Transforming Echo Bay from Development Cannon Fodder to Political Campaign Fodder
By STEPHEN MAYO
As noted in last week’s edition of The Westchester Guardian, Forest City/Ratner companies are seeking to develop choice New Rochelle Sound Shore acreage into approximately 250-rental luxury and affordable units with retail and park components. A suppliant city council Democratic majority has facilitated the mega builder’s application with every accommodation and inducement imaginable (tax breaks, guarantees of economic “return,” extensions of deadlines) despite a growing movement of ordinary residents opposed to it.
The opposition is composed of those directly affected; residents of, the east end that borders the project and of the west end that is to receive a public works facility to be relocated under the plan. In addition, an ad hoc coalition of diverse interests in the city has begun to question the economic assumptions and social policies that have been advanced by the developer and its city hall friends: social liberals concerned about the crowding of city facilities and the as-yet indeterminate impact of the developer’s tax “breaks” on the schools’ fiscal standing; economic libertarians and conservatives skeptical of the “crony capitalism” and threatened explosive growth of New Rochelle’s population and governmental apparatus which underlie the proposal.
In order to justify the gifts they have been offered, the developers have produced: optimistic forecasts of economic growth; elaborate representations of future rental patterns/demographic makeup of the rental pool and analyses of retail sales-per-square-foot. New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson and his allies have claimed that no investor will commit to a project of such scale (but comprising just six of the 20+ acres) unless he has a guaranteed rate of return on his investment. They have suggested the project provides a "double-whammy"; a much-needed removal of a hideously decrepit Department of Public Works’ City Yard facility from the Sound Shore inland in addition to the residential development.
In an unprecedented outpouring of popular concern, couples, parents of school-age children, retired citizens and businessmen and businesswomen (with no apparent economic stake in the plan’s outcome) have complained that: the tax breaks are unwarranted and unearned; the estimates are unrealistic (subject to error and the plan authors’ prejudices); the predicted increased future city commercial tax revenues are based on flawed premises (sales dollar per-square-foot levels of the likes of Target and Home Depot); the city yard is not an abomination as it has been portrayed (and probably needs only a good cleaning, better management and investment in structural upgrades - to bear favorable comparison to the strikingly-similarly located Larchmont DPW facility at its own shoreline location a mile-and-a-half north on Boston Post Road).
Why has the City of New Rochelle not taken these critics’ testimony seriously? Has the integrity of these plain and sensible “city folk” been impeached? Are they likely to benefit from the project's failure in any form comparable to the potential profit of the development advocates?
And benefit the advocates certainly will. The builder seeks a profit as is hisright; council members have received donations from the applicant, as is theirright - and some ambitious officeholders hope the plan will enable adding "improved shoreline" to their resume (their having created a "New Rochelle Skyline" where none existed before, after all!). These private agendas, lawful as they may be, require the closest scrutiny.
Politicians and businesspeople pursue selfish goals all the time; this is how our democratic/capitalist system works. But citizens are not obligated to lie down and accept their terms, their research and their conclusions without question or comment. The burden is on the private interest that would occupy public space, alter it, and profit from such community property with no community benefit yet proved.
The presumption should be that gifts of the public weal to private interests should bear a presumption of ethical dubiousness. The presumption should be that taxpayers and citizens coerced into subsidizing the profit-making operations of private businesses and enriching the lifestyles of private parties be granted the benefit of the doubt. It is they; those who enjoythe fruits of citizenship while bearing the burdens of civic engagement including the paying of local taxes; the civitas, “the body of citizens who constitute a state, especially a city-state….” (Dictionary.com; Lexico Publishing, LLC, Oakland, California) who deserve a guaranteed return on their compelled investment and not the capitalists who seek a guaranteed return and a public subsidy of a bucolic lifestyle; quality parks, full-time fire protection, professional police services and career-advancing public schools!
One conclusion can be stated without question: whatever costs the builder pays for construction and whatever the eventual residents pay for renting the apartments, will in no way reflect the true expenses of construction and renting in New Rochelle in the year 2013 and another 20 years. And New Rochelle residents have no obligation to underwrite them! And the proponents have failed miserably in meeting the burden of proof required to compel them!
Forest City/Ratner and its political friends have sought to characterize the new alliance of plan questioners as being anti-development. This is a cheap calumny from an embattled unholy alliance of private profit-seekers and political careerists. New Rochelle residents, of which the recent critics are most representative of, favor rational and intelligent city renewal; most likely pursuant to the completion of a brand-new, Comprehensive Master Plan. They want new shopping options and improved services and would likely accept the addition of productive permanent new residents with a stake in the city; property owners of coops, condominiums and houses, and not simply non-stakeholding renters, whose obligations run only to a landlord and whose rent reflects only a miniscule fraction of the city's and school’s ever-expanding tax burden.
Stephen I. Mayo is an attorney and manufacturer based in New Rochelle.