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Residents Weigh in on Freightway Proposals

GatewayOn Tuesday, the Scarsdale Village Board invited residents to comment on the seven Freightway redevelopment proposals that were unveiled last month. The proposals, sent in response to the Scarsdale’s request of expression of interest (REFI) on the project, will be instrumental in developing an RFP for the site.

Trustee Jane Veron opened the well-attended meeting by providing an overview and timeline of the Freightway project, including efforts to involve public input thus far. “All of our learnings to date – information gathered over this multi-year process -- will be taken into consideration,” she continued. “We have been have been deliberate in our process, hiring the best experts to assist us, proceeding methodically, carefully and inclusively, so that, in the end, we will be able to select a preferred developer who will build the best project for all of us.”

Residents provided the trustees with much food for thought, raising concerns about the project’s effect on existing village resources, sustainability issues, economic and tax considerations, and the information gathering process itself.

Education and Environmental Concerns
Zoltan Szilagyi (Chesterfield Road), kicked things off by stating that he supports the redevelopment of the Freightway site in general, but is concerned about its impact on the Scarsdale school system. “I viewed the February 2018 redevelopment study… which comes to the conclusion that…there would be, at most… a net gain of 20 school-age students in Scarsdale schools... (This) is based on comparison to other transit-oriented development projects... An important difference between those… and the situation (here), is that Scarsdale, as we all know, has nationally, indeed, internationally renowned schools. I find it very hard to believe that any developer developing residential units … would not market those units to parents or prospective parents.”

He then reported, “I recomputed the numbers… based on the provided rate of school children per unit in other multifamily buildings in Scarsdale… current enrollment, and current number of housing units in Scarsdale…I come up with, on the low end, an estimate of 123 net new school children… on the higher (end), I come up with an estimate of 176 net new school children… Unfortunately, that would be a very serious impact for the Scarsdale schools… One, the tax revenue versus spending impact… would be quite different… Two, the overall impact to enrollment, which (would be) 1 percent off the all-time peak, and three… all of the elementary school age population would be attending Fox Meadow Elementary School.” Szilagyi concluded by saying, “I would urge that the RFP… should drastically limit the number of new residential units, and/or… have an arrangement like Christie Place, where we can be assured there will be no drastic impact to Fox Meadow school and the district, overall.”

Next, Seema Jaggi (Overhill Road), representing the Conservation Advisory Council (CAC), asked that Scarsdale’s commitment to sustainability be reflected in the RFP. She said, “Though many of the RFEIs submitted acknowledged the historic architecture of our village center, sustainability received less attention… In Scarsdale, sustainability is a part of our every day lives. We live it through municipal programs, in the schools, in many houses of worship, and other local organizations.”

She continued, “Our village already has made great strides in adopting sustainability policies to benefit the entire community… As the village will be issuing a formal RFP, the CAC encourages sustainability to be highlighted as a principle to be addressed in more detail. We need to make sure that the responses… clearly, specifically and adequately address sustainability as a core principle for any development.”

Jeanne-Marie Castiello (Mamaroneck Road) also representing the CAC, followed and recommended sustainable building practices. “We would like the board to look at the idea of green building… Green building is a holistic concept that starts with the understanding that a newly built environment can have a positive and negative effect on the natural environment. (It) is seen as an effort to magnify the positive impacts while mitigating the negative effects throughout the entire lifecycle of a building… It is generally accepted… as the planning, design, construction and operation of a building with a focus on energy use, water use, indoor environmental quality, material selection, and, of course, the building’s impact on its site and surrounding areas.” Castiello went on, “The CAC would like to see a green building project proposal for Freightway that provides cost-saving measures to builders as well as its future occupants by meeting the broader needs of the community (through) using local labor, providing for some units of affordable housing and ensuring the building is sited appropriately… At a bare minimum, the CAC would… request that all projects use green building materials.”

Claudine Gecel (Kent Road) agreed with the issues raised by previous speakers and focused attention on costs. “This is a small village. These bond issues have been very contentious… everything’s very tight all the time... You can build a nice, sustainable building, and have beautiful property, trees… but you have to get some high, commercial tax payers in there for your own interest.”

Jennifer Rossano (Sycamore Road) followed and said, “As the Freightway project gets underway, I wanted to suggest... the creation of some type of green building code to be use as to guide... for future municipal building construction. These projects are large in scale, and as my (fellow) CAC members have touched on, they really necessitate sustainability guidelines. If we were to adopt that type of code, it would be a very efficient way for this project and future projects to move forward, and ensure that… from the start, they are scoped with some sort of sustainability framework.”

Open Questions
Brice Kirkendall-Rodriguez (Fox Meadow Road) then stated, “Village staff and the board of trustees correctly recognized that, given the choice of repairing… or coming up with an exciting public/private partnership which would provide more utility… the latter is of more appeal to our residents… This project has the potential to add two, three, four, $500 million to our real estate value. And, there are a lot of questions and things we don’t know… How does the project conform to the village’s long-term financial plan? Will we lease or transfer ownership of the land to the builder? Will we target professional offices or retail space? Will we tax (residential space) on the basis of rentals, co-ops or condos? …What public amenities can we bargain for? …There are a lot of things we should be considering, up front, before producing an RFP.”

He added, “As exciting as it is to see artists’ renderings, this is not the time for haste… Major milestones, such as we’ve just achieved with the seven proposals, are an opportunity to pause, take stock of what you’ve seen and recalibrate your opinions to make sure, in fact, that the project you have in mind is still in keeping with community opinion… I would urge you not to rush into an RFP without assembling a new committee of citizens in the community to collaborate… (and) formulate a conscious and deliberate plan forward... The value of that land will not decline, but we greatly diminish the value to Scarsdale if we act in haste.”

Michael Levine (Walworth Road) followed and said, “I am suggesting that any RFP ask (that developers) provide their estimates on the impact of their proposals on the tax base… the school expense impact, the number of pupils in the schools, the total population impact and, to the extent possible, village services impacts. None of the seven submissions – I know they were conceptual – touch(ed) on any of this. I would suggest that they provide hard numbers and explain the basis for their numbers.”

Robert Berg (Tisdale Road) then said, “My fear is that the village board is moving way too fast toward a binding RFP in the next couple of months, before many of the most fundamental questions have been answered. First and foremost, this project has to be demonstrably profitable to the village coffers… otherwise, there’s no point… Right now, we don’t even know the most basic contours of the project, so it’s impossible to perform any sort of pro forma financial analysis…”

He went on, “All of the plans to-date propose large-scale, multifamily housing… Multifamily housing, be it rentals, condos or co-ops, receives an enormous property tax break over the same-market-value, single-family house in the Village of Scarsdale… Why are all these seven proposals pushing multifamily apartments? And how will these apartments generate property tax revenue equivalent to those same-market-value, single-family homes? They won’t.

Berg continued, “It seems to me that a commercial office building (and) professional space will generate revenues for the village, will not create additional school children in the Fox Meadow school, and that should be the push here… How will this board and village staff… do the largest construction project in village history? …You’re racing to this RFP in the next couple of months and no one has an idea of what this project’s going to be... You have to create a task force of village residents… you have some of the greatest real estate developers in the country (in Scarsdale)… use people here in this village to help you out.”

Bram Levin (Overhill Road) spoke next, stating, “In your rosy introduction, as well as in a lot of the materials… the meetings with consultants… and many community meetings, there has been a continual dismissal… of what people actually voiced. People were very clear that they wanted a cultural component; they talked about a Jacob Burns Film Center- and theater-type complex that other places in the area have, in both Westchester and Fairfield. We talked about recreational facilities, which were lacking, and having additional parks and recreational services. And, these were continually pushed aside in favor of parking and residential units, as sort of an add-on. “

He added, “What people are asking for is a greater sense of interactive participation with the board… I think the process itself has to be examined, so when people talk about slowing down, or considering environmental issues, economic issues, the school impact issues, what they’re talking about is a greater sense of transparency… a greater sense of hearing what you (the trustees) really think already and what you may be leaning towards, and having a dialogue.“ Later, Levin added, “I hear no vision coming out of village hall about what it is we want to attract… We need more creativity and visioning and it should be an iterative process. It’s very hard for us to present things to you and all we get is ‘we’re going to look at it.’”

Veron replied, “We are continually seeking comment and outreach. The reason people aren’t hearing from the board is that the board can’t make any reasonable judgment about any tradeoffs because there are no economics yet. “

Kirkendall-Rodriguez then asked if the board would seek an RFP before obtaining financial data about the project. Veron responded, “We depend upon the development community to provide the proposal, and help us understand the economics and the tradeoffs… Do we focus on revenue to the village? Do we focus on amenities? We can get the high-level numbers, but until we understand what the development community proposes and the economics… we would be speaking out of turn.“

He concluded by stating, “My fear is that we don’t incorporate in the RFP the most of what we can get for what is a substantially valuable piece of property. And, it will be very hard, in hindsight, to renegotiate once you have it out in an RFP… It seems to me that we need to be very deliberate and, perhaps, even conduct a very thorough survey of the community to determine what the public interest is.”

Veron: We know that this is time to gather as much data as possible… we’re availing ourselves of all available resources. That was the purpose of the visioning study… and we will continue to augment what we have, based on what you tell us.

Trustee Justin Arest then added, “I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the process… besides the fact that there was a steering committee put together for the visioning statement, which tried to include community input throughout, we decided to go the RFEI route, whereas a lot of communities would have just done an RFP straight from there. Instead, we decided to do a two-step process, not only to get the conceptual ideas and dive deeper into a lot of these issues, but also to keep the community involved. The RFP is not the end the process; it’s actually just another step… The community will have input and continue to have input throughout… (Even though) we don’t respond to everything, please understand that we are considering everything you say. We will continue to do so and we will continue to have events just like this. And, we are not anywhere close to the goal line. “

Berg then asked where the board was in the RFP process and how it was proceeding, and questioned “secret meetings with a law firm in executive session.” Veron replied, “We do go into executive session with counsel because there are items that we must discuss that we cannot discuss publicly, because it could compromise the village’s position when we negotiate… We are not going into executive session to be non-transparent; we’re doing it with the very best interests of the village.” With regard to the timing of the RFP, she said, “There’s no deadline… We have to balance making sure we continue to hear from the community and ensure that the development community knows that, this time, we’re actually going to engage in the process, because the development community has seen our town get interested in the site and then stop being interested.”

Dorothy Levin (Overhill Road) then approached the podium to say, “At the first meeting, about 70 percent were pro-development. It was a self-selected group… If you want more input from (a variety of) Scarsdale residents, you have to reach out in a different way. Perhaps a questionnaire should be sent to each household… Please think of another way to get people (involved), not a 6:30 meeting… something that would be more inclusive. “

Allison Block (Butler Road) closed the conversation by saying, “From those steering committee meetings and what you’ve heard, I imagine many people said, ‘We’re in favor of development; let’s refurbish this garage to the extent that we need to, incorporate some kind of revitalization (that) brings the community together, incorporating retail, the bridges…’ I’m very supportive of much of that… In expressing they wanted a cultural center, more recreation, did anyone say we want more housing? That is the biggest impact, revenue-wise, school impact-wise.”

Arest responded, “I won’t get into specifics about the type of property that is built, but you have to generate revenue to pay for it somehow, unless we’re willing, as a community, to float a bond and build that multicultural center. There has to be some component that is revenue-producing.”

Block answered, “That could be office buildings; there are so many other ways… There are a lot of brilliant people in this community and I want to make sure their voices are being heard. Rather than putting this out to developers and saying ‘Bring us what you want,’ we should be saying, ‘This is what we want. We want this, this and this; show us what you’ve got. ‘“

For more information on the Freightway project, visit scarsdale.com; to provide feedback or ask questions, send an email to freightwaystudy@scarsdale.com.

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