hudson redevelopment of the former General Motors assembly plant in Sleepy Hollow, which will bring a hotel, thousands of apartments and homes and some retail and office space to the former industrial site.

Related: Delayed Sleepy Hollow development Edge-on-Hudson moves toward home construction

Working to create a sense of community was also a goal stressed by Girand. Her company, Sebastian Capital, is managing the repositioning of the former IBM and Pepsico office parks in Somers. She described her efforts to help draw tenants to buildings that, after being left by their Fortune 500 occupants, dropped about 1.6 million vacant square feet on the marketplace.

Related: New owners sell a lifestyle when seeking tenants at former PepsiCo campus in Somers

For the PepsiCo building, Sebastian Capital created an in-house brand, The Suite Project, for new co-working space it marketed heavily on social media. Girand said the co-working space has grown from 10,000-square-feet at the start of the project to 20,000 and is edging toward capacity.

What’s helped draw people to that space, she said, is offering the right amenities.

“You want to have that lifestyle and wellness,” Girand said, which includes an updated health club, and even a vegetable garden out back of the building.

“We try to be as eco-friendly as we can and cater to this fast-paced community of live, work,” she said.

While the panelists were mostly bullish on Westchester and Fairfield’s potential, each noted obstacles that could hold things up. Zoning that has not kept up with demand, for instance, or municipal aversion to tax abatements described as necessary to getting a development project off the ground.

There’s also external factors: rising interest rates, changes in government regulation and the possibility of an economic slowdown in the region or country.

But, as Chavkin summarized, in Westchester there are the right “bones” for lasting success.

“It has the transportation infrastructure, the scenic location, the school systems to really propel it through the next couple of real estate cycles,” he said.

Sponsors of the event were:

Silver Sponsor: View Dynamic Glass

Bronze Sponsors:  Builders Institute, AgeWell New York Health Plans, Thompson & Bender, BMW of Mount Kisco

Supporters and partners: Tompkins Excavating, A.G. Williams, Buzz Creators, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, GDC Rentals (Ginsburg Development Cos.), GS&S, Gotham Signs & Graphics, KOI Creative, Allan M. Block Agency, Committee for Responsible Site Work and Excavation, and Greenwich Polo Club.

 

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