Westchester 2.0: An Urban Oasis
Courting Millennials, empty nesters, and businesses, area developers and politicians are determined to transform Westchester into a more dynamic, walkable region in which to live, work, and play.
Aerial Photographs by Vinny Garrison/Flying Films NY
Last year, Andy Fondak found the perfect place to open his family’s new brewery. The location is in the heart of a bustling downtown poised for growth. Just down the block, developers are investing nearly $200 million in new residential high-rises. And Midtown Manhattan is only a 30-minute train ride away.
No, Fondak’s location isn’t a hip Brooklyn neighborhood or a trendy corner in TriBeCa; it’s downtown Yonkers. For Fondak and his business partners (who also happen to be his parents), founding Chicken Island Brewing in Yonkers was an obvious choice. The brewery is set to open its doors at 72 Alexander Street in the summer of 2017.
“It’s amazing to see what Yonkers is doing to build up,” says Fondak, a 29-year-old graduate of the World Brewing Academy.
Fellow Millennial William Segel, a 27-year-old director of marketing at a real estate firm, chose to locate in White Plains because of the way that city has been developing recently.
“I believe White Plains is evolving into one of the most versatile cities in the United States,” says Segel, who works in the center of the downtown area. “People refer to [White Plains] as a mini-Manhattan,” Segel says.
To those keeping an eye on development in Westchester’s biggest cities, Fondak’s and Segel’s decisions are hardly a surprise.
An urban lifestyle at dramatically less cost than New York City is one of Westchester’s chief attractions, and it’s about to become a lot more common.
A passel of ambitious downtown redevelopment projects is poised to redefine Westchester’s cities—many of which are long suffering from various levels of faded glory—as urban hubs where residents can live, work, and play, with no car keys or cab fare required. From Yonkers to New Rochelle and beyond, these major residential, commercial, and arts projects are upending Westchester’s image as a sleepy suburb and attracting residents and businesses who might have otherwise put down roots in Prospect Park, Astoria, or the East Village.
The Project: Larkin Plaza, Yonkers
When it comes to understanding this trend, William M. Mooney III, Westchester County’s director of the office of economic development, captures the essence of these projects in seven words: “Downtown, mixed-use, multifamily, transit-oriented developments.”
Mooney is also quick to underscore the impressive price tags attached. “Major developers are…making investments of hundreds of millions of dollars,” he says, “and they’re not doing that on a whim. Presumably, they’ve done their research, and they feel the market can withstand that.”
So what’s the catalyst? Mooney says it’s the captive audience, a demographic trio enticed by the idea of revitalized downtowns: 20-somethings striking out on their own; the more established, but still young, professionals; and baby boomers looking to shed the four-bedroom abode.
“The Millennials, young professionals, and, to a degree, the empty nesters want that live/work/play model,” Mooney says. And it’s not just about accommodating those who already call Westchester home; these new projects can act as a magnet, too. “Brooklyn, Jersey City, even Astoria are outpricing themselves,” he explains.
Mooney might as well be describing Victor Scala, a 27-year-old architect from Queens who is preparing for a move to White Plains.
“Manhattan and most parts of Brooklyn and Queens [that are close to the City] are so outrageously priced,” Scala says. “And White Plains has its own hub of restaurants and bars where there are a ton of people my age. So, you have the option of going into New York City or staying local on any given weekend.”
Scala also shares an anecdote about a buddy who made a similar move. “I have a close friend who lives in New Rochelle. For $2,000 a month, you get a gorgeous apartment, great view, new design, parking spot, and amenities. In the City, $2,000 won’t even get you a studio in some neighborhoods.”
Renters and property owners aren’t the only ones poised to benefit. Lively downtowns also allow Westchester’s merchants to prosper, a welcome change of pace after a sluggish several years, according to Mooney. “These developments bode extraordinarily well for Westchester’s economy,” he says. “[Residents]...will shop in the delis, go to the art galleries, enjoy those movie theaters and small businesses.”
Mooney paints in broad strokes, but reimagining the downtowns of Westchester’s biggest cities takes a careful blend of time, capital, nuance, and vision. At work behind the scenes is a cadre of lawmakers, developers, and merchants eager to see Westchester’s Main Streets evolve.
One of the key ingredients of Westchester’s downtown renewals comes long before brick and mortar: It’s political willpower. From policy to permits, the region’s lawmakers are instrumental in shepherding the various facelifts currently underway. In recent months, Westchester’s big-city mayors have been catalyzing and mapping out downtown overhauls with zeal; just ask Noam Bramson.
“We’ve adopted the most ambitious downtown development plan in the Hudson Valley,” the New Rochelle mayor says proudly. He’s quick to quantify the boast with hard numbers: The potential for one million square feet for retail, 5,500 apartments, and hundreds of hotel rooms. “A total build out of nearly 11 million square feet,” he sums up.
“The intent is to create a more vital, vibrant downtown,” Bramson says, adding that doing so will stimulate the local economy; and turn New Rochelle into a regional destination.
At the center of New Rochelle’s facelift is 587 Main Street. The $120 million project aims to bring a 28-story building—complete with 229 apartments, nearly 8,000 square feet of retail space, and 10,000 square feet of arts and cultural space—to the western part of the city’s downtown, via developer partner RDRXR (a joint venture between RXR Realty and Renaissance Downtowns, two Long Island-based firms). Complementing 587 Main are smaller undertakings on Huguenot Street, Church Street, and elsewhere across the city. A slate of other significant projects are currently winding their way through the approval process, Bramson notes.
The city has engaged RDRXR as master development partner, granting the group exclusive development access to a slate of city-owned sites.
“When you have a strong, well-capitalized partner placing bets on New Rochelle, that sends a positive signal to the rest of the development community,” Bramson says. “It inspires confidence.”
That confidence is a much-needed asset in today’s competitive environment. “There’s a global competition underway right now for tomorrow’s workforce,” Bramson says, noting the need for New Rochelle, White Plains, Yonkers, and Mount Vernon to attract both talent and tenants. The key is offering the right lifestyle: “Diversity, walkability, tech-enabled,” Bramson explains.
Not too far north, there’s a similar direction taking shape in White Plains: downtown redevelopment aiming to attract new residents with a walkable lifestyle. At 55 Bank Street, near the White Plains Metro-North station, two 16-story apartment buildings are in the works and will feature about 500 apartments and 6,300 square feet of retail. The $265 million project is being carried out by the Pennsylvania-based development firm LCOR.
White Plains Mayor Tom Roach adds that while 55 Bank Street may be the largest project currently underway in the city, it’s hardly the only one.
“It’s not just these big projects,” he says, alluding to smaller residential projects that have already been completed on Maple Avenue, Waller Avenue, Lake Street, and North Broadway. “They build 30 to 50 units, and they lease up immediately.
“People want to be back in cities,” Roach adds. He’s quick to note that many Millennials eschew driver’s licenses for a lifestyle in which walking everywhere is a possibility. “The new brag is not ‘Check out my pool’; it’s telling people what you’re able to do without getting in a car,” he says.
Roach’s Yonkers counterpart, Mayor Mike Spano, agrees. “Our cities—Yonkers, New Rochelle, White Plains—have the greatest potential to be walkable and fun,” he says.
Yonkers in particular, with scenic swaths of land overlooking the Hudson River and the Palisades, is ripe for new development. “People want to live on the water’s edge,” Spano says. And they will: The city is working with developers to bring in major projects that will yield “about 2,000 new units of housing down on the Yonkers waterfront,”
Spano notes. Many of those apartments will be housed in the pending Larkin Plaza development, a $197 million project led by RXR Realty and Rising Development that’s been in the works for several years.
Westchester’s mayors will also tell you that reimagining a downtown takes more than tall buildings. There are the smaller pieces, too, like welcoming sidewalks and the right amount of green space.
“[In Mount Vernon], we are aggressively planning to put down bike lanes, build up dog parks,” says Mount Vernon Mayor Richard Thomas, who’s helping shepherd development in Fleetwood and other neighborhoods across the city. “That’s what’s going to make Mount Vernon great.”
In Westchester, a suite of bullish real estate firms are betting millions on renovated downtowns. Their wager is that people are seeking neighborhoods with the amenities and convenience of urban life but also the subdued atmosphere of Westchester.
Mark Alexander, principal at the Manhattan-based Alexander Development Group, sees Mount Vernon’s Fleetwood area as a prime spot: “For folks who want a distinctly suburban-like atmosphere, yet still have [choice] amenities, Fleetwood is the way to go.”
The Alexander Group’s capstone project is 42 Broad, a joint venture with The Bluestone Organization, right in the heart of Fleetwood’s cozy downtown. With approvals in hand, Alexander anticipates completing the $90 million, 249-unit luxury rental property by late 2018. When finished, residents will have a sweeping view of Fleetwood’s amenities: a 35-minute ride to Grand Central, the 24-hour pharmacy, the delis and bakeries and restaurants that dot Gramatan Avenue.
Alexander sees Fleetwood as a neighborhood where cars can be an afterthought. “It’s very convenient for folks who want to mass-transit down into the City,” he says, adding that the revamped parking garage will include a Zipcar for those in need of the occassional daytrip.
An urban experience in a place like Fleetwood can be an easy sell, Alexander believes, especially to those fed up with Manhattan’s soaring rents. “They’re ready for a change of pace, more affordability,” Alexander notes. Or, perhaps even more enticing, a bit more privacy. “Folks who are doubled or tripled up with roommates down in the City can take that money and have their own unit in our building, with a Manhattan-class amenity package,” Alexander adds. “I think that’s a big part of the draw of southern Westchester.”
The Project: 587 Main New Rochelle
Few investors are as active in Westchester as RXR Realty, the metro-New York real estate company working on major projects near both the Hudson and the Sound. In New Rochelle, RXR isn’t tackling just 587 Main Street; they’re also revamping the downtown’s former Loews Theatre, converting it into a destination with retail, cultural space, and residential units. And in Yonkers, RXR is building up the waterfront: Larkin Plaza, a collection of high- and low-rise structures, will include about 440 rental units and more than 40,000 square feet of retail.
Seth Pinsky, an executive vice president with RXR, is quick to point out the nuance behind a successful downtown project. It takes more than ambition and major coffers, he says; you need a precise mix of utility, charm, and diversity.
“It shouldn't just be a bedroom community,” he says. “It [needs to be] a place where people come for entertainment, shopping, and work. “You also want to have real architectural character,…as well as a diverse population.”
Like Alexander, Pinsky notes rising prices in New York City are increasingly placing Westchester cities on renters’ radars. But it’s more than just affordability, Pinsky explains.
“There’s an interest in living in walkable, diverse areas with real character,” Pinsky notes. “The suburban downtowns—many of which for the past few decades have been overlooked—actually have a lot of the ingredients those demographic groups are looking for.”
This is the wisdom guiding redevelopment in Peekskill as well, where the urban trend caught on a few years ago. It’s prompted a recent spate of new downtown restaurants and shops, as well as mixed-use projects currently in the works, including The Lofts on Diven (50 subsidized artist lofts and 25 market-rate apartments, plus retail and community space) and a $40 million development from Alma Realty, out of Long Island (a high-rise with 150 apartments, retail, and a three-level parking garage), slated for two vacant blocks on Park and Brown Streets.
Another Peekskill project is the $5 million, 11-acre, 65,000-square-foot Hudson River development at the Charles Point Marina site, where Diamond Properties is transforming a former distillery into restaurants, a brewery, and an entertainment space with an arcade and a laser-tag arena.
“We believe the venue will be a regional destination,” says Jim Diamond, principal at Diamond Properties. “Peekskill is going through a true revitalization and is on track to become the Williamsburg of Westchester.”
The last word
In Yonkers, Chicken Island Brewing hasn’t yet opened for business, but Andy Fondak is already anticipating expansion. The brewery will start at 11,000 square feet but is situated in a 14,500-square-foot property. “We’re thinking of expansion and growth,” Fondak says.
“Breweries tend to be at the center of urban redevelopment,” he adds. If true, it’s auspicious, as Yonkers already has a brewery up and running, Yonkers Brewing Co.
“We have this uncanny love for Yonkers,” says cofounder John Rubbo, who opened Yonkers Brewing Co. in 2015, with friend Nick Califano. Rubbo, 34, was born and raised in Yonkers and still calls it home.
Once people visit Yonkers, Rubbo says, its charm quickly becomes apparent. “[You] can walk through the downtown, the streets of Ridge Hill, or Cross County. There’s so much to do inside and outside.”
Recently, Rubbo invited a client from Brooklyn for a visit. “A trendy guy, a young guy,” Rubbo explains. They had brunch, and the Brooklynite was quickly smitten. “He was saying the cost of living in Brooklyn is so prohibitive now, he’s ready to pick up and move out,” Rubbo says. “And he thought Yonkers was great.”
Kevin Zawacki is a freelance writer based in Dobbs Ferry. He's previously lived in two of the Westchester cities currently undergoing transformation: Yonkers and Mount Vernon.