Members of the City Council, City Manager Strome and City Staff, President Dursi and Members of the Chamber of Commerce, Distinguished Guests, My Fellow Citizens:
Here’s what’s coming:
50,000 square feet of urban parkland
276,000 square feet of hotel and office space
418,000 square feet of new retail
1,700 luxury apartments
6 new towers, rising from 230 to 400 feet each
Nearly $30 million in tax revenue for City, County and Schools
A total of 2.9 million square feet of new construction worth more than a billion dollars overall.
New Rochelle is about to surge forward in the most swift and dramatic transformation of our lives. Let there be no doubt: by the end of this decade, we will be a new city.
The challenge and the choice before us today, is whether New Rochelle shall also be a better city.
It is my great privilege to address you tonight, and to suggest to you the steps we must take now to build here a community that rises together with its skyline.
[And let me give you fair warning — we’ve got a lot to talk about.]
Our rising community will depend upon both continuity and change.
A Job Well Done
Fortunately, our City already does so many things well. When it comes to the basics, from public safety, to public works, to financial management, New Rochelle will put its record confidently against any city in America.
Because of an outstanding police force, working in concert with citizens, neighborhood associations, and spiritual leaders, our crime rate is the lowest it’s been in forty years.
Among the 54 cities our size all across the country, New Rochelle is the 4th safest, with the best record in New York State and the best record in Westchester County. So tonight we say together thank you to our dedicated men and women in blue for a job always well done.
Our firefighters answered 7,532 calls last year alone, putting their own lives on the line for neighbors in need. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive in the Mayor’s office a letter from a grateful resident extolling the professionalism and courtesy of our fire department and expressing gratitude for their help.
New Rochelle’s bravest … they, too, deserve our applause.
Because everything we hope to accomplish depends upon the reality and the perception of a safe and secure community in which lives and families are valued and protected, public safety has always been our first priority. And under this Council, public safety always will be our first priority.
In fact, most people don’t know that the City today actually allocates more for police and fire services than it collects in property taxes. Think about what that means.
In effect, every dollar sent to City Hall by property taxpayers is used exclusively for public safety, with all the other aspects of City government funded by different sources of income.
So when taxpayers ask: how are you spending my money. We can answer simply and clearly. Police, Fire, Period.
Our public works department does more person for person, dollar for dollar, pound for pound, than anyone in the business. Our workers have some of the toughest jobs around, and, as we learned tragically this past year, some of the most dangerous, too. It’s easy to take for granted the disappearance of our trash, clearance of our roads, maintenance of our infrastructure, and yet each of these tasks entails enormous effort. Our city would grind to a halt without the daily contributions of the men and women of DPW, and tonight, they too deserve our recognition.
Our Parks and Recreation Department employs a staff of just 9 to maintain 300 acres of open space, 10 ball fields, and 20 playgrounds. It’s hard to imagine any group doing more with less.
And let us remember that in a fully built-out region like southern Westchester, spaces where we can breathe fresh air and lose ourselves in nature aren’t luxuries. They are necessities. To our Parks Department, we say congratulations for all that you do.
We owe it to each of these dedicated professionals and to the citizens who depend upon their services to give them the tools they need to perform at their best. The Council voted unanimously earlier this year for new equipment that will, for example, improve our leaf collection and emergency response services next season.
Now we must commit ourselves to enhanced training and to consistent capital investments. We must ensure that our police and fire departments have the technology, the equipment, and the staffing levels to deal both with homeland security challenges and with the changing scale of our city.
We must work with our many athletic leagues to plan for and create facilities that meet New Rochelle’s growing recreational demands.
And, after decades of promising, in the best location available, with safe and modern facilities, we must build a new City Yard.
We honor with these actions, those who honor us every day with their service.
Finally, our financial management remains as good as it gets. New Rochelle just received its 14th straight Award for Excellence in Financial Reporting. Earlier this year, Moody’s removed a negative outlook on our bond rating, lauding the City’s quote “conservative budgeting and careful expenditure controls.” And after years of financial strains, our fund balance — essentially the City’s savings account — is back up to a healthy level, giving us the flexibility to use new unanticipated revenue for immediate public needs.
Most importantly, we can be proud that New Rochelle boasts today the lowest municipal tax rate of all the comparable cities of Westchester. And we will work to keep it that way.
Still we know: all the statistics in the world aren’t impressive to homeowners facing big financial burdens. We must do more to ensure that new residents can afford to move here and that long-time residents aren’t forced to leave.
We made a start this year by cutting the garbage fee by 20%. Let’s commit ourselves now to a 25% cut in 2007, and let’s keep cutting this onerous tax until we bring it down to zero.
We achieved these things together, and there’s plenty of credit to go around. But if there is one individual who most deserves our thanks, it is the man who led our city for fourteen years, and in whose debt we will be for many more years to come. Please join me in saluting our former Mayor and our current County Clerk, Timothy C. Idoni.
Because of Tim’s work; because of the efforts of Council Members, about each of whom I will say more later; because of Linda Kelly and Pat Anderson, to whom we reluctantly say goodbye this year and who led our schools and libraries with such distinction; because of the contributions and sacrifices of so many others: we can say tonight with great confidence that the state of our city is strong.
But if our record argues for continuity on some priorities, let’s not deny that change is required on many others.
When we look at our commercial areas, our physical infrastructure, and our social divisions, when we consider our investments in the priorities of the future and our protection of the treasures of the past, we know that New Rochelle has a long way to go before it achieves its potential, and that for those of us engaged in public service, as officials or as citizens, there’s a lot of hard work ahead.
Our rising community cannot simply rest on past accomplishments or on familiar practices, it must also confront directly and forthrightly its problems and its challenges.
This begins, first, with visionary planning. Our goal can’t just be a bigger city with bigger buildings, our goal must be a better city, a more livable city, in which new construction is integrated fully into our historic downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods.
So tonight, on this subject, I am calling for ten immediate steps.
First, we must produce a detailed and specific plan for new public parking in and around our downtown. We should aim to complete this plan by summer at the latest, so that we can begin preparing now for any public investment required and so that we can attach adequate parking requirements to any new private construction.
Second, I urge the City Council to vote next month to adopt new zoning standards for Main Street that provide small and medium size property owners with a reasonably-scaled density bonus, in exchange for public goods like parking, open space, historic rehabilitation, and outstanding design. After all, if the only business people who benefit from growth are the big county and national builders, and if new construction doesn’t stimulate revitalization along our older commercial core, then we will have failed. It must be our goal to provide the business owners who have stuck with us through the bad times a real chance now to participate in the good. The result will be a downtown that rises together, strengthened from one end to the other.
Third, we should insist upon higher quality, more attractive design, both for the tall new towers that will define our skyline, and for the older structures that define our streetscape.
We can start by supporting the Business Improvement District as it proceeds with its ambitious program to restore the facades of a whole city block and to develop new signage and awning standards for the entire downtown. Then, I propose that we enhance the role of the Municipal Arts Commission, giving it greater authority to advise the Council and staff on the appearance of buildings above a certain size or height. The result will be a more beautiful city that attracts those who see it from afar and inspires those who experience it from within.
Number Four. I propose that we seek national historic designation for our central business district. Doing so would not in any way interfere with private property rights or development opportunities — it comes with no costs or constraints. But it would provide property owners with a substantial 20% federal tax credit for historically-appropriate rehab and make clear our commitment to balanced growth that protects New Rochelle’s unique identity, history, and charm.
Fifth, we must seize this window of opportunity to encourage appropriate development of additional underutilized sites in our downtown.
I propose that our planning team consider issuing requests for proposals for the City-owned Maple Avenue and Centre-Huguenot lots, with the goal of inviting open development competition for one or both of these sites by next year. There is no better way to extend our positive economic momentum well into the future.
Sixth, let us recognize the central role of arts and culture in any successful urban setting. As we are doing at the New Rochelle Transit Center, we should look creatively for opportunities to include artistic components in new construction and open plazas. And because a rising community can never have too much creative talent, we should seek ways to attract artists, many of whom are being priced out of the New York housing market, to come to New Rochelle and establish here an even more vibrant cultural presence.
Number seven. I call on the City to partner with the BID again to create free wireless internet access in our central business district, beginning with key blocks, public spaces like library green, and the train station. We must do this to compete successfully for new residents and businesses, and to be honest, the BID has already done all the heavy lifting. So let’s prove together that a historic downtown is fully prepared to embrace the latest in modern technology.
Eighth, I urge the City Council to act this month to adopt new affordable housing legislation. As encouraged as we are by the development of luxury homes in our city, we know that a successful community must retain housing opportunities for the middle class and working families. If the people who do the most important jobs in our city, from teaching kids to patrolling streets, can’t afford to live here, we all lose. Our new law will challenge developers to set aside ten percent of new units at an affordable level or contribute to a fund that the City can employ for direct construction of affordable homes. It’s the smart thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do.
Ninth, if our commercial revival starts in the downtown, it certainly can’t end there. This year, we are designing new, attractive streetscapes for Union Avenue and West Main Street. Meanwhile, our North Avenue improvements are under construction and will dramatically transform the college district near Iona, with two more phases still to come. I am proposing today that we commence immediately a zoning and planning analysis of critical blocks on North Avenue so that we can better attract the private development that will complement our ongoing public investment.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, no where do our planning efforts have greater potential and significance than on our waterfront.
The City has finally taken the first meaningful steps to reclaim Echo Bay for the public’s benefit. This month, we will issue a Request for Proposals to five qualified development teams, and later this year, we will select a single partner to work with us to implement the public’s vision of an active waterfront.
We plan a waterside promenade that links Hudson and Five Islands parks, open space and appropriately scaled residential and commercial components, view corridors from the East End and South End, and a new relationship between the Central Business District and the shore, with tremendous possibilities.
So I challenge our staff to move expeditiously on this priority, with the goal of finalizing our waterfront plans by 2007, and beginning construction by 2009.
Just imagine: standing on Main Street, looking to the south, and seeing for the first time in any of our lives an unobstructed view of the water. That is what we seek to accomplish and what a difference it will make.
These are not just scattered, random proposals. They are part of a unified vision that places a resurgent downtown at the heart of our rising community. Picture a place that is filled with life and vitality day and night, where the towers of the twenty-first century complement the warm pedestrian-scale of the nineteenth and twentieth, where retail anchors bring shoppers from beyond our city, and where the street-life of restaurants and shops and galleries entices visitors from the enclosure of a mall. Where new residents and old can walk from home to work to play, take in a concert, relax on a green with an open laptop, or stroll to the water’s edge.
There have been times in our history when we could only dream of achieving such a goal. Today, we have the capacity — and therefore the responsibility — to make this vision real. So let us tonight say in a single voice: this is our chance, and we will seize it with both hands.
Protecting Our Quality of Life
Urban planning is just one of our many challenges. You know my view that a city cannot disguise itself as a village. That to prosper, we must embrace urban density and scale, we must BE a city, in every sense of the word — culture, vibrancy, size, energy.
But, at the same time I want to assure those who may have concerns about over-growth that our vision for areas outside the downtown is very different. We know that the soul of New Rochelle is in its gracious neighborhoods and parks. So as we work to create an urban environment within the central business district, we will simultaneously protect and preserve a suburban quality of life beyond it.
Our record on this priority is clear.
Just last year, the Council adopted sweeping zoning changes to stop cold some of the subdivisions that break up and degrade the character of many residential areas.
We’ve created a recreation and open space zone so that the most valuable sites will be protected from development in perpetuity.
We’re working with our sister communities along the Sound Shore on a fifteen-mile greenway. And at our largest park, Ward Acres, we’re crafting plans for ecological restoration that will enhance its natural beauty and serenity.
For all that, there is far more that we should do. Every neighborhood in our rising community must be attractive, livable, and safe.
So, tonight, I am suggesting to the City Council and staff, the creation of a neighborhood improvement strategy that provides for consistent annual investment in priorities such as flood mitigation, open space acquisition, landscaping of public property, and restoration of our neighborhood lakes and streams.
Obviously, we can’t do everything at once, but we can start making a bigger difference year by year and providing taxpayers with the physical, tangible return on their money that they deserve.
Similarly, I call for the creation of a new traffic calming program that would give us the tools to more effectively evaluate and then address safety concerns, even introducing engineering changes in our roads, like traffic islands, when appropriate. The cost of such a program is about $150,000 a year, or about 1/6 of one percent of our budget. Surely, we can spend such a tiny fraction of our resources to transform residential streets from speedways to places where cars, pedestrians, and bicyclists co-exist safely. With the Council’s support, I will ask our staff to develop such a program this year, with the goal of launching it in 2007.
Preserving Our Heritage
Building a new city does not require us to forget or abandon the old. Indeed, as New Rochelle grows and changes, it will be even more important to protect, preserve, and celebrate the most cherished elements of our past.
I’ve already mentioned historic designation for our downtown. I suggest that this be just one part of a broad Heritage Initiative.
We can start by drawing attention to the buildings and sites that have the greatest historical significance and meaning. The story of our city is bound up in these structures. And once they are gone, they are gone forever.
So tonight, I am asking the Historic and Landmarks Review Board, the City Historian, and other interested residents to focus on five of our historic treasures each year. At a minimum, we should take photographic surveys and affix interpretive plaques to raise public awareness and encourage preservation. And in some select instances, we may wish to seek landmark status and provide formal protection, as well.
Our war memorials, in particular, continue to hold powerful meaning long after the conflicts they observe have ended. By improving these sites, we honor the men and women whose sacrifices they record, and we send a message to present and future generations about the meaning of service to country.
So I propose that the City focus on one monument or memorial each year, and invest in appropriate repairs, landscaping, and lighting, until all of our monuments have been fully restored and accorded the respect they deserve.
Achieving Environmental Sustainability
Historic preservation is rooted in respect for the past. Environmental protection is inspired by concern for the future.
Our rising community, like every community, must accept its responsibility to conserve the natural beauty and health of its surroundings. The City Council and staff should be proud of the steps we’ve already taken: from installing low energy traffic lights, to protecting trees, to restoring habitats, to obtaining electric cars. And, by the way, these steps also save tax dollars, by ending waste and inefficiency.
But there is far more that must be done. Environmental sustainability should be among the central organizing principles incorporated into the daily conduct of City affairs.
Tonight, on this priority, I suggest we set four goals:
First, reducing our overall energy consumption, with a minimum target of cutting City dependence on non-renewable energy by ten percent in the next ten years, and by encouraging a similar commitment among our larger partners in the private sector.
Second, developing green building standards that incorporate LEEDS certification, and promote the creation of green roofs that save energy and provide for potential public amenities.
Third, improving water quality by encouraging the formation of a Long Island Sound Storm-Water Management District to guide and fund essential improvements in our infrastructure.
And, fourth, encouraging bicycle use, together with other alternatives to the automobile, with the goal of making New Rochelle the first bicycle-friendly city in New York State by the next decade. [My wife, right now, is probably thinking that I haven’t been on a bicycle since about the eighth grade, but I’m ready to learn.]
These steps will reduce energy consumption, cut greenhouse emissions, and promote healthy lifestyles. Most importantly, they’ll make New Rochelle a better place to live for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.
Meeting Human Challenges and Opportunities
Any fair measure of our economy, environment, and heritage tells us that the state of the city is strong and getting stronger. When we look at our human composition, however, strong is too timid a word.
Our schools are among the best in the nation, offering opportunities for intellectual and personal growth to students of every interest and ambition.
Our residents include some of the most talented and renowned leaders in the arts, business, media, and medicine.
Scores of social service agencies work day by day to lift up those who need assistance most.
And dozens of houses of worship offer spiritual guidance and renewal to the thousands who cross their doors.
By these standards, the state of our city is miraculous.
Yet few would deny that there are still hundreds of New Rochelleans who need help putting food on the table, providing stable and safe homes to their children, acquiring language skills, or simply finding companionship. The opportunities and the challenges are boundless.
It is not necessarily the City’s role to provide dollars and cents, but it is our responsibility to forge partnerships, to set goals, to support grant requests, to make clear our rising community’s interest in a high quality of life for all of our citizens.
For young people, I am tonight asking our Youth Bureau to work with groups like the Village Team, whose Power of Peace program has had a truly transformative impact on the students who participate, to develop a comprehensive youth initiative with clear benchmarks for measuring progress on goals from mentoring, to family support, to job readiness.
We’re already off to a great start, with an Employment Readiness Training program that provides marketable skills to teenagers, and with a job fair planned for May.
And just this week, we announced a historic agreement with the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA to make possible to most significant investment in New Rochelle’s youth facilities in at least a generation.
Gangs and cliques offer the illusion of community. We must offer youngsters the real thing.
So let us commit ourselves, too, to a culture of tolerance in which all young people understand that they are equally entitled to our respect and our love.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s easy.
It requires more than words. It requires us to set an example, by standing up not just for the popular, but for the unpopular too. To reject discrimination and prejudice, even when doing so is hard.
Whether providing dignity and opportunity for day laborers, or extending the most basic of protections and benefits to domestic partners, I believe that no New Rochellean should be judged and discarded because of who they are, where they were born, or how they choose to conduct their private lives.
By affirming these principles, we prove to our young people that, whoever they are, they belong, too, and that the blessings of our diversity far outweigh its burdens.
At the other end of the spectrum is our growing senior population. While many seniors have secure and rewarding lives, many others find it increasingly difficult to connect with their neighbors, maintain their homes, or juggle other daily demands.
I am challenging our Office of the Aging to develop a program that links willing and qualified volunteers to individual seniors who need help with anything from shoveling a sidewalk to visiting a doctor.
And let’s also explore a partnership with Habitat for Humanity that taps that organization’s vast experience to provide residential rehabilitation assistance to qualified older homeowners.
Engaging Our Citizens
These are big challenges. But who doubts that our rising community is equal to the task. There are so many New Rochelleans, with the talent, energy, and commitment to help their neighbors and improve our city. They simply need an invitation to get involved.
That is why I am so pleased to announce that, later this year, the City will launch a joint initiative with the Volunteer Center of the United Way to connect New Rochelle volunteers with the groups and individuals who can most benefit from their assistance.
From our City’s website, it will be possible for volunteers to list their skills, interests, and available time and to receive a menu of options for community action.
Already, more than twenty organizations in New Rochelle are listed on the United Way’s clearinghouse as potential recipients of help, and we can ask more to post their needs, including our Department of Parks and Recreation, the BID, the Chamber of Commerce, and others.
As we finalize details, I will challenge leaders of our houses of worship and our neighborhood associations to enlist in this cause. Imagine if each church and synagogue in New Rochelle were to encourage just 5% of their members to sign up through this program.
They would constitute a small army of committed individuals, ready to do the hard, but rewarding work of making our city a better place.
Tonight, I am setting a goal of signing up 250 new volunteers by 2007, with more to come in the years after.
This effort, like so many others, depends for its success on a citizenry that is informed and engaged.
Unfortunately, New Rochelle falls into the shadow of the New York media market, leaving many residents in the dark about events just around the block.
We in City government need to accept our share of the blame. It is wrong that a $90 million organization has no staff dedicated to and no consistent program of public outreach. The citizens of New Rochelle deserve better.
But this is not a government problem alone. The major institutions and businesses in our city also suffer from a municipal image that continues to lag well behind the reality of our resurgent, rising community.
We must work together to meet this challenge head on.
Building on a media campaign already under development today and funded primarily by private sources, I will ask our largest employers, developers and commercial taxpayers to each contribute on an annual basis to a communications fund, that can be used to better inform the public, highlight New Rochelle’s strengths, engage the media, and coordinate special civic events. It is past time that we recognized these functions as among our basic responsibilities.
I also propose that we use just a small portion of our cable franchise fee for a new NRTV. A local channel that offers more than just Council meetings and a scroll of text, that also records community events, major announcements, civic affairs. An electronic town square, providing all the people of New Rochelle with a clearer window into the vibrant life of their city. What a wonderful tool for bringing us together.
A United Team
I’ve laid out many goals tonight, some big, some small. Some short-term, some long-term. What they all have in common is that they require teamwork.
And that’s why our rising community is so fortunate to be led at this hopeful moment by a Council that is, to a person, equal to the task.
Marianne Sussman, whose broad legal knowledge and planning experience have been so critical to sound development and land use decisions, and who will now expand her service to include leadership of the New Rochelle IDA.
Michael Boyle, whose tireless advocacy sets an unmatched standard for constituent service and responsiveness, and who on some difficult matters of principle has demonstrated great courage and conviction.
Roberto Lopez, whose leadership has been instrumental in bringing our fastest growing ethnic group fully into the life of our city as a whole, and who is himself a genuine and inspiring embodiment of the American dream.
Jim Stowe, whose intellect and independence ensures a strong voice for the needs of center city, and who has been a champion of inclusion and opportunity on issues from job training to affordable housing.
Jack Quinlan, whose business background has brought a critical perspective to Council discussions, and whose sharp focus on waterfront challenges will help us make the right decisions on our most sensitive redevelopment sites.
And our newest member, Barry Fertel, who brings more than a decade of experience as a dedicated School Trustee, and with it a link to strengthen the already healthy bond between the city government and our schools.
One sentence a piece doesn’t begin to do justice to my colleagues, each of whom is intimately involved in every one of our challenges. I am proud to serve with them, and all of them deserve our thanks tonight.
And let me add, now that I’m in City Hall every day, I have an even greater appreciation for City Manager Chuck Strome, who leads our staff with dedication and professionalism and engages the public always with patience and courtesy. I could not ask for a better partner. And I thank you, Chuck.
And how grateful we should be also for the effective advocacy of our federal, state, and county officials. This evening, so that there is no question about where we stand, let me state clearly: whatever our party, whatever our position, whatever our past disagreements, we are one team, working for one city.
Just as we work to bridge divides beyond New Rochelle, so too let us resolve to bridge divides within it.
There has been too much rancor, too much anger in our civic life.
This is not a time to cast blame for the tone and content of our debates, it is time instead to accept responsibility.
Those of us in government must always remember to reach out, to listen with respect, to involve every part of our changing community in decisions that affect the whole, and to ensure that every well-intentioned voice is heard.
Let us think and act and speak with the knowledge that we are in this together. North end, south end, east end, west end, we are going up or down together. As a single community.
The stakes are too high to do otherwise.
I began my address tonight [six or seven hours ago] with a series of statistics. And it’s true, so much of what we do in New Rochelle is measured in numbers. Tax rates, development figures, budgets. I understand why that’s the case — these are all important things.
But they are wholly insufficient measures of our community’s value. Make no mistake: our rising community, our New Rochelle represents something larger than itself.
The world needs places like this, where men and women of every tradition and circumstance and heritage aren’t just images on a television screen or glimpses through the window of a train, but are instead colleagues and classmates and friends building a common future.
My wife Catie and I have two young sons, and we don’t want them to grow up in a world where they are forced to choose between cities where we fear our neighbors and distant gated preserves where we fear our cities, with nothing in between except rust and police to keep us apart. And if places like New Rochelle don’t make it, that’s what’s waiting at the end of the road.
We must — we must — succeed.
In that spirit, I’d like to close with a quote from one of my heroes, Robert F. Kennedy. He was speaking about the limits of numerical measures of a nation, but his words could apply to our little city as well.
“Our gross national product,” he said, “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
It will be my honor to work with each of you to ensure that we and our children are always proud, for all the right reasons, to be New Rochelleans.
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless our city.