The NRP Group has withdrawn plans to build 120 market-rate apartments in Mount Vernon and has accused city officials of derailing the project.
Based in Cleveland and the developer of 27,000 apartments in 13 states, NRP had proposed a $31.5 million project at 1 Bradford Road, at Willson’s Woods Park near the Hutchinson River Parkway.
“Not only was the city failing to be a cooperative partner in this development,” Jonathan Gertman, NRP Group vice president of development, said in a Sept. 25 letter to Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas, “it was actively attempting to derail the project.”
He said the firm began the project with great enthusiasm and it expected a positive reception. Instead, the Mount Vernon Industrial Development Agency, led by Thomas, frustrated the firm at every turn and acted in “bad faith.”
“Certain emissaries from City Hall,” the developer’s letter states, contacted property owner Alan J. Landauer of White Plains about building a hotel instead.
Landauer ran a home health equipment and supplies business on the site. But in 2013, his company, Landauer Metropolitan, filed for bankruptcy and the office building and warehouse were closed.
Landauer said an IDA official approached him about six months ago and said, maybe, someone is interested in buying the property for a hotel.
Thomas verified that he would like to see the property used for a hotel, catering center or some sort of retail use. He said the IDA’s objective is to grow the tax base and an apartment building in a park “doesn’t necessarily work well.”
“We have a different vision of the future of our park,” Thomas said. “We did the math and we saw there is a greater value as a commercial-retail activity.”
Thomas said “a number of proposals” have been presented to the city for turning 1 Bradford Road into a “commercial engine.”
“That is absolutely false,” Landauer said. “As far as I am concerned, this is a fantasy.” The property has been on the market for four years and vacant for three. No hotel or retail developer has approached him, let alone made an offer, Landauer said.
“I’m the only owner! I would be delighted to sell it. It’s an albatross around my neck right now,” he said. “Where he dreamed up a hotel, I don’t know.”
Gertman said a city official, whom he would not name, contacted him and said he was not acting in his official capacity but was calling on behalf of investors interested in buying the property as a hotel site. Gertman did not consider the overture as bona fide.
“There’s just not a market for that,” he said.
The property is zoned for multifamily residential use, not for a hotel or retail use. The Mount Vernon City Council has approved the NRP apartment project. What’s more, a hotel or catering hall would draw transient crowds, traffic and noise “that would not add to the bucolic nature of the park,” Gertman said.
NRP was drawn to Mount Vernon because Thomas had pledged to create 8,000 units of market-rate housing in the city. Gertman met with the mayor and city council and was assured that the city did indeed want the apartments. “The mayor’s statements gave us encouragement,” he said, “and we decided to give it a shot.”
The process quickly stalled.
NRP applied for financial assistance from the IDA: a $540,000 sales tax exemption, $400,000 property tax abatement and $236,164 mortgage tax exemption. It proposed a 20-year payment in lieu of taxes agreement that Gertman says was significantly more generous than most such tax abatement agreements.
The IDA had already approved financial assistance for a previous developer, Wood Partners of Atlanta. That company pulled out because of community opposition and, Landauer said, lack of cooperation from City Hall.
A network of community activists has opposed both proposals for the site. “If there is a choice between residential rental and something else,” said Jane Curtis, “something else wins every time.”
She said the group does not favor a hotel, but some members liken 23-acre Willson’s Woods Park to Central Park, and they would like an attraction similar to Tavern on the Green.
Others would like to see a multipurpose community center, perhaps with an environmental center or bird sanctuary and programs for Mount Vernon High School students. Curtis said these concepts could fit the mayor’s idea of connecting the park to Canal Village by way of a greenway along the Hutchinson River.
NRP held several community meetings to identify concerns and find solutions, said land use attorney Michael D. Zarin, of Zarin & Steinmetz in White Plains.
NRP’s plans put most of the parking inside, to conceal cars. The design was adjusted to conform more with Mount Vernon’s residential architecture. A courtyard and more landscaping were incorporated to make the five-story building look less massive and less industrial. The developer offered to give Westchester County $350,000 for park improvements. The firm also added a food court, to please the mayor.
“We felt we bent over backwards to figure out a solution,” Gertman said.
For months, NRP couldn’t get on the city’s IDA agenda. Then, the day before the Sept. 13 meeting, he said he was told the project would be discussed. But when the NRP entourage showed up, the project was not on the agenda.
According to an account of the meeting by Curtis that Gertman verified, NRP representatives pressed for a vote on the project application, then for a conditional vote, then for a straw vote and then for a “reading” from each member of the board. Each request was met with a firm “No.”
NRP withdrew its IDA application for financial assistance and notified the city that it had terminated its contract with Landauer.
“We had to move on,” Gertman said. He said the company will seek opportunities in other Westchester towns.
Thomas said he is focused on value, and his analysis shows that there is a better way to create jobs and lower taxes at this site. He said he made his position clear to NRP for some time. “They just didn’t like the answer.”
Communities have a right to determine their destiny, Gertman said, and encountering resistance and losing deals is part of the business. “But usually we get a fair shake and a fair hearing. That’s the frustrating part – not that we lost.”
Landauer is bitter. The dormant property is costing him about $400,000 a year in mortgage interest, taxes, insurance and upkeep. According to county property records, a $693,404 loan payment is due on Jan. 1. “This was going to be our retirement,” he said.
Landauer and Gertman and Zarin also expressed sadness for Mount Vernon, a city that they say has great potential and a need for high quality, market-rate housing.
“It’s nice to have a vision. It’s nice to have policy aspirations,” Zarin said. “But when they are not based in reality and the outcome is just to leave the landowner with no possibility of making an economic, productive use of the property and you’re leaving the site vacant and dilapidated, it makes no policy sense.”