Home Combined Need to engage more fully with communities cited at economic development panel

Need to engage more fully with communities cited at economic development panel

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It’s no secret that there’s a development boom taking place in Fairfield and Westchester counties. But taking care to work with not only local governments, but also the communities themselves, in creating those projects has become more important than ever, according to the developers and economic development directors working in the counties at a symposium held last week.

“Economic Development in Our Urban Hubs,” presented by the Construction Institute and the Society for Marketing Professional Services New York — Westchester on Oct. 4 at UConn’s Stamford campus, brought together developers Bob Christoph Jr., president of operations at RCI Group, and Seth Pinsky, executive vice president of RXR Metropolitan, along with economic development officials from both counties.

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Stamford Director of Economic Development Thomas Madden and Yonkers Commissioner of Planning and Development Wilson Kimball.

They included New Rochelle Commissioner for Development Luiz Aragon, Norwalk Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Timothy Sheehan, Stamford Director of Economic Development Thomas Madden and Yonkers Commissioner of Planning and Development Wilson Kimball. The event was moderated by Hocherman Tortorella & Wekstein LLP Founding Partner Gerri Tortorella.

Pinsky said that his firm is focusing on collaborating with government officials and local communities alike to bring in capital and development. While most of RXR’s current projects are in Westchester — including in Yonkers, White Plains and New Rochelle — he noted his firm recently opened its first Connecticut project, Atlantic Station, at 355 Atlantic St. in Stamford. That 26-story tower, containing 325 residential units and 15,985 square feet of net rentable retail space, is over 60 percent leased, he said.

“We’re all about figuring out how to work collaboratively with communities and listening to what they want and what they need,” Pinsky said. Determining how to address those needs while still making projects that are economically viable can be challenging, he added.

Aragon said that, beginning about three-and-a-half years ago, “We set out to change the direction of New Rochelle,” by “changing the DNA of our city.”

He added that the city works with developers to “outline exactly all the costs that you will incur,” and that, if agreed-upon guidelines are adhered to, approvals are being granted within 90 days of submission. Some projects have been approved within 60 days, he said.

Christoph said that Miami-based RCI is focusing on waterfront developments from Boston to Key West, Florida, singling out its work on the 4 million-square-foot Steelpointe Harbor project in Bridgeport. The firm continues to work with MGM Resorts, which has proposed a Steelpointe Harbor casino. First announced last September, that complex, the subject of much debate in the community, the state legislature and among the competing tribes behind the state’s other casinos, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, would create “an entertainment destination on the waterfront,” Christoph said.

In Yonkers, the future of the Empire City Casino, which MGM bought, along with Yonkers Raceway, in May for $850 million, remains uncertain, Kimball said. “They’re contemplating adding an entertainment complex or a sports stadium of whatever the heck they’re going to do,” she quipped.

Sheehan touted Norwalk’s recent spate of multifamily developments, which he said would add more than 1,000 units in the coming years. “We’ve been radically changing our zoning policy with regards to urban development,” Sheehan said, which includes smoothing the way for transit-oriented development around Norwalk’s train stations.

“There’s over $1 billion in development happening here,” Madden said of Stamford, with most of the construction taking place in its downtown and South End districts. Some 4,500 residential units are either under construction, approved or in the proposal stage, he said. A recently completed South End study “will probably triple the amount of apartments and commercial development just around the train station alone.”

That train station, he said, now sees more commuters coming in to Stamford than going out.

A prime mover behind the Fairfield County Five marketing effort, which is designed to encourage New York City-based companies to consider the area, Madden noted that a number of major firms have moved to Stamford over the past several months, “and more are coming. We’re talking with a lot of companies who love the fact that we have the housing” to accommodate employees, he said.

A question about the state of infrastructure in the two counties led Pinsky to declare, “Generally speaking, infrastructure across the New York region, including Westchester County and Fairfield County, is quite robust.”

Nevertheless, Pinsky added, as populations grow, so too do pressures on water and sewage systems, as well as the railroads. “Those are the real challenges we face,” he said. “We’re going to have to make very difficult decisions in the not-so-distant future.”

While local governments could rely in the past on at least some federal support to address such issues, “that’s increasingly not available,” Pinsky said. As a result, that burden “will fall upon an already over-taxed population.”

That population can be vocal in its opposition to development, Kimball noted, as has been the case with Ginsburg Development Cos.’ plans to develop near Yonkers’ Ludlow train station.

“Over the last two years we’ve done a lot of outreach to the community,” she said. “My staff and the mayor have met with them 10 times, and they gave us a list of 80 grievances. I’m not kidding. But the developer proved they were willing to work with them. It can be a long process, at times exhausting, from a city perspective.”

Pinsky agreed: “It’s incumbent on government officials and developers to engage with the community. We try to speak with them and hear their positions. There have been times when they’ve brought up something we hadn’t thought of, and we try to address that.”

Aragon said that New Rochelle’s community outreach has even included meeting with concerned residents in their living rooms. “We take their viewpoint very seriously,” he said.

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