Frustrated by an intransigent tenant, Yonkers officials have moved to use eminent domain to take an industrial property needed to open access to redevelopment sites on the city’s Alexander Street waterfront.
It is not, however, a typical case of a government exercising its right to condemn and acquire private property for public use or benefit. The unyielding tenant that has vexed Yonkers City Hall is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And the 3½-acre property leased by the MTA for its bus company depot — and needed by Yonkers and private developers to carry out the city’s master plan for high-density residential and commercial development on the waterfront off Alexander Street — is owned by the city of New York.
“We’ve been at this for three years and we’ve literally made no progress,” Yonkers Commissioner of Planning and Development Wilson Kimball told the Yonkers City Council’s Real Estate Committee last month. She was describing efforts by the administration of Mayor Mike Spano to negotiate a relocation deal with the MTA for its MTA Bus Co. storage and maintenance facility at the northern end of Alexander Street. “The numbers that have come back have been exorbitant.”
“This is an extremely frustrating experience for us,” Kimball said. In the three years since she arrived in Yonkers to join Spano’s staff, “This is the only project that hasn’t moved one yard.”
The stalemate prompted Spano in mid-April to send a letter to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in which the Yonkers mayor both expressed the frustration “at all levels of city government” and extended an overture to de Blasio to resolve it without resorting to eminent domain and a court battle.
Spano in his letter said the bus depot — used by the MTA to service bus lines in the northern Bronx and lower Westchester County — “stands squarely in the path” of a proposed extension to Alexander Street that is needed to support waterfront redevelopment.
The MTA site adjoins 1 Point St., the former wire manufacturing site of British International Cable Corp. Cleared of environmental contaminants, the vacant property was acquired five years ago by investors headed by Ron Shemesh, owner and CEO of Excelsior Packaging Group at 159 Alexander St., directly across from the MTA depot. Shemesh closed the packaging plant early last year after it sustained heavy flood damage from Hurricane Sandy.
As part of the city’s master plan for Alexander Street, the 1 Point St. and Excelsior sites, comprising about 22 acres, in 2011 were approved by the Yonkers Planning Board for 1,395 residential units and 85,000 square feet of commercial space in a four-phase redevelopment project.
Kimball told City Council members that new setback requirements for buildings on the riverfront and stronger flood resilience measures introduced in the aftermath of Sandy require a new Alexander Street roadway to be routed across a portion of the MTA property.
Spano told New York’s mayor that his administration made numerous attempts to help the MTA find an alternative site for the bus depot. New York City in 2005 paid $10.5 million to acquire the property from Liberty Lines Express.
But the MTA would only agree to a $25-million relocation of the bus depot operation to be paid for by Yonkers, Spano said. That proposal did not include a purchase cost for the existing depot site, he noted.
Spano called the bus depot “an impenetrable barrier” to the city’s waterfront.
“The shores of the Hudson River should be a place where our residents and visitors can gather to live, work and play,” he wrote. “These precious lands should not be sleeping quarters for buses. Nor should the relocation of one municipal organization’s buses come at such a steep price to a financially strapped city which is attempting to grow its tax base while returning its waterfront to the people.”
By a 4-3 vote, the Yonkers City Council in late April approved a resolution calling on Spano to acquire through eminent domain the portion of the MTA property needed to complete the Alexander Street extension. The board’s Republican majority, which supported the action, stressed that the property taking would not prevent the MTA from continuing to operate the depot.
“I find it a little galling,” Yonkers City Council President Liam J. McLaughlin said at the earlier committee meeting to consider the eminent domain option, “that New York City, which has done so much to beautify its own riverfront, isn’t a little more cooperative or understanding of our decision to do the same thing. There’s a huge swath of land to be developed and this is standing right in the way.”
Democrats voting against the action said the council did not have enough information on the amount of land to be taken and development plans for Alexander Street.
“I think this is a bit premature,” said Councilman Christopher A. Johnson, whose district includes the Alexander Street area. He added that he thought eminent domain “will be a necessity at some point, but not yet.”
Spano told de Blasio he hopes the taking of city property by another city will not be needed. “It is my hope that, government-to-government, we can work through this situation amicably, and without resorting to litigation,” he wrote.