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Freightway Development Update, Village Attorney Position and More from Village Hall

freightwaysiteThe Scarsdale Board of Trustees Freightway Selection Subcommittee, which includes Mayor Marc Samwick, Trustee Justin Arest, and Trustee Jane Veron, provided an update on the Freightway project during the board’s last public meeting.

First, Mayor Samwick reiterated the justification to replace the current parking structure, which dates back to 1971. Freightway requires about $2.5 million in repairs and maintenance over the next five years, and that cost is expected to balloon to as much as $25 million over the next 15 to 20 years if Freightway remains as is. Scarsdale views redevelopment as not only necessary, but also as an opportunity to enhance the village center in a “viable and sustainable way.”

Citing the need to address changes in consumer needs, increased retail vacancy rates, and lack of vibrancy in the village center, Trustee Veron reminded the public about the board’s collaboration with village landlords, retailers, and residents to address these issues. Freightway is seen as a lynchpin of this effort. Veron said, “Many like-communities have embarked on mixed-use developments, with a significant amount of new residences built near their transportation hubs. These projects are called transit-oriented developments (TODs), and are often targeted to millennials and empty nesters. These new residents add the vitality and foot traffic needed for a flourishing local ecosystem.”

Samwick then briefly reviewed the village’s approach to the project, beginning with a visioning study conducted over three years ago, followed by requesting feedback and plans from the development community (via a request for expressions of interest, or RFEI), and issuing formal requests for proposals (RFPs).

Last month, Scarsdale received a number of responses to the RFP and currently is in the process of narrowing the proposals to two firms that will be invited to make public presentations to residents. The board, village staff, special counsel, and Scarsdale’s planning consultant (AKRF) are working to clarify specific issues and gain additional information, and expect to host the presentations in December.

Trustee Arest stated that, while the board sees the project’s potential to transform the village center and be welcomed by the community, “Any redevelopment project must provide a net community benefit. Otherwise, doing nothing is an option. It is not really doing nothing and it is not free, as there are already identified short and medium term costs associated with retaining the village’s ownership of the parking garage but, again, it is an option.”

The mayor continued, “The village owns the Freightway property, so we are in the enviable position of controlling our own destiny. As property owners, it is important to maintain our negotiating position relative to potential developers… This is why many of our recent discussions have to be in executive session. We would certainly prefer to engage in a more public dialogue. And there will be many substantial opportunities in the future for everyone to weigh in. But, while we are engaged in executive session discussions, please note that we, as your elected officials, represent the community at large and are very focused on the same things that matter to you, such as potential school, parking, fiscal and village center impacts.”

Bob Harrison (Fox Meadow Road) stated that he was concerned about the “openness” of the Freightway development process thus far. “I’m not sure, if you’re down to two candidates here, why it wasn’t open further for other presenters and other information for the community. I hope you’ll do a good job in evaluating things. It’s a tricky economy and a tricky future with the change in the tax laws.”

Bob Berg (Tisdale Road) said, “I’m very concerned with the complete secrecy with which the board is conducting its review of the three bidders… There should be no confidentiality attached to the identities of these bidders now that they’ve submitted their bids. There should be really no reason (why) their identities should not be disclosed at this time. Certainly, portions of their bids may be exempt from disclosure under FOIL, but the basic outlines of their bids that you’re reviewing are not proprietary. There’s no confidential information in a discussion of what they are proposing in terms of the mix (of) retail and the type of living arrangements – are living units going to be rentals, condos, or co-ops; how many living units does each bidder propose and in what configuration; are they going to be studios, one-bedroom, two-bedrooms, three-bedrooms, and how many of each? None of this is proprietary or sensitive.”

He added that it would be useful for residents to have information prior to the public presentations so they were prepared to ask relevant questions. “At this point, I’m fearful that we’re going to get all this information sprung on us at the last minute,” he concluded.

Mayor Samwick responded, “What we are trying to do is balance providing as much information as we can to the public as well as maintain our negotiating position… We are actually going back to at least some of the (developers), and asking for clarifications and additional information, and other things. At this point… if we’re asking people to come back with anything else, (and) they had their competitors’ information available to them, it could easily impact what we, as a village, end up with.” He later added, “We want to give you disclosure as soon as possible… but we have a fiduciary obligation to try to maintain the value of this property for the benefit of the residents… We will, as soon as possible, disclose as much as possible.”

Harrison then pressed the board on how many firms and/or presentations currently are being considered. Trustee Veron explained why the trustees would not be providing answers to specific questions. “We asked our consultants and counsel… (about) best practices to preserve our negotiating leverage, and doing what’s best for the village, and we were strongly advised that, at this point, disclosure of information would compromise our ability to make better deals for our community. We actually pressed our team, who are experts in this, to ensure that we were fully educated. We 100 percent understand what it’s like to… want information… I wish we could share, but we were guided that it was not in the best interest of the village at this time. I promise you that as soon as we possibly can we will because that’s what we want to do.”

Samwick followed by stating, “This is the most difficult part of the process for all of us. We don’t like not being able to talk about this with you... we’re doing this for our collective best interest. There will be ample opportunity for us to speak together about this. In the meantime, know that the things that matter to the community matter very much to us.”

Esannason Returns… For NowWayneWayne Essanosen
As reported earlier, Wayne Esannason, Scarsdale’s former village attorney, now is serving as acting village attorney, replacing Angela Martin. Martin has returned to her previous position as director of personnel.

Esannason already was working as a legal consultant for the village, assisting Martin during her brief tenure as village attorney, and was a logical choice to fill the position on a temporary basis. His contract runs through December 31, 2019 or until a new lawyer is appointed.

During the meeting’s public comment session, Bob Berg expressed his concerns about how the village attorney staffing issue has impacted village taxpayers. He began, “When Wayne announced his retirement… I urged that the forthcoming village attorney vacancy be advertised widely and publicly, that a thorough public search… be conducted, and that an advisory committee of resident attorneys be appointed to help screen for an appropriate, qualified replacement.”

He continued, “I’m certain the position would have attracted many qualified and experienced candidates. I was shocked, however… that without any public or advance notice, the board was going to vote… to appoint Angela Martin, then the village’s director of HR, to be the next village attorney. Ms. Martin, a recent law school graduate who had only practiced law for two years… simply lacked the relevant qualifications and experience to handle the multifaceted responsibilities of the Scarsdale village attorney job. For our village manager to recommend her as the next village attorney and to increase her salary… without conducting a public search for the most qualified candidate was pure patronage, malfeasance, and a waste of taxpayer funds.”

Berg went on to say that the costs related to Martin’s appointment and the hiring (and subsequent firing) of the individual who took her place as head of personnel were considerable, when taking into account a pay raise for Martin, and legal consulting fees spent to support Martin in the position. “The bottom line is that last year’s decision to replace Mr. Esannason with Ms. Martin… was a patently bad idea that smacked of patronage over qualifications.”

Harrison followed and said, “I’m going to endorse… Bob Berg’s comments (which) concern me as a resident taxpayer. We’re being, maybe, frivolous a bit in salary payments and how we’re handling personnel. I urge you strongly to work on that process.”

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