Armory Decision Protested

The fate of the former Naval Armory on East Main Street has long been a flashpoint for heated debate. Over the years, the City’s goals for the Armory have changed; our initial Echo Bay waterfront plans called for the Armory’s demolition, while our revised plans call for its adaptive reuse. As a result, some advocates for the Armory’s preservation are understandably skeptical of the City’s intent.

So it is not surprising that when the City designated one of two competing teams to undertake a restoration of the Armory last month, there was disappointment among supporters of the losing team, many of whom were active in the “Save the Armory” movement. At our City Council meeting this week, several dozen turned out to voice their displeasure, offering forceful comments, quite a few with a personal edge, during the course of a very long public hearing.

I appreciate every citizen’s right to criticize their government, and public officials must be able to accept critical comments with an open mind and a thick skin. I hope I conducted myself accordingly. Moreover, I genuinely admire the passion that impelled many speakers, even if I don’t necessarily share their politics.

But I disagree strongly with the substance of their critique. In my opinion, the Council pursued a fair and evenhanded process and reached the correct decision, opting for an exciting concept, advanced by a capable, experienced, and professional team. Moreover, I think that the great majority of New Rochelle residents do not share the outlook or priorities of most of those who protested. Above all, I remain very optimistic about the prospects for the Armory and the overall development of Echo Bay … and those are goals that should unite all New Rochelleans.

At the conclusion of the public hearing, I made the statement shown below, laying out the history and context of this matter in detail and outlining the logic employed by the Council. If you are interested, then please take a few moments to watch it, or read the transcription attached below. You can also watch the entire meeting over the Internet.

Remarks of Mayor Noam Bramson

October 10, 2012

Before we adjourn, I would like to make a statement regarding the Armory. I listened carefully and respectfully to all that was said tonight, and I hope you will give me the same courtesy in response, even if you disagree with some of what I say.

It is not my intent to address any personal comments directed to me; I see little purpose in debating them. Instead, I want to confront head-on the claim that the Council made the wrong decision in its selection of a team to redevelop the Armory, and that the selection process was unfairly biased. Because I disagree strongly with that claim. And there may be some folks observing this meeting in person or on television, who don’t have the benefit of context or history, and who might feel that this claim deserves a response.

So here are the facts, as I see them.

In April, the City Council discussed in public session the terms for an request for proposals (RFP) for the adaptive reuse of the Armory, within the context and the timetable of the overall Echo Bay redevelopment. The purpose of an RFP is to encourage open competition, so that the best ideas and the best talent can rise to the top.

In May, the City Council issued that RFP, distributing it as broadly as possible and also posting it online. And, by the way, no individual or group received that document in advance.

The RFP put no limits on the vision that could be offered, and it outlined some of the standards that the Council would employ in choosing a proposal, including the experience and capacity of the development team, the project concept and site plan, and the proposed strategy for financing improvements and operations.

The RFP set a submission deadline of July 20th.

In response to the RFP, the City received two proposals, one centered around a dining/food concept from a team called Good Profit, the other centered around the performing arts, which I’ll call the Memorial Center.

Conceptually, the two submissions had a fair amount of overlap. The Good Profit proposal also featured art and performance space. The Memorial Center also featured a restaurant. And both aimed to set aside an area for Veterans services.

In other respects, however, the two proposals were quite different. The Good Profit proposal was considerably more detailed in its cost estimates and scope of anticipated work. And it also included much more background information about team members and their areas of expertise – incidentally, many of those team members are New Rochelle residents.

The Memorial Center proposal was primarily a narrative description of goals, with only limited information on team members’ credentials and quantitative estimates that later proved wide of the mark. It also created some confusion by listing among its Advisory Committee members individuals who were not, in fact, associated with the project.

Both teams were invited to make a presentation to a special meeting of the City Council held on August 7th. Good Profit immediately accepted this invitation. The Memorial Center team initially argued for a postponement, before agreeing to come. I am not aware of any prior instance in which an applicant actually struggled with City staff over an appearance date.

At the August 7th meeting, each team was given a full and fair opportunity to impart whatever information it wished, with no time limits or constraints.

It was stated that both teams would be asked to submit supplementary information in response to questions.

It was also stated at the meeting, in the presence of both teams, that the City Council would quote “have to make some decision about the direction in which it wants to move by approximately mid-September.”

Shortly following the August 7th presentation, both proposals were placed online for public review, and the Department of Development sent letters to each team with detailed requests for additional information. The deadline for this supplementary information, as indicated explicitly in these letters, was August 24th.

The Good Profit team provided a comprehensive, point-by-point response to the Department of Development’s inquiries, backed by supplementary data. The Memorial Center team provided a very limited response and indicated that more information would be forthcoming at an unspecified future date.

The Memorial Center team did subsequently assemble more information. Ordinarily, a team would provide any new materials as quickly as possible to the City’s staff. But the Memorial Center team opted instead to organize its own public meeting to unveil new plans. The City Manager at first declined to make City Hall available for this purpose, citing the importance of being even-handed to both teams. The Memorial Center team then circumvented the City Manager’s direction by asking neighborhood groups to sponsor the event, and these groups proceeded to reserve the City Council Chamber through DPW. When the City Manager learned of this maneuver, he made his displeasure known, but still allowed the meeting to go forward on September 18th.

The new presentation was more polished that the Memorial Center’s prior submission, but still contained very significant omissions and still failed to address many staff inquiries. It was not provided directly to the City staff until the next day, shortly before a scheduled meeting of the City Council.

During that September 19th meeting, the Council publicly discussed the two proposals, received input and recommendations from staff, and by an informal vote in which each Council Members expressed a preference, designated the Good Profit team as the developer for the Armory. A formal vote on the terms of a Memorandum of Understanding is expected to occur later this month.

The last-minute materials from Memorial Center team, even if they had been submitted in a timely fashion, would not, in my opinion, have altered the Council’s decision-making. After all, the Council did see these materials prior to making its selection and has had a chance to review them more fully in the time since – and no one’s opinion has changed.

The Council chose the Good Profit team because of: (1) the positive potential of a restaurant/dining concept; (2) the relevant experience of the Good Profit team members; and (3) the professionalism demonstrated in the Good Profit team’s interactions with the City.

In other words, the better team and the better proposal won, based on the exact criteria established at the outset and following the exact timetable established at the outset.

When you get down to it, what’s been demanded by some speakers is not a fair process at all. They have demanded a different set of rules than apply to every other group or individual that has sought to do business in New Rochelle. They have demanded that the City simply overlook glaring deficiencies in the content and manner of their presentation. They have demanded that the scales be tilted heavily in their direction.

And, at times, these demands have been backed up by threats and anger and personal attacks, if a particular group does not get its way.

I believe that the great majority of people in New Rochelle are repelled by this kind of negativity and simply want to accomplish good things for our city.

I see the sign here that says “Hear the People.” Well, I agree with that. I hear each of you very well. We hear from some of you every month, and God bless you for taking the time to make your views known. But it is our job on this dais to hear all the people, including the quiet people who do not come to hearings or march in protests. And I believe that most people in our community have views very different from those that were expressed tonight.

Every major development is complex, with inevitable challenges and ups and downs. The capacity to persist through such challenges in a calm, deliberative, professional way is among the qualities that the City must require in any partner that seeks a constructive relationship.

I do not doubt that many here are sincerely and passionately committed to the preservation of the Armory, and that many here are sincerely and passionately committed to honoring and supporting our veterans. And every one of us shares that commitment.

The Good Profit team proposes to apply talent and resources to the adaptive reuse of the Armory, and to include a meaningful veteran services component in their plans. They intend to pursue many of the goals that you yourselves have articulated.

This will be a difficult undertaking. There are no guarantees. It may even prove impossible. But we are committed to a good faith effort.

When passions have cooled, and you have a chance to consider the facts more fully, you may come to realize that as advocates, you have won a significant victory.

It is my hope that those who have advanced these priorities with such energy will now do everything possible not to undermine this effort or root for its failure, but instead to support it and to give it every possibility for success.

Thank you for listening.

Restaurant/Food Service Concept Chosen for Armory

The City Council has chosen an adaptive reuse concept and development team for the former Armory on East Main Street. Our designated proposal seeks to rehabilitate the Armory into a regional dining and food hub. Advanced by a group called Good Profit, this ambitious proposal also envisions a glass enclosed event or performance hall in the building’s foreground, as well as interior space dedicated to veterans services.

The Council’s selection follows a careful review of two submissions made in response to a request for proposals issued several months ago, as well as supplementary information requested by our Department of Development.

As I noted in a prior post, the Council evaluated each submission according to the quality of its vision, the realism of its assumptions, and the relevant experience and demonstrated professionalism of its team.

The Good Profit concept struck a chord with many Council Members and residents. The word “restaurant” doesn’t quite capture the goal. Think instead of a combination of Eataly, Chelsea Market, Stone Barns, and Faneuil Hall, and you’ll be closer to the mark … a place where you can enjoy the bounty of local agriculture, obtain prepared items from specialty vendors, or have a sit-down meal in a unique and dramatic setting. This kind of regional food destination would certainly complement our larger plans for the Echo Bay waterfront and could also help encourage spin-off ventures at other locations in New Rochelle.

“Good Profit” comes to the table with an impressive array of talent and impeccable professional credentials. The skill and experience of their team was evident in the quality of their submission, in their presentation to the City Council, and in the comprehensive and timely nature of their responses to inquiries from our staff. The rehabilitation of the Armory is a business proposition, and the City must judge potential partners on this basis.

Our next step will be the approval of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that will establish a timeframe for developing the proposal more fully and for identifying obstacles and solutions. The MoU will give the Good Profit team time to obtain the private financial commitments necessary for the project to be viable. (Preliminary cost estimates are approximately $26 million — a tall order, but one in which Good Profit expresses confidence.) The terms of an MoU are expected to be considered and voted upon by the City Council next month. To be clear, there are no guarantees at this stage, but the possibilities are exciting, and if Good Profit succeeds, then all of us will benefit.

If you’re interested in my remarks at last night’s City Council meeting, you can find the video archive here. My comments start just before the 2-hour mark. (Don’t worry, you can fast-forward.)

Armory Plans Presented to Council

Back in May, the City issued a request for proposals for the adaptive reuse of the former Naval Armory on East Main Street. Last month, two teams submitted plans in response, and this week, the Council received public presentations from each of them.

One proposal is focused primarily on the performing arts, and the other is centered around restaurants, food distribution, and sustainable agriculture. But those very brief descriptions don’t really do justice to the plans, as both include a variety of additional features. So if you are interested in this subject, I strongly encourage you to examine the proposals in their entirety. You can also view the presentations to the Council here.

At this stage, the Council should not and cannot make a firm and final decision about the Armory’s reuse. As with all significant developments, additional study must be undertaken, and the Armory must be incorporated into the general environmental review governing the entire Echo Bay site. But we do need to make a preliminary judgment about our prefered concept and about the team with which we want to partner. While there are many factors to consider, I think the three most important are:

Vision: Does the proposal offer a compelling vision that could activate the site, complement the waterfront, catalyze other positive investment, provide services or facilities that would improve our quality of life, or otherwise generate meaningful public benefits?

Realism: Is the proposal grounded in reasonable assumptions? Can it actually be accomplished under foreseeable circumstances and without excessive reliance on public subsidies — considering physical, financial and other obstacles? While no development can guarantee success at such an early stage, there should be a clear and plausible pathway to the end goal.

Ability: Does the team offering the proposal have the experience, professionalism, competence, and access to resources necessary to execute its plans and to maintain a constructive, business-like relationship with the City and community?

The Council has not yet made a selection, and we have asked the teams to answer several follow-up questions. Once we do make a decision, it is likely that a due diligence period will follow, during which the opportunities and pitfalls of this project can be explored in much greater depth.

Anyhow, I encourage you to look over the proposals yourself, applying the tests I have outlined (along with any others you’d like to add). And I welcome your feedback.

Armory RFP Issued

As part of our ongoing effort to improve the Echo Bay waterfront, the City has just issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the adaptive reuse of the former Armory located on East Main Street.

The RFP identifies three principal goals:

  1. rehabilitate and preserve a historic structure with distinctive architectural features;
  2. activate a currently underutilized site for the public’s enjoyment and benefit; and
  3. complement and enhance the surrounding revitalization of the New Rochelle shoreline.

We are entirely open-minded about potential reuse models and encourage creative submissions. Beyond presenting a general concept, proposals must also include financial information, a business plan, and other forms of information necessary to judge operational and economic viability. The full RFP contains additional details.

The Armory has been a subject of intense debate, with some in the community committed to its preservation and others entirely indifferent to its fate. Earlier iterations of the Echo Bay plan assumed demolition of the Armory — the current plan would preserve it. Personally, I assign the highest priority to a clean, vibrant and publicly-accessible waterfront, but if adaptive reuse of the Armory can be accomplished within this context, then it would be a major plus, so I hope that the RFP bears fruit.

Submission are due on July 20th, so we’ll know more this summer.