The White Plains Urban Renewal Agency (WPURA) held a public hearing Sept. 5 at city hall as a step in considering whether to move ahead with condemnation of 12 private properties along East Post Road, in addition to a parcel owned by the White Plains Housing Authority.
Mayor Thomas Roach, who is chairman of the agency, told the hearing that the agency has no specific project in mind for the properties it would take through the use of its eminent domain powers. Most of the properties are in the block of East Post Road between Winchester Street and South Lexington Avenue directly across from White Plains Hospital.
White Plains Planning Commissioner and WPURA Executive Director Christopher Gomez, reading a prepared statement, said that the properties could be used for the creation of new parking facilities, affordable housing, commercial purposes or something else. “The parcels are located between two critical institutions – the White Plains Hospital, which is the largest employer in the city and the White Plains Housing Authority’s Brookfield Commons, formerly the Winbrook campus,” he said.
The housing authority is in the midst of a long-term program to tear down and replace the Winbrook buildings within the existing site. White Plains Hospital has been in the midst of an ambitious expansion program including a $272 million building now under construction at the intersection of Maple and Longview Avenues. It recently opened a new behavioral and family health center at 79 E. Post Road. Numerous upgrades have taken place at the main building such as a new lobby, new private patient rooms, new operating rooms and an upgraded emergency room.
Roach said, “I want to make it clear that in the event the agency does acquire some or all of the parcels noticed for today’s hearing, there will be a commitment to provide relocation assistance to residents currently living above the stores to remain within the City of White Plains, to help them find housing and get them housing within the city of White Plains. Further, in conjunction with any acquisition, there also will be relocation assistance where necessary to relocate any displaced businesses within the neighborhood.”
After the eminent domain process has run its course, the agency could sell or otherwise turn over any property it has condemned to a developer or institution or other entity for commercial or noncommercial development as long as an appropriate public purpose would be served.
Mack Carter, executive director of the housing authority, told the hearing that it supports the urban renewal agency’s taking the properties, including its own. “The upgrade of the Post Road area is extremely important to our major redevelopment project to improve the community,” he said. “The housing authority believes that the city’s actions will better the lives of all current and future residents and businesses.”
Susan Fox, president and CEO of White Plains Hospital, expressed support for the action. “White Plains Hospital has grown 35% in just the last five years. Clearly, we are a destination center. Clearly, we will continue to grow.”
She said the hospital needs to be prepared for more growth in the future. “We are looking and have been working with the city in terms of where we think our expansion needs to be and what our needs will be and we are very supportive of this initiative in general because we understand that we have significant needs in the future.”
Continuing on that theme, she praised the urban renewal agency. “I applaud the committee. I applaud the effort to plan for the future and I say that in a way that there’s a recognition there will be displacement of certain individuals and businesses and we don’t take that lightly, but again in terms of planning for the community and the future and betterment and fulfilling our stewardship roles, this is a very important initiative and we thank the city for taking this initiative.”
After the hearing, Fox told a reporter that the hospital would welcome additional parking and its staff could benefit from additional housing in the neighborhood.
Several landlords spoke at the hearing, expressing concern about the future of the businesses and residents that would be displaced. Some speakers said that the buildings are in very good condition, have been renovated and upgraded, and are extremely valuable. It was suggested that taking the properties could prove to be extraordinarily expensive for White Plains.
Joseph Bjarnson, a partner in the law firm Shan Ward Coschignano in Uniondale, said that his client’s property at 42 E. Post Road is an income-producing property. He said his clients “object to its acquisition through condemnation and they will be submitting formal written objections and comments to the proposal by the Sept, 16th deadline. They also would today on the record like to have a clarification as to why the properties, the specific properties, were selected to be acquired through condemnation and note that the properties east of Winchester Street and north of New York Post Road were excluded though they are part of one contiguous block.”
Some of the Post Road buildings are mixed-use, containing residential units as well as street-level storefronts. Businesses operating in the properties include longtime Post Road fixtures such as the Union Food Market, the Chinese food outlet Amy Chow Kitchen, One Source Pharmacy and the Burke & McCowen hardware store, which has been in the city for more than 90 years.
The properties that the urban renewal agency could take cover approximately 4.18 acres. The housing authority property the agency has indicated could be taken runs along the northern border of the private properties.
Two of the properties, 18-20 E. Post Road and 14-16 E. Post Road are owned by Gabe Realty Corp., which has its office on Grand Avenue in White Plains. Its principal is Gabriel Arango, who was one of the landlords at the hearing. He told the Business Journal he owns about 50 properties in White Plains, has been active in civic affairs for decades and “never before, never before, I’ve never run into this kind of problem. I admire the city of White Plains and the people who run the city are very good. However, this comes as a shock to me.”
Arango said he was surprised when he received a letter in the mail about the properties. “The city sent me a letter and the letter says very clearly that we are taking by eminent domain for the good of the city, for the community.”
Arango added that the letter did not provide any details about why the agency wanted his buildings other than the generality about a public purpose.
Arango said that attorneys advised him to wait and see what kind of offer the agency would be presenting. According to the city’s tax roll, the combined full market value of Arango’s two properties the agency wants to take was $3,294,608 as of Jan. 1. However, there can be a dramatic difference between what’s shown on tax rolls and what happens in the marketplace.
Arango said while he’s concerned about the future of the businesses which operate along that stretch of Post Road, he’s even more concerned about the families who live upstairs. “There are 12 families in my two buildings, all are minorities and they need a place to live,” Arango said. “If it’s for the good of the community, people have to find out where they’re going to be relocating. There’s scarce housing at that kind of pricing. It’s terrible.”
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Eminent domain is a power governments have to take private property for public use under certain circumstances. The U.S. Constitution, in the so-called “takings clause” of the Fifth Amendment, states that the federal government can’t take private property for public use without “just compensation.”
It is that wording that has been interpreted to allow governments at any level to take private property for public use provided they justify the taking and pay what it’s worth. In many cases, negotiations between governments and property owners fail and a court case becomes necessary to determine whether eminent domain was justified and the government was offering a fair price for the property.
It took eight years of litigation for an eminent domain case involving property on Lake Street in White Plains to be settled. Property was taken from Mazur Brothers, the furniture store operator, for a project to improve the Cross Westchester Expressway. The amount of money offered by the state was challenged and the court battle involved about a half-dozen appeals.
Arango wondered why no one approached him about buying the property before the agency moved to begin the eminent domain proceeding.
“I’m 100% for the city of White Plains. It’s growing up beautifully. But, if they want to buy, buy on the open market. Nobody called me. Nobody said anything.”
A 10-day period for submitting comments began after the hearing was closed. According to Gomez, it is anticipated that the agency will make and publish its determination of findings regarding the taking of the properties 90 days after the end of the comment period.