A public hearing must be held before the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency determines whether or not to grant tax subsidies for proposed projects. But for years, hearing after hearing, project after project, no one showed up. Until Monday.
Fifteen union members filled a small conference room in the county office building and questioned the proposed $585.2 million Hamilton Green project in White Plains. Board member Richard McSpedon Jr. and staff secretary Chloe Zung were the only ones present for the IDA, which has seven members.
“We are here today in opposition to the developer being granted tax abatements and other public benefits,” said Lenore Friedlaender, assistant to the president of the local Service Employees International Union, “until serious concerns … are addressed in a responsible manner.”
The IDA had granted preliminary approval on June 13 for $17.5 million in sales tax and mortgage tax exemptions.
Hamilton Green is a project of Street-Works Development of Port Chester. The plan is to replace White Plains Mall on Hamilton Avenue with four structures with 860 rental apartments, retail space, offices, parking and a public plaza.
The developer estimates that the project would create 1,437 construction jobs and 500 permanent or part-time jobs.
Union members, however, questioned the developer’s commitment to well-paying jobs. They claimed that Brownfield environmental issues have not been addressed adequately, people behind the project have not been revealed and the project’s financial viability is questionable.
Kenneth D. Narva, managing partner of Street-Works, responded in an email message that most of the workers used to build Hamilton Green will be union labor. The environmental aspect “proceeding productively” through the Brownfield Program’s “highly defined” process. And all of the equity in the project is in place and HG LLC, “an entity of experienced development and execution people” is the developer.
Economic issues were foremost among the statements made at the hearing.
Gabriela Silva told the story of working as a cleaner for 10 years at 1 Barker Ave. and 3 Barker Ave., near the White Plains Mall. As a union employee, she was paid $15.50 an hour and benefits. Last year, she said, a new owner fired her and four other cleaners, replacing them with a cleaning company that paid $11 an hour and few benefits.
She identified the new owner as Juda Klein of Spring Valley, who also has in interest in the White Plains Mall.
She urged the IDA to reconsider the tax benefits until the developer can demonstrate a commitment to good jobs and Klein can “redress the wrongs we suffered at 1 and 3 Barker.”
“I hope you look into this company,” said Abel Rodriguez, superintendent of a Larchmont building, citing the firing of Silva. The developer, he said, “hasn’t been straightforward in the past.”
“We all want to prosper in this county,” said Ernest Townsend, a union building porter whose $22 an hour and benefits enable him to support a family. “Keeping people poor is not helping anybody.”
Tom DelGuidice, another building superintendent, said taxpayers don’t want developers to receive tax benefits if “they aren’t going to be good caretakers.”
“You have to do what you have to do to stimulate growth,” he said, “but it has to be responsible growth.”
Jonathan Jorge, a union electrician, said the IDA and White Plains Common Council should fight more for small businesses, “family sustainable jobs,” affordable housing and funding for the public schools.
Friedlaender submitted documents that show that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has twice rejected the developers’ plans to identify and clean up environmental hazards.
She said Street-Works had dropped out of a $1.6 billion development in Quincy, Massachusetts, “due to unforeseen construction costs,” and has been sued for allegedly failing to repay loans and debts. That track record, she said, calls into question the developer’s ability to get financing or to estimate, budget and manage a complex project.
Friedlaender also questioned who is behind the project. The limited liability company for the project had not been formed when the IDA application was submitted “and therefore not qualified to do business in New York state,” she said.
“Ultimately,” the IDA application states, “the applicant will be a joint venture between a combination of the current owners of the property as well as other prominent developers and/or investment management firms.”
Who are they, Friedlaender asked, and do they have the resources to move the project forward?
“The IDA is charged with encouraging economically sound commerce and industry,” she said.
“We do not believe that investing millions of our tax dollars in this project is a wise or sound decision at the present time.”