Back in August of 2011, representatives from the City, Iona College and the neighborhood associations surrounding the Iona campus gathered in the rotunda of New Rochelle City Hall to launch a new community planning process.
At the time, we faced a host of difficult problems. The college had proposed a new dormitory that was received poorly by many neighbors, uncertainty clouded the occupancy levels of existing residence halls, and conflict seemed to surround every potential aspect of college development. The college’s interests and those of the city overlap significantly — Iona is an educational, employment, and planning pillar of New Rochelle — but it was hard to find a formula that met the legitimate needs of different stakeholders. And there was a history of mistrust that shaped every conversation.
The Committee convened some time later, with five college representatives, five neighborhood representatives, and participants from the City. The task proved just as hard as expected, with plenty of ups and downs, and moments when the Committee might have been tempted to give up.
But the members persevered, worked through the tough questions, forged a spirit of mutual understanding and trust … and last week were able to deliver to the City a final report that describes a new way forward.
The report’s chief recommendations include:
- amending the North Avenue zone to facilitate future college development through a special permitting process;
- extension of the occupancy limit for existing residence halls by five years; and
- the development of a new seven-story dormitory on North Avenue, together with the potential future development of a second five-story dormitory, conditioned on certain circumstances.
Taken together, these and other recommendations will establish a strong new foundation for college-community relations and will also bolster our efforts to improve the North Avenue corridor.
I am deeply grateful to all the Committee members for their outstanding service, and grateful also to Iona President Joe Nyre who took a leap of faith in partnering to launch this process.
Playing an absolutely vital role was Matt Fasciano, a New Rochelle resident who assumed — on a volunteer basis — the time-consuming, stressful, and demanding job of chairing the committee. Matt’s patience, clarity, fairness, and sense of duty helped guide the Committee around every obstacle. It is hard to imagine this process succeeding without Matt at the helm.
There is still more work to do. Zoning changes must be considered and adopted by the City Council, Iona must still negotiate the terms of any residence hall, and the public will, of course, have a chance to weigh in. But this is a giant step forward demonstrating a new consensus, and powerful evidence that it’s possible to transcend past disputes and set a positive course. For the Committee, it is mission accomplished!
Last year, the City, Iona College and neighborhood representatives convened a working group with the goal of addressing the College’s student housing needs in concert with the interests of the surrounding area. Since then, this working group has met on a regular basis and made progress in achieving its mission. An interim report released last month outlines initial conclusions and recommendations.
The planning process is now moving to a more public phase.
First, a community meeting has been scheduled for Thursday, March 15 at 7:30pm in the City Council Conference Room at New Rochelle City Hall. Anyone interested will have an opportunity to offer comments, feedback and suggestions for future action.
Second, as part of this planning effort, Iona has issued a Call for Concepts and an associated Submission Form, inviting property owners, developers, and their representatives to offer ideas for meeting additional student housing objectives. This provides a structured framework for Iona to entertain creative ideas, including concepts such as mixed-use development on North Avenue.
There are still many unanswered questions and more work to be done, but I am grateful to the volunteers who have devoted time and energy to this effort, and I am encouraged by their progress.
As reported last month, the City and Iona have agree to launch a joint planning exercise, with the goal of meeting the College’s student housing and growth objectives, while also advancing the broader community’s interest in protecting residential quality of life and promoting beneficial commercial investment.
As a precursor to this planning process, the College agreed to withdraw its application for a new 10-story residence hall on Mayflower Avenue, and the City agreed to temporarily relax occupancy standards for Iona’s existing dorms.
In the weeks since, we have worked with the College to put some meat on the bone with respect to the structure, timing, and mission of the planning process. The result of these discussions is a planning framework that I consider a good and balanced basis for moving forward. We expect to get rolling in late September. Then the hard work begins.
The relationship between a college and its surrounding community is almost always a complicated one, with points of friction and discontent balanced against opportunities for mutual assistance and progress.
The relationship between Iona and the City of New Rochelle is no exception. Iona is among New Rochelle’s largest employers, a planning and economic anchor for the North Avenue corridor, an attractor that draws thousands of people, and an engine of upward mobility for its students, many of whom become permanent residents after graduating. At the same time, the neighborhoods near Iona are often impacted by student behavior (or misbehavior), traffic volume, and parking demands, as well as by growth patterns that can dramatically reshape the physical character of an entire block.
Most people recognize that college and community interests are ultimately bound together, and that we can benefit most fully by working side by side in a climate of mutual respect and understanding. But too often we become trapped instead in rigid, reactive debates, as in the battle surrounding Iona’s plans for a new 10-story dormitory on Mayflower Avenue. What should ideally be a common effort to achieve common solutions becomes a zero-sum fight.
That is why the news I share today is so positive and significant.
Yesterday morning, Iona’s new President, Dr. Joseph Nyre, and I, joined by several neighborhood leaders, launched a collaborative planning process aimed at taking a fresh look at the College’s development. With resident input and participation, the City and Iona will examine options for addressing student housing objectives and other priorities, while also improving the economy and quality of life of the larger community. I am personally hopeful that the North Avenue corridor will be a major focus of examination, but our analysis will commence without prejudgment.
Until at least the conclusion of this joint planning process, Iona will voluntarily withdraw its application for the Mayflower dormitory. Meanwhile, the City will raise the local occupancy standards for Iona’s existing dormitories for the next two academic years to make them consistent with those of the Fire Code and the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York. (Although a change in local law, this will not produce a change in facts on the ground, because we have learned in recent days that occupancy levels in the dorms have exceeded local limits for several years — a condition Iona’s new leadership had been prepared to correct.)
If our planning efforts succeed, then one or both of these actions might be made permanent. If our efforts do not succeed, then circumstances would simply revert to the status quo. In other words, for all parties, there’s a big potential upside, but no real downside. And what had been a big, messy fight becomes a classic win-win.
As we move forward, all sides will have to demonstrate an open mind, appreciation for different points of view, and a spirit of compromise. I do not underestimate the scope of the challenge, but based on the strong support and enthusiasm of College and neighborhood representatives — individuals who just days ago were locked in a contentious struggle — I am optimistic about our prospects.
This new way forward began coming together over an informal breakfast that Dr. Nyre and I shared last month, just a few days after he took office, and it continued taking shape through many conversations in the days since. In the short span of his presidency, Dr. Nyre has impressed me as a leader of great skill, sensitivity, and strategic vision, and I look forward to working with him as a partner for the common good of Iona and our community.
Iona College yesterday welcomed Joseph E. Nyre, Ph.D. for his first official visit to the Iona campus since his appointment last month to become Iona’s eighth president. Dr. Nyre succeeds current president Brother James A. Liguori, who, after 17 years at Iona’s helm, will be stepping down at the end of May. Dr. Nyre will be the first lay president in the college’s 70-year history.
Dr. Nyre joins Iona from The Hope Institute for Children and Families in Springfield, IL, where he served as President and CEO. He is also a Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry, Illinois College of Medicine, at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Iona serves an important role in our community as a center of learning, a planning anchor for the North Avenue corridor, and a major employer. Nonetheless, there are aspects of town-gown relations that are challenging, as in the case of the College’s proposal for a new dormitory on Mayflower Avenue.
I welcome Dr. Nyre to New Rochelle and look forward to working with him in order to better identify and pursue the common interests that link Iona to New Rochelle as a whole. In the same spirit, I wish Brother Liguori the best as he steps down and explores new personal opportunities.