College-Community Planning Process Concludes Successfully

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:

  1. amending the North Avenue zone to facilitate future college development through a special permitting process;
  2. extension of the occupancy limit for existing residence halls by five years; and
  3. 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!

North Avenue Bridge Replacement Set to Start February 23

Drivers and commuters beware — the first phase of a major construction project on North Avenue is about to get underway. Beginning February 23, you should expect detours in the area of Burling Lane, Garden Street, and Station Plaza North. Then, in mid-April, alternating lane closures on North Avenue itself will affect traffic even more. Drivers should expect delays and choose alternate routes whenever possible, and commuters should keep in mind the western entrance/exit to the Transit Center on Memorial Highway.

Why is this happening?

The North Avenue bridge than spans I-95 has reached the end of its useful life, and because of safety considerations, it must be replaced. This project is being directed and undertaken by the New York State Thruway Authority, not the City, and our local influence over the Thruway Authority’s actions is very limited.

While the City will advocate strongly for minimum disruption and speedy completion, I don’t want to kid you: this is going to be a major inconvenience … and it will last a long time. The first phase alone, which entails utility relocation, is expected to take about 18 months. Although at least one lane of traffic in both directions will be open for most of that period, there is no doubt that bottlenecks and delays will be frequent.

The second construction phase promises even more disruptions, as the entire bridge is slated to be demolished and replaced. But that won’t start until 2015, and we’ll just cross that bridge when we come to it. (Yes, that was a very bad joke.)

The City’s team will be working hard to provide timely information, so that all of us can plan around this project and reduce the impact on our daily schedules. As construction proceeds, there will be updated signage, bulletins on the web, and automated phone messages as warranted. Make sure to sign up for alerts or visit for details about the project.

There is one piece of good news: when the project is finally finished, the new bridge will be more efficient, safe, and attractive. But we’ll have to put up with a lot of headaches between now and then.

View Larger Map

North Avenue Streetscape Completed

Thursday morning, City officials and residents gathered to celebrate the completion of the North Avenue corridor streetscape project.

This unprecedented multi-year effort achieved a dramatic positive transformation in North Avenue’s appearance, while also improving traffic flow wherever practically possible. Physical enhancements include new sidewalks, pavers, trash receptacles, street lamps, and ADA-compliant ramps — not to mention 118 new trees. The last phase, which just wrapped up, features a landscaped pedestrian plaza at North Avenue and the Boulevard, forming an attractive gateway to the Rochelle Park Historic District. You can review additional details in the project description and history here.

I am happy to report that this significant investment in our local infrastructure was achieved at no expense to local taxpayers. Instead, the project was funded primarily by federal grants, some secured by Congresswoman Nita Lowey and others received through annual Community Development Block Grant allocations. Additional funding came from the County, Iona College, and utility company reimbursements for the burial of overhead utility wires.

The importance of North Avenue is obvious. Thousands of residents travel on the corridor daily or live in neighborhoods that surround it. North Avenue’s condition shapes perceptions of the city as a whole and can play an important role, for good or for bad, in the vitality of our local economy. The completion of this project is, therefore, a big step forward for our community.

Nonetheless, North Avenue still has a long way to go. Enhancement of public infrastructure is just one piece of the puzzle. Private investment in storefronts and structures is the essential next step. With this in mind, the City recently approved new zoning aimed at promoting economic activity. We’ll have to watch closely to see if these new standards are sufficient to accomplish the goal.

I close (a little self-indulgently) on a brief personal note. The very first item I placed on the Council’s agenda as a newly-elected representative in 1996 was North Avenue. At the time, the condition of the corridor was horrible — broken sidewalks, no greenery, traffic bottlenecks everywhere, faded billboards looming over the road. From that initial conversation came the conceptual plan that shaped the parameters of the streetscape project and — eventually — the decision to prioritize North Avenue and seek grants for its enhancement. Even though, as noted above, we have much more work to do, I feel a sense of satisfaction in reaching this milestone.

When student groups visit City Hall, I am sometimes asked what qualities one needs to succeed in government, and I always give the same answer: patience and persistence. North Avenue is pretty good evidence for that opinion. We need to apply the same level of determination and the same forward-looking view to the many other critical planning challenges and opportunities confronting New Rochelle.

New Zoning Approved for North Avenue

North Avenue has benefited in recent years from significant investment in its public streetscape (the third phase of which is currently underway), but private commercial investment has lagged and contributes in many locations to a distressed appearance and lack of economic vitality.

To address this challenge, the City Council voted last night to adopt new zoning standards for the North Avenue corridor, from Eastchester Road to the Memorial Highway overpass. Our vote concludes a years-long process of study, discussion and public comment.

The most significant changes are: (1) an increase in the maximum height of buildings, which will now be set at three stories or forty feet; and (2) an increase in the maximum floor-area-ratio, newly set at 2.0, up from the previous 0.5. There are, of course, many other details, which you can read here.

The new zoning standards aim to enhance the value and marketability of land on the corridor by expanding the range of investment and development possibilities. It should be noted that the original planning analysis presented to the City Council recommended a more dramatic change, including building height of up to twelve stories in certain limited circumstances. These original recommendations, however, received a largely negative reaction from the community, with many arguing that the burdens of such density would outweigh any benefits. The final iteration of the zoning represents a sort of lowest common denominator with which most interested parties were comfortable. Whether it is, in fact, sufficient to accomplish the objective of economic renewal can only be discovered with time.

Incidentally, the stretch of North Avenue from the Memorial overpass to Burling Lane was dropped from this change, because its existing DB (Downtown Business) zone already permits more flexibility than that allowed in the new NA (North Avenue) zone. There may be opportunities to reexamine this portion of North Avenue in conjunction with a broader look at transit-oriented growth and development.

The vote of the Council was 6 to 1 in favor, with Council Member Roxie Stowe dissenting. Council Member Stowe did not object to the new zoning standards per se, but rather to the remapping of a several parcels on Fifth Avenue, immediately to the east of North Avenue.

Public Hearing on November 9th for North Avenue Zoning

The condition of the North Avenue corridor is important to the health of our city as a whole. North Avenue is a major commercial artery, the gateway to multiple neighborhoods and institutions, and a principal carrier of commuters, shoppers and travelers. Unfortunately, for decades North Avenue suffered from neglect and under-investment.

Several years ago, the City commenced a multi-faceted effort to enhance North Avenue’s appearance and function. Most notable have been the well-received streetscape projects near Iona and City Hall (with additional federally-funded work planned this fall to extend the new streetscape south to Lockwood.)

As an essential complement to this public investment, the City has also worked to devise new zoning standards that might better stimulate privately-funded rehabilitation and construction. The fruits of this effort, devised with input from multiple neighborhood meetings and achieved after lengthy Council debates, will be the subject of a public hearing on Tuesday, November 9th at 7:30pm.

In a nutshell, the new zoning would permit a modest increase in allowable size, with a proposed maximum height of three stories or forty feet and a maximum floor-area-ratio of 2.0. The Council elected not to proceed with a more ambitious zoning framework that might have permitted additional height in certain circumstances, opting instead for standards that met with broad public approval and only limited opposition.

The hope and intent of these changes is that greater flexibility in use and design will enhance the value of North Avenue properties and create new incentives for reinvestment. It will take some time to determine whether these relatively modest changes are sufficient to accomplish the intended purpose.

You can read the proposed zoning in its entirety here.