Look Closely

Check out this ad for Foot Locker, and then look closely at the opening and closing scenes to see if you can figure out why I decided to post it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3q-413t1e8

Thanks to Damon Maher for the tip.

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Getting Better Value

Like businesses, governments purchase lots of things: supplies, equipment, services – everything from copy paper, to cleaning products, to police cars.  Unlike businesses, however, local governments must follow State rules that require us to accept the lowest responsible bid for any particular item or contract.  That rule is aimed at preventing abuses, and most of the time, it makes sense.  But a lowest-responsible-bid rule can also work against taxpayers, by making it difficult for purchasers to consider durability, quality, cost of maintenance, and other factors that determine long-term value.  Sometimes, what looks like a low bid, may actually cost us more.

So it is good news that the State recently enacted legislation allowing municipalities to undertake a more comprehensive cost-benefit analysis when making purchases.  The City Council here in New Rochelle is likely to follow suit this month.  Going forward, our staff will be able to choose products and services on the basis of best-value, which should save us money over time.

 

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TOD! (What’s That?)

TOD Concept Image

TOD Concept Image

Yesterday, the City Council received the results of a TOD Study prepared by our development staff and consultants.

I know what you’re thinking – what the heck is a TOD Study?  Well, TOD stands for Transit-Oriented Development, a term much-used these days by planners and developers.  But whether you call it TOD, Smart Growth, or the New Urbanism, it all comes down to pretty much the same thing: build near the train station.

TOD is vital to New Rochelle’s future.  By attracting development to the area surrounding our transit hub, we can strengthen our local economy, expand our tax base, create new jobs, and enhance our civic image.  In fact, the capacity to absorb growth near a transit hub is among New Rochelle’s biggest selling points when it comes to attracting investment, especially as we look ahead to a new link between Metro-North and Penn Station.

TOD is also vital to the future of our region (and country.)  Why?  Compared to car-dependent new subdivisions or office parks at the periphery of metropolitan areas, growth in areas served by mass transit is much more energy efficient, costs less to build and service, reduces commute times, and facilitates the preservation of open space.

New Rochelle has already done quite a bit to promote TOD, with significant success, but we’re far from achieving our potential, which means there are still great opportunities ahead.

The devil, as always, is in the detail.  It can be a challenge simply to agree on goals for height, density and use, let alone take the specific, sometimes difficult steps, necessary to achieve those goals.

That’s why a careful planning study can be such an important tool.  The TOD Study presented yesterday looked carefully at land use and transportation patterns, and then suggested the general contours for a reshaped downtown.  Six potential development clusters were identified, including: the North Avenue Gateway (between Memorial Circle and I-95), the Central Corridor (between I-95 and the Metro-North tracks), Crossroads (the heart of the downtown, near the intersection of Huguenot and North), the West Gateway (where Huguenot and Main meet near Pintard), the East Gateway (around Echo Bay and Faneuil Park), and the I-95 Gateway (near the end of Palmer Avenue.)

As you review this document, please keep in mind that the proposals are strictly conceptual.  A real project would need detailed architectural treatment, uses that reflect the realities of the market, and a configuration shaped by land acquisition and other vital factors.  Some of the concepts in the study could be pursued in the near-term, while others are more distant.

These recommendations must now be linked to other planning documents, including a parallel analysis that New Rochelle is undertaking with Columbia University, a traffic study, and the City’s updated Comprehensive Plan.  Together, these could serve as the basis for changes in our zoning code and for master development agreements.  More to come.

 

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North Avenue Attracting Investment

Every day, thousand of lives are affected by the physical appearance, commercial vitality and traffic conditions along North Avenue.  When I joined the City Council back in 1996, improving North Avenue was one of my top priorities, and I am proud of what we have accomplished since, including a new street-scape, better traffic patterns, and burial of utility lines.  It’s a big positive change.

But public expenditures can only go so far.  To continue moving forward, we need to attract additional private investment and work with key institutional partners, like Iona College.

The City’s zoning code can be a powerful tool for accomplishing those ends.  That is why, following the lead of a neighborhood-college committee, the City adopted new zoning last year to encourage student-related growth directly on North Avenue, while also relieving pressure on surrounding neighborhoods.

And it’s starting to work.  Last week, Iona announced its intention to acquire property on North Avenue in order to develop a mixed-used commercial-residential building.  (Details still to be determined.)  Iona will also be teaming with the City to refresh the textured pavement at its front entrance and to establish a storefront improvement program that will make grants available to property owners who want to upgrade facades or undertake other design enhancements.

There is more information in Iona’s press release on these subjects.

North Avenue continues to be a work in progress.  In fact, the City Council will have a preliminary discussion about other potential zoning changes this week.  But it is good to see diligent effort bearing fruit.

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Fiscal Progress for New Rochelle

The 2014 budget approved unanimously by the City Council last month illustrates a significant improvement in New Rochelle’s fiscal health.  The highlights of the new budget include:

•            An increase in our fund balance.  The fund balance – essentially the City’s savings account – had been gradually drawn down during the past few years in order to shield taxpayers from the full impact of the Great Recession.  Now we are beginning to build the fund balance back up.

•            Reasonable, long-term contracts for our municipal employees, as negotiated by our management team and union leadership during recent months.

•            A relatively small increase in the property tax levy of less than 2%, which meets the terms of the State tax cap.  New Rochelle continues to have the lowest municipal tax rate of the comparable cities of Westchester.

•            Full funding for anticipated certiorari payments, ending a period during which certioraris were funded through the issuance of debt.

•            Significant investment in infrastructure, including a major upgrade of traffic management and signalization downtown, funded primarily by federal and state grants.

•            Implementation of many of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Panel on Sustainable Budgets, which charted a course for enhanced efficiency on multiple fronts.

You can read the full budget at this link.  (But please keep in mind that this document is the draft budget proposed by the City Manager in November.  The City Council approved several amendments prior to adopting a final budget, notably a lower tax rate.)

All in all, relatively good news.  But I do want to emphasize that word “relatively.” Although our fiscal health has clearly improved, we continue to face ongoing challenges, and without revenue growth, New Rochelle will be forced to confront difficult choices and/or shortchanged services in the years ahead.

That’s why economic development must remain a vital priority, and why we must also continue exploring models that can cut costs without compromising service quality, including shared service agreements across municipalities.

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New Rochelle’s Summer Market Returns to Library Green this Weekend

Grand Market

New Rochelle Downtown Grand Market on the Library Green opens this weekend with traditional farmers’ market produce, prepared and specialty foods, baked goods, New York State wines, and a weekly sampling of artisanal foods from far-off Brooklyn. Local restaurants and food carts will also be participating for your dining pleasure.

And the Grand Market is not just about food. You’ll find arts and crafts items, cooking and gardening lessons, family entertainment, showcases for local artists, and performances from bands featuring salsa, country, funk, jazz, and more.

Grand Market is open Saturdays 9:00 am to 2:00 through October 26. Noam will be there this Saturday, June 1 at 10:00 for the official kick-off and ribbon-cutting … and for a bite to eat.

For more information on participating vendors and sponsors, and also for the schedule of special events throughout the summer, check out this official flyer.

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