Tonight, I have the pleasure of delivering the annual State of the City Address. In case you weren’t able to make it to the Davenport Club to hear the speech in person, the full text of my remarks follows. You can also download a PDF of the speech or a media release that summarizes its contents. Of course, I welcome your feedback and comments.
Remarks of Mayor Noam Bramson
State of the City — 2011
My thanks to the Chamber of Commerce for once again organizing and hosting this event. To my colleagues on the City Council and in government, to the City Manager and our staff, to the many community leaders, neighbors and friends who are here tonight, and to all who will watch at home, good evening.
We meet at a moment of undeniable challenge.
The economy has impacted families, businesses and municipalities alike. All of us have had to make hard choices already, and all of us expect more hard choices to come. And if the recession weren’t enough, this winter, Mother Nature came calling with the toughest season in memory.
Bigger bills, reduced services, and a pothole on every block is not exactly a formula for public satisfaction. And those of us in government had better understand that clearly. So I intend to speak tonight in plain terms about the urgent needs of the here and now.
But I do not intend to stop there, because a vision that ends with the present day offers no path to better days. Our actions will be judged primarily by their impact on the future. And even in this difficult climate, opportunities for progress are real and significant.
We in New Rochelle already possess qualities that most communities would envy. Location perfectly poised between city, suburb and shore, remarkable diversity of land use and housing, vital institutions — both public and private, and above all residents with the talent and desire to lift up the common good.
Yes, we may bicker and squabble from time to time — and not let the facts get in the way of our opinions — but always, always out of devotion to our community. This is our New Rochelle.
So now, if we are bold and imaginative. If we move beyond stale, old disputes and focus on fresh possibilities, we can build from our assets an even stronger foundation for a prosperous and vibrant city, that each of us, and our children, and our grandchildren will be proud to call home.
Let us tonight consider the essential elements of this foundation. And let us commit together to the worthy cause of building it well.
The first piece is fiscal health. If a community isn’t solvent or if it fails to strike a reasonable balance between what citizens contribute and what they receive, then little else can be accomplished.
Even in good times, that’s a challenge. In tough times, it’s much harder.
Since 2008, when the recession began, municipal revenues have fallen, and mandated expenses have risen. Compensating for those trends alone, without changing a single thing about the scope and operation of City government, would have required a tax increase over two years of close to 40%.
Unacceptable. Passing that size burden on to taxpayers already facing hardship and uncertainty was never an option. Instead, we got to work and made tough decisions.
We reduced our municipal workforce to just about the smallest size in New Rochelle’s modern history, cancelled or deferred non-essential programs, and looked for efficiencies in every department.
We asked our non-rep employees, including the City’s entire management team, to freeze salaries and benefits, and we’ll look for the same spirit of common purpose and shared sacrifice as we negotiate new contracts with our municipal unions.
Whenever possible, we funded local priorities with money from elsewhere. North Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, Wilmot Road, City Park, even the City website — paid for almost entirely by outside grants, with little or no impact on the municipal tax bill.
All this, while reducing the City’s outstanding debt by more than 20% in the past decade, so that today, adjusted for inflation, New Rochelle’s debt level is the lowest in a generation.
I acknowledge every member of the City Council for the bipartisan, unanimous action applied to these difficult tasks during the last budget cycle. I thank our employees for their professionalism and commitment to public service. And, although we sure make our share of mistakes, pound for pound, person for person, I’ll stake the efficiency of New Rochelle’s municipal operations against any other community’s.
Yet we know our work is far from done. The recovery is tentative, the unexpected can upend the best-laid plans, and changes in State policy may dramatically alter the fiscal landscape, for better or for worse.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s understand — doing more with less is not a passing phase — doing more with less is the new normal.
This means a permanent practice of respecting every penny entrusted to us and applying it always to the best use.
This also means that to achieve our many unmet civic goals and ambitions, simply re-dividing the proceeds of the same local economy won’t be enough. If we want to move forward, then our local economy needs to expand.
So, the second piece of our stronger foundation is economic growth, based on transit-oriented development.
Now, this isn’t a new priority. We’ve been working at it for nearly twenty years and have already attracted significant investment to our central business district. The taxpayers of New Rochelle are benefiting from past projects, to the tune of more than 7.5 million dollars in net revenue every single year.
But let’s be honest. Too much of our downtown is still distressed. Some projects have not had their full, intended effect (at least not yet.) And our blend of uses is unbalanced, with office and retail well short of their potential.
So we’ve got to do more. And we’ve got to do it now. The economy is turning. Smart developers are positioning themselves for the next wave, and it’s our job to be sure that they place their bets on New Rochelle.
Sometimes that means turning the page on a project that no longer seems viable, so that new possibilities can emerge, as the Council did this year at the Lecount-Anderson block.
Sometimes that means bringing in new partners, like Albanese Development, a group with a stellar record and reputation, that’s helping us take a fresh look at the Main Street Core.
Sometimes that means supporting local business leaders and assisting in the work of the Chamber or the BID, including successful efforts to rehabilitate historic facades and attract artists to live-work space.
And sometimes that means using entirely new strategies, like striking option agreements with smaller property owners, so that we can aggregate and market land together as a team — putting new project sites in play. (That’s something you’ll hear more about in the coming months.)
The goal is a downtown that in its appearance and its total offerings appeals to the full spectrum of our population, generates commercial tax revenue to reduce our reliance on homeowners, lets us shop without crossing the border, and serves as a source of civic pride.
When it comes to economic development, nobody bats a thousand. You need to swing at a lot of pitches, and if you want to put runs on the board, you need a team with the depth and the bats to connect.
So to lay our stronger foundation for economic growth in New Rochelle, let’s be sure that our development team has the tools and the support to pursue all of these possibilities to the fullest. And let’s do it before any good opportunities pass us by.
The third piece of our foundation also concerns the economy, but only in a much broader context. And that’s planning
To a great degree, this is about anticipating and preparing for growth.
By every estimate, New Rochelle will grow — probably by as much as 5,000 residents in the next twenty years. The question for all of us not whether, it’s how.
Unplanned growth can overwhelm services and add to our burdens. Planned growth can steer construction, population and commercial activity to areas less dependent on the automobile, less reliant on fossil-fueled energy, and with the greatest potential to stimulate our business climate.
This kind of planned growth also has a much lighter impact on our School District. That’s not a guess — it’s a fact. The new housing already built and occupied in downtown New Rochelle is producing students at only a quarter of the rate of the city as a whole.
So planning is the key to ensuring that growth benefits today’s residents, and does not threaten the community qualities that we all wish to protect.
It starts with comprehensive local planning.
A good Comprehensive Plan sets priorities for zoning, public investment, redevelopment and preservation. That doesn’t mean a fixed and rigid prescription for every block — you need enough flexibility to respond to the private marketplace and to changing conditions. It does mean an accurate picture of our city as it is and a compelling vision of our city as we want it to be.
New Rochelle’s current Comprehensive Plan is fifteen years old, and predates dramatic changes in our composition and aspirations.
It is time to bring our Comprehensive Plan into the twenty-first century.
Our Planning staff has already begun this process, with community meetings concentrating on one of several focus areas, the West End. We heard residents talk about recreational space, parking, streetscape, access to transportation. What works and what doesn’t work.
During the next two years, we’ll take an intensive look at other portions of the city that are ripe for positive change. For example:
- Memorial Highway, which presents great opportunities to connect Sound Shore Medical Center more fully to its surroundings, an effort that will get a big boost from a federal grant jointly administered by the City and the hospital;
- Lower North Avenue, which, along with Burling Lane and Garden Street, enjoys unparalleled access to mass transit and has unrealized potential for reinvestment;
- The central business district itself, including the sites I mentioned earlier, which remains the locus of growth possibilities in New Rochelle.
Our local plans will do a lot of good just on their own, but they’ll be even more valuable when embedded in a regional framework.
Here, too, the work is underway.
New Rochelle has taken a leadership role in a bi-state consortium that includes the cities of Connecticut and the Hudson Valley and that extends also to New York City and Long Island.
Every one of these communities is linked by networks of transportation and commerce, and every one of these communities will benefit from strategies that acknowledge our interdependence. Better connections between workers, employers and customers. Better travel options that save time, money and fuel.
There’s a practical value — through this regional partnership, we’re newly eligible for federal dollars. And I’m happy to say that the Consortium has just received $3.5 million from HUD, with our portion slated for improving access to the New Rochelle transit center.
And there’s another value, because, in truth, just the exercise, in and of itself, of considering these regional questions inspires us to think in more creative terms.
Our region has been ambitious before. Memorial Circle was intended to be the first phase of a direct link between the Cross County Parkway and the New England Thruway. The old Boston-Westchester line was nearly made into a curving arterial from northern to southern New Rochelle. Imagine how those actions would have shaped the present day.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. We’re not going to raze any neighborhoods to make way for highways. That was a far different time.
But we can explore regional options that are right for our time. Light rail, bus rapid transit or trolley that could give our transportation hub a 360 degree link to the surrounding world. We can lobby for federal and state recognition of energy conservation districts — enterprise and empowerment zones for the twenty-first century. We can augment the mere replacement of aging features like the bridges than span I-95 with new designs that enhance appearance, public space, and the pedestrian experience.
And please don’t think this is only about bricks and mortar. In the end, it’s about people. It’s about a senior citizen on Locust Avenue, who’ll finally be able to do all her shopping just by walking around the block. It’s about a family on Glenwood or Wilson enjoying a neighborhood that won’t be overrun by traffic. It’s about kids on Union who’ll play outdoors in a real park, instead of a lot. It’s about teenagers on Lincoln or Broadview or Baraud who won’t have to move a thousand miles to find a job that pays or a home they can afford. And it’s about a young couple — maybe one drives to work, maybe another takes the train — looking for a place to start their lives together.
There’s nothing that locks us in to what is, so long as we have the imagination and foresight to plan for what might be.
Every bit as significant as New Rochelle’s place on rail and road is New Rochelle’s place on Long Island Sound. So the fourth piece of our stronger foundation is a vital, active waterfront.
At Echo Bay, we continue working to take land that is today heavily contaminated and entirely inaccessible and transform it into a neighborhood that’s clean and that welcomes the public to the shore.
Now, there’s no doubt this has proven to be a difficult and complicated undertaking. In part because of the tough economic climate, opening up the Echo Bay waterfront is taking longer than we had hoped. But when it comes to a site that can shape the character of New Rochelle for a century or more, patience and persistence are virtues.
In this spirit, we have both extended and revised our partnership with Forest City Residential.
For its part, Forest City is examining changes in the configuration and phasing of their proposed project. The working assumptions: preservation and adaptive reuse of the armory, fewer housing units and roads, redesigned parking that is less dependent on excavation, and — vitally — the continued presence of public parkland and waterfront access. Steps that respond to community input and adjust to overall economic conditions.
For our part, with funding from Forest City, we are commencing a more complete and in-depth examination of public costs and benefits. After four years, it is time to update our assumptions, to better measure the anticipated return on any investment, and establish a more rigorous and quantitative basis for proceeding.
This process will also facilitate an honest and much-needed discussion about the City Yard. The facts are the facts. The City Yard is aging and aging poorly, barely adequate for our present needs and prone to a rolling series of minor emergencies that claim our scarce dollars. Under any circumstance, even if it doesn’t move an inch from its current location, the City Yard will demand a significant investment in the years ahead. The real question: do we expend tax dollars simply to keep our sanitation trucks parked on the waterfront, or do we instead take this opportunity to free up the shore for higher and better uses that all can enjoy?
Of course, Echo Bay isn’t the only waterfront site that’s receiving a fresh look. One year ago, the Council called for a new examination of Davids Island.
Since then, a volunteer task force of residents and experts have been hard at work, looking at the constraints and obstacles that any plan would have to address and outlining concepts for potential re-use.
That examination is still ongoing, and it will be several months before the Task Force wraps up its work, but I am encouraged by the sensitivity and balance demonstrated so far and by the constructive input offered by many in our community.
Our aim should be a homegrown vision for a site unique in its character and value, a vision that brings together the environmental and the economic objectives that have historically been at odds, and that after fifty long years unlocks the natural beauty and unparalleled setting of Davids Island for all the people of our city and region.
What better way to claim for a new era New Rochelle’s status as the Queen City of the Sound.
The fifth element of our stronger foundation is infrastructure. Now, some may want to take a sip of coffee, because that’s one of the most boring words in the English language. But when it comes to the physical fabric and livability of a place, nothing is more important. Great cities care about their built environment, and make it a priority to maintain and enhance their infrastructure and equipment, even in tough times.
Yes, I’m talking about potholes and storm water lines and snowplows with working salt spreaders, but I am also talking about more. A street network that is truly multi-modal. Parks and public spaces that are attractive and appealing. Flood mitigation for neighborhoods. Adequate parking for businesses and shoppers.
Unfortunately, these are priorities on which New Rochelle has not done as well as it should.
Let me enlist you in a little thought exercise. Imagine for a moment that you could choose to allocate your own tax bill to various municipal functions in whatever proportions best reflected your priorities.
What percentage would you assign to infrastructure and equipment of the kind I mentioned a moment ago? Maybe 20%? 25? 15?
For that matter, think about your own household spending and how much of it goes to acquiring, maintaining and improving your home or apartment.
Well, whatever number you came up with, I am sorry to say that in the City’s most recent budget, current or deferred general fund expenditures on infrastructure and equipment amounted to less than 1% of the total.
This kind of underinvestment, a 100 to 1 ratio between operations and capital made only slightly better by some formula-based grants, is not sustainable. With every passing year, our capacity even to keep up with current needs diminishes, taking with it our overall quality of life and ultimately the property values and business opportunities upon which a vital economy depends.
We’ve got to do better.
There’s no denying the cupboard is bare at the moment.
But we can establish a goal for recalibrating our priorities over time. So, as a start, I’m suggesting five in five. That is: allocating at least 5% of our general fund to infrastructure and equipment needs, beginning no later than 2016 — that’s five years from now.
To the extent that we take immediate action, let it be to position ourselves most effectively to secure outside funding.
What do I mean? I mean design.
Some of you remember the name Robert Moses, who was both admired and reviled as the builder of modern New York. He left a decidedly mixed legacy, and I wouldn’t hold him up as a general model. But no one doubted his organizational genius. When it was time to compete for grants, Moses didn’t show up with wishes and dreams, he showed up with blueprints. And guess who got the funding.
In fact, we know this from our own experience here in New Rochelle. The North Avenue streetscape. The reconstruction of City Park. These great improvements, funded almost entirely by grants, didn’t just fall into our laps — they were made possible by our prior design efforts — which enabled us to compete successfully with all the other projects in our state and region.
The city best prepared to use funds is best positioned to get funds.
So let’s realize that a minimal design investment today on infrastructure that’s important to us can yield big returns for implementation tomorrow. And let’s not be penny-wise and pound-foolish when it comes to competing for New Rochelle’s future.
The last key component of our stronger foundation is a healthy environment.
And on this priority, New Rochelle is poised the take a big leap forward.
For a full year, a volunteer group of residents and experts, drawing upon public input and in consultation with City staff, produced New Rochelle’s first sustainability plan, GreeNR.
Submitted as a draft to the Council last April, GreeNR contains 6 action areas: Energy & Climate; Resource Conservation & Waste Reduction; Ecology, Biodiversity & Public Health; Smart Growth & Economic Prosperity; Transportation & Mobility; and Public Participation & Awareness. In fact, quite a few of the subjects I’ve already talked about tonight.
Within those six areas are 43 initiatives, and scores of specific recommendations for short, medium and long-term progress.
GreeNR addresses subjects as big as renewable energy and as small as supermarket tote bags, with lots in between, from a fuel-efficient municipal fleet, to household composting, to water quality and open space preservation.
It’s aimed at saving money in both the public and private sectors and at giving us the best return on our investments. It’ll provide residents with information and expanded options, so that we can all make the best voluntary choices for ourselves. And it will help New Rochelle take advantage of a shift to green consumer preferences, lifestyles and job opportunities, instead of falling behind.
Some initiatives are already underway. We’ve completed an energy audit of three large public buildings, and expect soon to move forward on improvements that will yield significant energy savings and cut our annual expenses.
Just last week, we launched the Green Supers Program to train building superintendents in many of New Rochelle’s apartment complexes on the best means of upgrading HVAC systems, air seals, lighting, and much more. Steps that could benefit a big share of our population.
On its own, the Sustainability Plan doesn’t change any laws or make any guarantees. And it certainly doesn’t spend any money.
What it does do is establish a framework for ongoing decision-making, focused on the qualities that make a community desirable and that, yes, lay a sustainable foundation that future generations can build upon.
The Council has discussed GreeNR for almost a year, and we can act as soon as next Tuesday to support GreeNR as a statement of City goals. Let’s do it, and then get about the exciting work of implementing a community-based vision for a healthy environment and more vital New Rochelle.
Now, please restrain your applause when I say that I am nearing the end of my speech.
Before closing, allow me to make a final — essential — point. An honest and candid look at things we can do better, shouldn’t blind us to the exceptional qualities we already possess. Building a stronger foundation for the future does not require New Rochelle to abandon its past or to leave anyone behind.
Everything we need is already here. Water and rail. Home and hearth. Knowledge and skill. Determination and faith. We need only have confidence in ourselves.
This may seem an unexpected message to offer in a time of challenge, when so many sacrifices are required, and so many goals have been deferred.
But I didn’t grow up in this town without learning a thing or two about its character.
Just look around this room, and think about who and what is represented.
Not-for-profits that assist the families whose needs are greatest. Service clubs that mobilize volunteers for good works.
Fire fighters who place their own safety at risk to ensure the safety of others. Police officers, who broke their own modern record to give us the lowest crime rate in forty years. DPW crews, who this season especially, were called upon again and again to battle blizzards in the wee hours and deep chill of the night, hardly resting before setting out once more to lift tons of paper at the dawn.
We are blessed with schools that offer every young person an opportunity to excel, and a Public Library that contributes immeasurably to New Rochelle’s intellectual vitality.
Charming neighborhoods that embody history. Three colleges that are engines of opportunity. A thriving and growing arts community that celebrates creativity of every kind. Most importantly, an engaged and diverse population that draws from myriad traditions to form a remarkable whole.
And think about all those times we’ve risen the occasion.
This is the city that, almost a hundred years ago, opened its doors to thousands of men seeking to enlist in the First World War — bound for Ft. Slocum but stranded on the mainland in a deep winter freeze. For ten days, they were housed and fed by the people of New Rochelle, an outpouring of patriotism and generosity that was admired throughout the nation.
This is the city that, fifty years ago, was compelled by court order to desegregate its schools, and yet emerged from that wrenching experience to create and sustain a culture of mutual respect and inclusion that is today our defining and most admirable feature.
This is the city that, twenty years ago, stood on the verge of economic collapse, with rubble filling whole empty blocks, and then willed itself back to life, attracting a wave of investment unlike any before in its history.
This is the city that, just last month, following a terrible fire that claimed the home of Union Baptist Church, gathered in huge numbers, from every faith, to affirm our commitment to each other.
Don’t tell me that we can’t surmount the challenges of this moment, when we’ve done it before, over and over again.
It may not be our place to finish the work I have described — it will be our place to begin it well. That’s what foundations are all about. And we won’t let each other down.
So what is the state of our city? Let me answer — and let me conclude — with a brief tale that in many places might be unusual, but is perfectly ordinary here in New Rochelle.
In July of 1969, two Polish-Jewish immigrants, whose childhoods in Europe were shaped and shattered by war, moved with their three boys — and one more on the way — from an apartment in Washington Heights to a house on Aberfoyle Road. They were four blocks from a high school that looked like a storybook castle. Two blocks from the cottage of the pamphleteer of the American Revolution. Three blocks from a woods that teemed with wildlife. And surrounded by neighbors for whom a foreign accent was no barrier to friendship. They were home.
Like every other person whose community is selected by birth and not by choice, I can claim no credit for my parents’ wisdom, and I will never know what alternative life might have unfolded elsewhere. But there has never been a day on which I haven’t been grateful for their decision to settle here. There’s never been a day when Catie and I haven’t been proud to raise our own children in this place. And I’m certain I speak for most everyone present right now, and for so many thousands of others, when I say we wouldn’t trade New Rochelle for any other community in the world.
This is what I mean, when I report to you tonight that the state of our city is strong.
And so with acknowledgement of the hard choices of the present, faith in the promise of the future, and gratitude for the opportunity we have together to share in each other’s lives, let’s get to work.
Thank you for listening. May God bless you. And may God bless New Rochelle.