A new plan by the city of White Plains for its downtown transit district envisions open space, street-level retail and pedestrian-friendly blocks serving as a grand entrance to the city from its Metro-North train station. And while the strategic plan is thinking long term, some of the desired development in the area is already on its way.
The city’s plan for the district comes following a yearlong community review process, funded by a state grant. The plan, presented to White Plains residents Monday at the Reckson Building at 360 Hamilton Ave., addresses how the city can push developers toward transit-oriented development principles.
Transit-oriented development, an urban planning concept increasingly embraced in Westchester’s four largest cities, stresses mixed-use residential buildings and walkable streets with easy access to train stations or other forms of mass transit.
The White Plains transit district includes the Bee-Line TransCenter that routes county buses, the Metro-North train station, a parking garage and surface lot near the station, White Plains Fire Department Station No. 2, the Westchester County Center, the west portion of the central business district, the east portion of the Battle Hill neighborhood and parts of the Bronx River Parkway.
It’s a district that White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach described as in need of improvement to create a “better sense of arrival.”
“Right now when you come into the train station, it looks kind of like Emerald City, you see all this glass and steel, you don’t see any real life,” Roach said.
“We can do something that does justice to our city, and that’s certainly what we are looking to do,” Roach added.
The transit district has already been targeted by developers. The owners of White Plains Mall on Hamilton Avenue in the district have proposed a mixed-use makeover for the decades-old mall that includes a craft food hall, public space and 600 apartments units. Beyond that, there’s been repurposing of old buildings and new construction along the formerly industrial Westmoreland Avenue and a $250 million, 561-unit mixed-use apartment tower at 55 Bank St. that’s already under construction.
“We’ve seen more growth in the downtown study area in White Plains than in the city as a whole and in Westchester County, and that’s no surprise either,” said White Plains Planning Commissioner Christopher Gomez. “From 2000 to 2015, I think I wouldn’t be wrong in saying we kind of led in the region, at least in Westchester, in really constructing that (transit-oriented development) opportunity and new housing starts.”
To help develop a long-term plan to grow the transit district, the city received a million-dollar grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority in 2015 to fund a study of its uses. That study has included a series of community forums on the district, online questionnaires and additional study and consulting led by the international planning firm WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff.
Gomez walked the White Plains residents in attendance through the main goals of the strategic plan for the district.
Walking and biking
Plans call for dedicated bicycle lanes, a bike-share program, bike corrals for storage and cycle tracks, bike lanes that are physically separated from the street.
For pedestrians, the plan pitches new crossing lanes to improve access to the station from the Battle Hill neighborhood and safety and aesthetics improvements on existing sidewalks.
Adding open space, amenities around station
A central gathering space near the station, such as a park, could be used as a new public green for the city, Gomez said.
“Think big, right? Think Pike Place (Market) in Seattle,” Gomez said, referencing a public market that is a major destination for both tourists and residents in Seattle. “We can have an opportunity in White Plains for something like that.”
Gomez said the city’s challenge is to try to “weave back the urban fabric” around the station.
That means residential uses, retail opportunities, street-scaping and small parks throughout the district.
Other changes at the station would target maximizing existing parking and updating the taxi, shuttle and pick up area to increase efficiency.
Improvements to Metro-North station
Michael Shiffer, vice president of planning for MTA Metro-North Railroad and a member of the city’s stakeholder task force, said White Plains represents the second-busiest station Metro-North operates, responsible for about 13 percent of all Harlem Line ridership.
Shiffer said Metro-North is examining potential plans for the future of the station, which “doesn’t happen overnight.”
“There’s different levels of investment with getting the station from what might currently be something that functions but is not very appealing, to something more appealing, and then something that people can be very proud of,” Shiffer said.
The state has hired an architecture firm to “refresh” several Metro-North stations, Shiffer said, but designs have not been finalized. The first phase of renovation, he added, will change the look and feel of the station without major structural changes.
“I think what we see in the very short term with the station enhancement will, in that short term, show very nicely with improvements in the plaza,” Shiffer said.
The different development scenarios offered by the city focus around 4.5 acres of land around the train station that White Plains controls.
What Gomez described as the preferred scenario, from public comments and technical analysis, envisions a public square between Bank Street, the train station and Hamilton Avenue, with mixed-use development projects with street-level retail surrounding the open space.
The next step for district involves finalizing the strategic plan, developing a transit district zone for the White Plains Common Council to approve and then issuing request for interest for the areas targeted for development.
Roach said that, through rethinking the zoning, the city can incentivize development to focus on transit-oriented principles.
“What you’re hearing is a change in approach to zoning to go to a form-based code, which gets to design the buildings and how we want them to look instead of just accepting what developers bring in,” Roach said. “We want to be in a position to talk to developers frankly about what we want to see as a city.”
The city is expected to post the final strategic plan to its website before the end of the month.