The Transit Hubs Transforming Westchester
Development projects for walkers, not drives, alter the county’s skyline.
SoYo Exalta LLC plans to build a $168 million development just a short walk from the Yonkers train station.
When John Cheever was parodying the suburbs, the local train station was where commuters went to disappear into the City. Today, those same train stations have become the centers of economic activity in numerous Westchester communities, spurred on by burgeoning transit-oriented development, aka “TOD.”
What is TOD? It can take many forms, but typically centers on building neighborhoods for people who enjoy walking (not driving) to retailers, cultural institutions, offices, restaurants, and other amenities. TOD projects are typically built near bus and train stations. To see how it works, step off Metro-North and visit Bronxville, Rye, and Chappaqua, not to mention Yonkers, White Plains, and New Rochelle.
“People today want a more livable, walkable community,” says Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group devoted to reducing car dependency. “They want to incorporate more physical activity into their day. They want to frequent their neighborhood stores by foot or on bike. Transit-hub development fits into that trend.” Vanterpool’s organization awarded a $38,500 grant to the Washingtonville Housing Alliance in Mamaroneck in 2012 that ultimately turned into legislation passed in late 2014 to create a TOD zone north of the town’s Metro-North station.
A zoning change in the area around Mamaroneck Avenue and the Washingtonville neighborhood will allow for mixed-use buildings. Developers will be encouraged to include affordable housing units in residential developments and outfit ground floor spaces for retail or restaurant use. The new zoning regulations will hopefully encourage currently non-conforming building owners to invest in upgrades
once it becomes legal to do so.
TOD got a big boost in nearby Harrison last year when the MTA and AvalonBay Communities announced a deal to develop mixed-use residential buildings and a parking garage on 3.3 acres of deteriorating parking lots that occupy the heart of Harrison’s downtown. AvalonBay, which has spearheaded similar projects in Bronxville, Elmsford, Mamaroneck, New Rochelle, Ossining, and White Plains, will build four-story buildings with 143 apartments and 27,000 square feet of ground-level retail space as well as a parking garage with at least 475 spaces for Metro-North commuters, along with 100 spaces on a nearby lot. That nearly doubles the available parking in the area. (Not everyone is a fan of the project, however—a coalition of housing groups opposes the project because it doesn’t include affordable housing units.)
The project has given a boost to other developers. “Just the rumors of it coming to fruition spurred an influx of other properties that applied to be developed,” says Harrison Mayor Ron Belmont. “Hopefully, this will trigger the whole downtown area to come to life again.” Belmont says four other projects within walking distance of the train station are in the shovel-movement stage, including the conversion of a defunct Harrison theater around the corner from the Avalon site into a mixed-use building with 42 luxury residential units, retail space, and an underground parking garage.
One of the lead communities on the TOD bandwagon has been White Plains, which has witnessed large-scale development near its over-worked transportation center. The city has made major changes in the streetscape to make it a more walkable place, and new bike lanes have been added, too, as has better directional signage.
Next on the agenda is the train station itself, which is crucial to completing the transformation, according to New York Assemblyman David Buchwald. “Train stations are gateways to our communities,” Buchwald points out. “And the impression a visitor or an entrepreneur gets when they first arrive often shapes their views. Between residents, shoppers, and area employees, the White Plains train station today serves the largest commuting population in New York outside of Manhattan.”
Buchwald was one of several members of the Westchester Albany delegation who petitioned the MTA last fall to renovate the aged train station. “We were very pleased that the MTA included improvements at the White Plains train station as eligible for funding under its proposed five-year capital program,” he reports. “However, a proposed capital program is not the same as an adopted capital program.”
Yonkers TOD got a big boost in December when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council awarded a $1 million grant to SoYo Exalta LLC for a mixed-use development on Larkin Plaza. The $168 million project will include 400 luxury rental units and 110,000 square feet of parking within a short walk of the Yonkers train station.
TOD is obviously much more than just building a few apartment buildings near a train station. As Vanterpool explains, “There is a strong intersection between transportation, housing, environment, health, and economic development. TOD should be seen not just as transportation projects, but as economic development projects.”