A livable and economically vibrant downtown should include a variety of activities. That’s why our development strategy in New Rochelle seeks to achieve an appropriate balance of residential, retail, commercial, dining, and entertainment. These land uses should not be regarded as mutually-exclusive, but rather complementary. Housing, for example, creates the population and buying power to support shops; office uses can help generate lunch-time traffic, which can make restaurants more viable — you get the idea. A good example is the Avalon project, which was a catalyst for improving its immediate surroundings on Division Street, Memorial Highway and Lawton Street. Clearly, some aspects of our local economy have shaped up more fully and more quickly than others, with retail and office development still lagging behind our goals, so there’s a lot of hard work ahead before New Rochelle achieves its potential.
Keep in mind that the viability of any given project or use depends very heavily on market conditions. The City can set the terms and rules, and sometimes provide incentives, but there’s got to be an investor ready to take a risk, otherwise nothing happens. And if a particular plan turns out to be in tension with market forces, we need to decide whether to stick with our original vision or revise it to reflect a changed business environment.
Which bring us to Trump Plaza. The land disposition agreement (LDA) for this project included standards for the first two levels that were much more restrictive than those of the zoning code. Specifically, the LDA required two full levels of retail, with a total of 140,000 square feet. The Council’s action was perfectly logical at the time. After all, the people of New Rochelle did — and still do — want and deserve a better range of quality retail in our downtown. The national economy was still strong. And the developers were intent on bringing shops to both Trump Plaza and New Roc City.
Since then, efforts to fill the base of Trump Plaza have been intensive and ongoing. But either because of the configuration of the site or because of the condition of the economy (or, most likely, both), several years later, only New York Sports Club has signed a lease. The market may “want” this space to be something other than retail.
With this in mind, a bipartisan 6-1 City Council majority voted last week to rescind the restrictive portion of the LDA and allow in Trump Plaza the range of uses permitted under zoning. (The exception is the Huguenot Street frontage, where retail will still be required to provide the desired street-level energy and appearance.) As a practical matter, this will open up the possibility of office and commercial occupancy within the first two floors of the building, and we have preliminary indications that such uses may be viable.
Most of us, myself included, would still prefer to have a full 140,000 square feet of shops at Trump Plaza, but office and commercial uses are also beneficial to New Rochelle — and certainly a lot better than an empty shell. In the end, the Council made a practical judgment to defer to the market and maximize the likelihood of filling a space. It’s an embrace of the good instead of a continuing wait for the perfect.
The right call? I think so, but these choices are difficult, and they illustrate the judgments, compromises, and sustained effort necessary to bring back an ailing business district.