At the height of office-park occupancy by corporations on the so-called Platinum Mile that straddles Interstate 287 in Harrison and White Plains, businesses were paying 68 percent of Harrison’s property taxes, while homeowners accounted for slightly less than one-third of the town’s tax revenue.
But that was decades ago. By the turn of the century, those numbers had flipped, according to Harrison Supervisor and Mayor Ron Belmont. “So we realized something had to be done,” Belmont said.
How the town attempted to reposition its zoning and find new uses for its emptying office parks along the I-287 corridor was the focus of a Nov. 17 presentation hosted by the Commercial Investment Division of the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors in White Plains.
Belmont was joined by Frank S. McCullough Jr., a senior partner at McCullough, Goldberger & Staudt LLP in White Plains, to discuss the ongoing efforts of the town to drive new development in the Platinum Mile corridor. McCullough, Goldberger & Staudt represents several of the real estate firms and companies that have converted or demolished former office buildings for new uses.
“The development along I-287 corridor in White Plains and Harrison has an interesting history, and I believe a more interesting future,” McCullough said.
McCullough gave a history of how Westchester Avenue grew from the two-lane road from Port Chester to White Plains he traveled as a kid growing up in Rye to the corporate magnet it became following the 1960s that made it known as the Platinum Mile.
The biggest changes, he said, came with the opening of I-287 in 1960, which was closely followed by Interstate 684. Access to interstates allowed Harrison and White Plains to become home to major companies like Texaco, I.B.M. and General Foods.
“Office park after office park sprang up along the corridor both in White Plains and in Harrison,” McCullough said. That continued through the 1990s but then started to slow, he said.
“By 2000, no new development was taking place along the corridor and very little capital investment was being made in the buildings,” he said. “Occupancy had become an issue and the future of the corridor was in question.”
Corporate downsizing and an economic recession over the next decade didn’t help matters, and by 2010 the I-287 corridor had a glut of open office space. About 30 percent of office space on the Platinum Mile sat empty, McCullough said.
With its commercial tax base quickly dwindling, Harrison started a process to review the uses of the large properties to possibly include residential development for apartments and senior living facilities. In 2013, Harrison adopted a new master plan that suggested the town create a mixed-use zone in its Platinum Mile area to allow assisted-care facilities, senior housing and other residential development as well as retail service, retail businesses and restaurants approved for special exception permits.
The process of adaptive reuse had begun even before the master plan was adopted. In 2000, a special-exemption use permit allowed for the demolition of an office building on Corporate Park Drive to be replaced by a hotel, now the Hyatt House White Plains. In 2004, a vacated office building at 400 Westchester Ave. became the Westchester campus of Fordham University.
The health care industry has also moved in. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center invested $128.8 million to convert a former Verizon research building at 500 Westchester Ave. to an outpatient cancer facility in 2014. Westmed Medical Group in May 2015 opened an 85,000-square foot facility at 3030 Westchester Ave. in Simone Development Cos.’ Purchase Professional Park.
Perhaps the most significant office-park conversion involved the purchase by Life Time Fitness of a roughly 22-acre acre property that was the site of the 232,000-square-foot headquarters and printing plant of the Journal News, part of the Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper chain. The Minnesota-based fitness company proposed a $50 million project to raze the building and erect a 209,000-square-foot fitness center, which was approved within seven months.
“The seven months is an important benchmark,” McCullough said. “When you think of a project with this magnitude and the reputation that Westchester communities have for long, dragged-out approval process… it set a tone going forward that Harrison’s doors are open for development.”
The latest redevelopment will start construction in the spring. Normandy Real Estate Partners LLC, owner and operator of The Exchange office park portfolio in Harrison and White Plains, has partnered with Pennsylvania-based luxury home developer Toll Brothers to tear down two office buildings at 103 and 105 Corporate Park Drive and reuse the 10-acre site for 421 luxury apartments targeting millennials and empty nesters.
McCullough said he believes this latest round of development will prove different from the office parks of the 1960s, as it is being made to serve Westchester instead of businesses in New York City.
“The story though is not over yet,” he said, adding that more uses are coming. “Stay tuned. Because in the next month or so we will have a major application for what is the remaining large parcel of the Harrison I-287 corridor.”
For Belmont, he said he’d love to see the town tax base get back to 68 percent corporate-funded, but he’ll take at least an even split.
“Redefining the I-287 corridor is something for the future and something that will stay here and serve the people of Harrison and Westchester County,” he said. “We believe we are moving in the right direction.”