A proposed high-rise construction at 14 LeCount Place in New Rochelle. The city expects at least 20 percent of the housing units in this building, which will be primarily residential, with some retail, to be affordable.

City of New Rochelle

Can This Westchester Community Revitalize without Displacement?

New Rochelle’s ambitious plan includes transit-oriented development and a virtual-reality approach to community-engaged design. But will housing stay affordable as construction takes flight?

Story by Aline Reynolds

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New development and the zoning that facilitates it are often a double-edged sword for U.S. cities. On one hand, as urban areas densify, they can put people to work, provide them with new places to live and create more walkable and vibrant neighborhoods. But small businesses and low-income residents can often be left out of the happy picture that cities paint when describing their grand plans. The City of New Rochelle has taken innovative steps to revitalize itself with the goal of not leaving anyone behind. While eager to see progress in the city, some local advocates are concerned about the plans’ unforeseen effects of gentrification. But New Rochelle has been recognized as a model for pioneering new planning and engagement methods. Time will tell if they are successful in combating the all-too-well-known effects that new development can have on communities.

New Rochelle is undergoing a mini-renaissance. The up-and-coming Westchester County city, about 25 miles north of New York City, is taking on one of the most ambitious downtown redevelopment initiatives in the history of the Hudson Valley. The initiative envisions an abundance of mixed-use development that is anticipated to attract upwards of $4 billion in new investment. This includes an estimated 12 million square feet of new development in its downtown — including up to 6,370 residences, 2.4 million square feet of office space, a million square feet of shops, and 1,200 hotel rooms.

The city intends to create an active, mixed-use district comprised of economically diverse, high-quality housing with a well-designed streetscape and “convenient, safe, and pleasant access” to the New Rochelle Transit Center, where the Metro North railroad and the Northeast regional Amtrak stop, according to its 2015 Recommended Action Plan. The transit hub also serves as a local bus depot and has a 900-car parking lot.

Rather than grant development approval on a project-by-project basis, the city gained state approval of its overall action plan — conceived in partnership with private developer RXR Realty — through a generic environmental review, explains New Rochelle Development Commissioner Luiz Aragon. The level of community outreach prior to the plan’s creation was extensive, he says. “We went to the community and talked about the maximum build-out of 12 million square feet,” says Aragon of the process. “We answered their questions, and we got the support to get it done.”

The Ingredients of a Renaissance

To enable and expedite the new development, the city spent a year overhauling its zoning code. In 2015, the City Council and Aragon’s team worked together to rezone nearly 300 acres of its downtown, including 15 acres of city-owned land. In doing so, they created a “Downtown Overlay Zone” that features form-based regulations for new buildings. Contrary to the underlying zoning, which regulates development according to the use of land, form-oriented guidelines prioritize the shape and placement of buildings “to support the creation of vibrant places,” according to the Recommended Action Plan.

As for the form-based code, “it’s more about the relationship to the street as opposed to uses in the area,” explains Suzanne Reider, a senior project manager at the city’s Department of Development.

The new zoning designates six optional “overlay” districts, each of which tailors the development rules to a neighborhood’s character and scale. The zones are designed to allow tall, high-density buildings in the city center, near the train station, with smaller buildings more prevalent as you move toward the residential neighborhoods that surround downtown.

Residents don virtual-reality goggles to see how future developments may shape their home city. (Credit: New Rochelle Downtown BID)

Throughout 2015, three or four community meetings were held each week to solicit local feedback on the zoning changes, according to Aragon. “I went from people’s living rooms to talking to them in their neighborhoods, to large auditoriums and colleges,” he recalls. The rezoning is part of an overall framework of growth-oriented policies intended to both incentivize new development and create “certainty” for developers. “What do I mean by certainty?” Aragon says. “When a developer comes to New Rochelle, we want them to know exactly how much it’s going to cost them to do the development, and how long it’s going to take for them to get the necessary [individual] approvals and get it done.”

Now, in late 2018, the city is ahead of schedule with the new development, according to Aragon. About 15 residential and commercial projects have already been approved under the new optional zoning, including 3,300 housing units — more than half of the total number of units envisioned in the overall redevelopment plans. At least another half-dozen new projects have also been approved.

“It’s all happening much faster than we had expected,” says Aragon. The commissioner attributes this to high residential demand due, in part, to New York City’s prohibitive housing market. Households priced out of the Big Apple are considering Westchester and other nearby suburbs in the metropolitan area.

Aragon intends to make New Rochelle the destination city for those households who decide on Westchester over New Jersey, Connecticut or Long Island. “We want to position ourselves to be the right choice and to provide a quality, affordable life, and to do all of that in the safest city of our size in New York State,” says Aragon. (According to a 2017 annual report from the city’s police department, New Rochelle ranked 14 on a list of top 50 safest U.S. cities with a population between 80,000 and 99,000 people; it was the only city in New York State that made the list.)

New Rochelle has a history of prosperity. In 1930, more than 100 millionaires lived there — and it was deemed, at the time, the wealthiest city per capita in New York State and the third most affluent city in the nation, according to information collected by the City of New Rochelle. This was followed by a period of decline starting triggered by the late-1950s construction of Interstate 95 (I-95), which divided the city in two; and by the urban renewal of the 1960s, when central historic neighborhoods were razed. The city saw a resurgence during the real estate boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, long before New Rochelle’s recent rezoning, but progress has been gradual. Reider recalls how, in 2001, the 13-story Kaufman Building, built in 1930, was the city’s tallest building. Now, the city has three high-rise buildings, two of them 40 stories high. Seven more towers are on the way, according to the Aragon.

“Seeing the skyline of the city change slowly over time, for someone who was here during the stagnant times, is exciting in its own right,” says Reider.

The city realized it had to step up to the plate in order to attract more investment into downtown. Things began to percolate in late 2014, when New Rochelle joined forces with RXR Realty — chosen as the master developer — to devise a plan for revitalizing the city, notes Aragon. “We really wanted to change how we approached our future,” says the commissioner. “So, about four years ago, we decided to take a step back and look at how far we have come, where we wanted to be, and what obstacles we were facing regarding growth.”

In an attempt to engage the public in a meaningful way, the city launched a Crowdsourced Placemaking Program, a grassroots outreach initiative aimed at getting citizens’ input for land use and redevelopment decisions — targeting in particular residents such as artists and young professionals who are “often left out of traditional outreach programs,” according to the city’s Recommended Action Plan. Dubbed “NR Future” by New Rochelle citizens, the outreach entailed a mix of in-person meetings and internet forums to collect feedback on retail, public amenities, and other aspects of the redevelopment.

One of the most popular requests that emerged from the outreach program was for a new downtown performance space. RXR Realty has committed to creating a 10,000-square-foot theater — slated to open in 2019 — at its 587 Main Street property in exchange for four additional floors to its new building. The agreement reflects a new Community Benefit Bonus program, established by the rezoning, that requires private developers to provide a community amenity, or provide funding for such infrastructure, in exchange for up to 20 percent in added building height. The city uses a formula to determine the value and type of compensation the developers must offer on a case-by-case basis, according to Aragon. “The developers can pay for the additional bonus floors in the form of community benefits, cash, or both,” he explains.

Aragon believes that New Rochelle’s redevelopment process sets a precedent for other cities around the country that are attempting to revitalize. Municipalities from the tri-state, as well as from Florida and California, have approached the commissioner about his city’s endeavors. “I have been encouraging other communities, especially in the mid-Hudson region, to look at what we’ve done here,” says Aragon.

Some New Rochellians Concerned over Potential Displacement

The city’s redevelopment plans have not unfolded without question and pushback. Some community activists worry that the new development will drive up housing and commercial prices, which could drive out existing residents and businesses. The influx of new development has already begun to displace some residents and small businesses located in and around the rezoned areas, according to longtime New Rochelle resident Michael Yellin, co-chair of the New Rochelle Alliance for Justice. He cites retail storefronts at 587 Main Street — the 28-story building now under construction — as an example of early displacement. The Alliance — an offshoot of New Rochelle against Racism — is a coalition of faith, civic, and labor groups advocating for equitable development and economic justice in New Rochelle.

A rendering of the new construction at 587 Main Street, which will have as its main feature a new theater, at the request of the community. (Credit: City of New Rochelle)

What local activists such as Yellin most fear is that their neighbors will be pushed out of the city because of increased housing costs. “Redevelopment will dramatically increase the value and price of land, and landlords could raise rents of longtime residents as a result,” says Yellin. “I think the city has recognized this and has put in place some mechanisms to address it, but the mechanisms have yet to be really tested.”

Today, New Rochelle’s median household income is approximately $73,200 — about 15 percent lower than the median for Westchester County as a whole — and 36 percent of the city’s downtown residents are reportedly not in the workforce.

New Rochelle resident Lynn McCormick, associate professor of urban planning at Hunter College, is excited about the new development, but worries that competition between New Rochelle and other Westchester County towns to lure wealthy households in order to grow their tax bases could widen income gaps and create, or worsen, inequality. “Suburbs are new territory [for redevelopment] — I don’t think they’re prepared to think about gentrification,” she says. “They’re just excited to have people come in and develop. If New Rochelle could redevelop and also keep the current population mix, I would be happy.”

During the state’s environmental review of the 2015 action plan, McCormick testified that the city’s redevelopment plans were overlooking potential effects of displacement and population diversity. Truly equitable development entails economic development, environmental protection, and social equity, according to McCormick’s written testimony. “The [Recommended Action Plan] covers the first two aspects but is relatively silent on the third principle — equity,” she writes.

The large percentage of Latino and African-American residents who live in or near downtown New Rochelle makes it imperative to investigate the impact of the plans on communities of color, she testified. Out of New Rochelle’s total population of approximately 80,000, about 63 percent of residents identify as white; 29 percent identify as Hispanic; and 19 percent identify as African American, according to 2017 figures from the U.S. Census. The figures also indicate that Downtown New Rochelle, in particular, has a significantly lower percentage of whites than does the rest of the city — and higher proportions of Hispanics and African-Americans.

“If the [Recommended Action Plan] acts to displace many low-income households and cause rents and housing costs to escalate,” writes McCormick, “it might be expected to worsen New Rochelle’s housing affordability crisis.”

Aragon argues that the redevelopment will not drive out current residents from New Rochelle. For one, he says, most of the new residential development is occurring on city-owned parking lots. And, the majority of the privately-owned parcels undergoing redevelopment are two-story structures with primarily commercial uses, he notes. “Even if those buildings are demolished,” says the commissioner, “the number of residential units that would be eliminated are very small.”

How Affordable Is Affordable?

Like McCormick, Yellin worries about affordable housing shortages resulting from the new development. In 2016, 60 percent of all New Rochelle renters were considered “rent-burdened,” meaning that they spend 30 percent or more of their income on rent, according to a Community Needs Assessment released by the Westchester Medical Center Center for Regional Healthcare Innovation. “There’s not a lot of affordable housing at levels that are really affordable,” he says. There is a dearth of federally-subsidized Section 8 housing, in particular — to the point that working-class people are moving to more affordable Westchester County cities such as Mount Vernon and Yonkers, notes Yellin. “That’s of great concern, and it’s what we’re trying to address,” he says. “It’s a matter of how you achieve the [affordable housing] goals to get real affordability.”

The city expects developers of the new buildings — often in exchange for height bonuses — to provide higher percentages of affordable units as well as deeper levels of affordability than the minimum requirements, although these higher percentages are not quantified in the 2015 action plan. In accordance with the city’s inclusionary zoning code, which was somewhat modified in the action plan, at least 10 percent of the total 6,370 housing units anticipated for construction will be affordable at 80 percent of the city’s area median income. One example of this higher-percentage expectation: at least 20 percent of housing units in a building under construction at 14 LeCount Place, in downtown new Rochelle, will be made affordable to residents making between 50 percent and 60 percent of area median income.

In total, Aragon expects that about 500 units, or roughly 15 percent, of the 3,300 residential units already approved for development will be designated as affordable. Existing city residents, particularly any who have been displaced, will get first dibs on these homes, he notes. “I would be lying to you if I didn’t tell you that we will be attracting a large number of affluent tenants to our downtown,” says the commissioner. “But, at the end of the day, there will be a net gain of affordable units in New Rochelle, for New Rochellians.”

To thwart the negative effects that the activists fear, the New Rochelle Alliance for Justice has made specific demands to the city and RXR Realty around local hiring, affordable housing — that at least 20 percent of housing units in all new buildings be made affordable — and anti-displacement. “It is absolutely critical for the city, the developers, and the community to work together to enact strong anti-harassment and anti-displacement policies that will protect local residents and small businesses for years to come,” states a document prepared by the Alliance.

The New Rochelle Alliance for Justice is currently in discussions with the city about how best to implement its Economic Opportunity and Nondiscrimination Policy, a resolution passed in May 2016 that pledges to eliminate workforce discrimination and other employment hurdles for local construction and contract workers involved in the new development. One of the policy’s goals is to allocate at least 20 percent of jobs created by the rezoning to New Rochelle residents. A small percentage of these jobs are supposed to be reserved for workers who are enrolled in a state-approved apprenticeship program. In addition to passing the resolution, the city has allocated funds amassed from its Community Benefit Bonus program to open and operate the First Source Referral Center, tasked with training city residents for local jobs in construction, healthcare, and other sectors and helping to place them in companies. “It’s been very successful,” says Aragon of the career center, which opened in 2017 and, so far, has matched more than 160 people with construction work and other jobs. “It’s not just about jobs, though — it’s about getting people ready for careers.”

With a grant from the U.S. Mayors Challenge, New Rochelle is leveraging immersive technology to make citizen engagement more accessible and seamless. (Credit: New Rochelle Downtown BID)

According to Yellin, these efforts have yet not resulted in meaningful workforce development in New Rochelle. “What we’ve been doing since the law’s passage, is try to make the goals a reality,” he says. “As of now, the city has failed in placing New Rochelle residents in construction jobs that lead to a career.” Responding to this, Aragon said that the workforce programs are relatively new, and that the city strives to achieve these policy goals over time.

Despite his worries and complaints, Yellin is guardedly optimistic that New Rochelle’s redevelopment plans can take a turn for the best. “We’re hoping it can be a model for equitable development that’s a win-win-win — for the community, the developers and the government.”

Community Engagement? There’s an App for That

This year, New Rochelle has received national recognition for its innovative approaches to engage the public in private and public development plans. As a participant of former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s U.S. Mayors Challenge initiative, the city will test out the use of high-level “immersive technology” to provide realistic visualizations of new buildings and streetscapes. The idea to use this technology, according to Reider, came out of a partnership the city had with the Interactive Digital Environments Alliance of New Rochelle (dubbed “IDEALab”) and the New Rochelle Downtown Business Improvement District to introduce virtual reality into local arts programming.

This year, New Rochelle is one of nine municipalities nationwide that scored $1 million from the Bloomberg initiative to “uncover and test bold, inventive ideas to confront the toughest problems faced by cities today.” Reider’s team has directed the funds to further its public engagement practices by developing a phone app that provides users with realistic, zoomed-in views of street segments, open spaces, and buildings. The goal is to create a user-friendly app that allows stakeholders to easily visualize changes in their communities and provide meaningful input on the projects at hand. Eventually, New Rochelle hopes to share the model technology with other municipalities, according to Reider.

New Rochelle was also named a “Champion City” and was granted another $100,000 to develop and test a prototype for public-engagement technology. In doing so, the city designed three “sprints.” First, it distributed a web-based survey, asking local stakeholders about how they prefer to provide feedback. “We found through the surveys that people would like to visualize what something could look like in the comfort of their own space,” says Reider.

Next, the city worked with IDEALab to test out the different technologies — and ultimately found that a phone-based app would be the easiest tool for citizens to use. “It is easier to use, because phones are more accessible than [virtual reality] goggles,” explains Reider, “and more people could use it at one time. It would be a matter of just downloading the app on your phone.” The last step entailed making door-to-door visits to city residents and businesses so that stakeholders would have a chance to try out the technology.

Due to its “[great] potential for transformation,” the city was also recently awarded a $10-million grant from the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative to revitalize its downtown area with the help of a strategic investment plan and key catalytic projects. The plan aims to connect the city’s center with the mile-long Lincoln Avenue corridor, which boasts a newly renovated hospital, the train station, and other amenities.

“One of the things that was always in the back of our heads, is how we can better engage the community with this technology by allowing people to be able to see what changes like a new building or a park layout could look like,” says Reider. “We’ll be able to try using this tool on a small scale as we move forward with the Downtown Revitalization Initiative.”

“Suburbs are new territory [for redevelopment]. I don’t think they’re prepared to think about gentrification… They’re just excited to have people come in and develop. If New Rochelle could redevelop and also keep the current population mix, I would be happy.”

Generally speaking, enhanced community engagement is crucial to overcoming the typical NIMBY opposition to rezoning and redevelopment plans, according to Juliette Michaelson, executive vice president at the Regional Plan Association (RPA). “Asking members of the community to identify a vision for themselves, and to do it in a way that they have the opportunity to truly understand the economic dynamics at work, is critical,” she says. “Educating the public so that there are more informed discussions, is something we’d like to see more of [in the Tri-State region].”

Beyond New Rochelle: Walkability Throughout the Tri-State

New Rochelle’s renaissance is a prime example of how satellite municipalities outside of New York City can become attractive places to live. Key to the appeal of any city or suburb is walkability and proximity to public transit. Currently, just 2.5 percent of all land in the Tri-State region is considered walkable — and yet, the walkable areas collectively contain 42 percent of the region’s population, according to “WalkUP Wake-Up Call New York,” a 2017 report from George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis (CREUA) and the RPA. The report classifies New Rochelle as a “WalkUP”— that is, a “walkable urban place” that is served by commuter rail and is a center of commerce.

The report assesses the WalkUP communities by their levels of economic performance and social equity. Out of 149 WalkUP neighborhoods in the tri-state area, New Rochelle is ranked 87 in economic performance — falling in the third quartile, which leaves room for improvement. However, the less economically prosperous a city is, in some ways the more equitable it may be. These communities typically have less expensive housing and more low-skill jobs than do economically prosperous WalkUP areas; therefore, the potential for inequality is not as extreme, according to CREUA senior data scientist Tracy Loh, a co-author of the report. “It may be a sweet spot in terms of access to opportunity and access to quality of life,” she says.

A neighborhood’s low economic performance may, in fact, make it feel less intimidating and may even motivate local residents to help improve their city’s struggling downtown. “When people look at commercial areas in downtown New Rochelle, they may not see incredible prosperity that [some] are benefitting from,” she says. “So they’re not thinking: there is an evil developer out there making all this money and not sharing it.”

Still, the report ranks New Rochelle relatively low in social equity (80 out of 149) because of its poor access to public transit when compared to neighborhoods within New York City itself. This lack of accessibility results in a higher overall cost of living for area households, according to Loh. “Because New Rochelle has relatively poor transit service,” she says, “transportation costs are higher for New Rochelle households, which wipe out most of the savings that they are getting on housing relative to [households in] other WalkUPs.”

In general, WalkUP communities in the tri-state area are highly desirable places to live — and yet, there aren’t enough of them to accommodate the pent-up demand, Loh notes. “There are probably way more people who would like to be [in these communities] but who can’t afford it,” she explains.

The creation of WalkUP communities tends to be controversial because, more often than not, the new development involved often creates inequities based on geography, income, race, or religious faith. RPA’s Michaelson believes that municipalities and developers can, and must, make deliberate efforts to retain current residents and businesses as they work to revitalize communities. Anti-displacement tactics the RPA recommends include leveraging community land trusts and cooperatives, in which municipalities transfer land to residents so that the units remain affordable and so that the residents could have a share in the profits tied to the new development. Rent regulation to prevent sudden rent increases, and better enforcement of tenant protection laws and services such as legal counsel, can also prove useful in retaining a tri-state community’s long-standing residents, notes Michaelson.

“We want to make sure that the private developers who are involved in these exchanges, make hard commitments and follow through with them — and that the public sector demands that follow-through,” she says.

Rezoning in tri-state municipalities must be done carefully so that the needs of communities — and their physical look and feel — are taken into account. As discussed in the RPA’s report, “Untapped Potential: Opportunities for Affordable Homes and Neighborhoods Near Transit,” transit-oriented development presents opportunities to make meaningful dents in the region’s housing shortfall. “But if we let development run amok,” Michaelson cautions, “We’re going to end up with places that don’t serve communities and that people aren’t happy with. And that would be a mistake.”

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Aline Reynolds is a New York-based journalist and urban planner. As a staff editor and reporter, she has chronicled the post-9/11 revitalization of Lower Manhattan, including the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Her work has appeared in the American Planning Association’s Planning Magazine, Agence-France Presse, and Newsday.

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