In accord with its conviction that the Larchmont/Mamaroneck community benefits from a safe, financially sound New Rochelle next door, the Local Summit invited New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson to address their group on the state of his city and his vision for its future. On Tuesday, March 16, Mayor Bramson attended the Summit’s monthly meeting and outlined his plans, which encompass environmental management and resource conservation as well as land use and economic development.
Mayor Bramson acknowledged up front that the new high rise buildings in his downtown have attracted criticism for the way they have changed the skyline. The 40-story Trump Plaza, the second tallest in Westchester, went up in 2006 and was followed in 2007 by the 37-story Avalon on the Sound East.
However, the mayor defended the high-rises as “excellent alternatives” to the urban sprawl of single homes that promote air polluting automobile use. The resulting population density of the apartments makes possible mass transit upgrades. It also provides spending power that attracts stores and restaurants that can revive the downtown area and increase tax revenues.
In the area of land use, Mayor Bramson said he is most excited about the Echo Bay waterfront development project. “This will reclaim over nine miles of shoreline,” which, he said, “were mis-developed in the 19th century by placing businesses there, blocking access to the water.” The plan is to relocate the current buildings and redevelop the 26 acres with a mix of uses. There would be low-rise apartments, a ground level community center, 6 acres of park, and a mile of linear walking path along the shore. All sight lines from adjacent streets would include water views. The housing development would help to pay for the public improvements.
Other plans follow what he called, “a smart growth policy.” They encourage downtown core development, which could include adding two more high-rise apartment buildings while at the same time placing limits on residential lot size and the size of multi-family dwellings. New Rochelle will also try to help some of the small downtown businesses get through this rough period, particularly those that have had a long history in the community. Mayor Bramson pointed out that officials have already worked with local landlords to begin encouraging artists to rent space in some of the empty center city buildings to keep the area occupied and lively.
“Businesses want safe, convenient public parking available to their customers,” continued Mayor Bramson. The local city government is responding by improving parking lots and parking meters and changing the time limits from one to two hours, which is better for patrons of the restaurants. The city is also conducting a local restaurant promotion campaign which includes mailing discount coupons to 1000 households.
Mayor Bramson noted that many of the proposals for change provoke opposition from various groups, but he is hopeful that satisfactory solutions will be found. “If you want to avoid controversy, then you take no action and the city goes into a slow decline,” he said. “That is just not an acceptable alternative.”
He concluded by pointing to New Rochelle as a model for much of America right now. With its housing range from dense urban core to grand suburban homes and its aging infrastructure, what happens in New Rochelle can be instructive for other cities. “This time of tight money has a silver lining,” said the mayor. “It provides us an opportunity for thoughtful planning, a time to conduct a complete environmental review. When the economy rebounds we will be ready to swing into action.”
In the question period that followed the mayor’s presentation, Mamaroneck Town Councilman Ernie Odierno asked about plans he had for regional cooperation. Mayor Bramson answered that New Rochelle is cooperating on storm water management with adjacent municipalities, is developing a trail network to unlock open spaces with nearby communities, and has shared services of their engineers with neighboring villages and towns on a fee basis.
Carolyn Pomeranz, a Summit board member, questioned Mayor Bramson on the future of New Roc City, the downtown entertainment complex, and the presence of gang violence in New Rochelle. The mayor said a recent altercation at New Roc was caused by a gang from another community who came to New Rochelle and made trouble. The New Rochelle police have been keeping close watch on their local groups of kids at risk and claim they do not have any hard core gangs causing violence. In fact, he asserted, New Rochelle is among the safest cities of its size.
New Roc City was originally planned as both a retail and recreation center. Until the recent economic meltdown, Target and Kohls had plans to open stores there. They would serve as anchors for the local economy, bringing in shoppers and sales tax. Mayor Bramson expressed confidence that the retailers would resume their plans as soon as it is easier to raise capital.
In response to a question about preserving the Sound Shore Medical Center, Mayor Bramson said the center is both an essential institution for New Rochelle and one of the city’s major employers and land owners. The institution is facing wrenching challenges because they currently provide over $18 million of uncompensated care for people without health insurance. Although New Rochelle has no regulatory oversight or responsibility for the hospital, they are working closely with government agencies to obtain resources that will enable the hospital to survive.
Reverend Bill Crawford of Larchmont Avenue Church asked if New Rochelle had a plan for cessation or reprieve in housing evictions. Mayor Bramson said this is not a role municipalities traditionally take on, but they are trying to get more information from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Part of the challenge, he suggested, is that landlords are also stressed. Most of them are not big developers and they are strapped, too. Perhaps there needs to be more money in the equation to treat both sides fairly, he said.
There certainly are residents in New Rochelle going through some rough times right now, agreed Mayor Bramson. HOPE, a local program that dispenses free food, gave out over 300,000 meals in 2008. The mayor is looking to provide support for HOPE through the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) program.
New Rochelle isn’t the only community with an increased need for food support. Carol Cauley of the Food Pantry in Mamaroneck, said client traffic there is up 40%. She made a plea for donations of powdered milk, cold cereal, dried beans, and canned protein such as chicken, turkey, and beef. (Food can be dropped off at the CAP Center at 134 Center Avenue, Mamaroneck Village between 8:30 – 5:00.)
UPCOMING: The April meeting of the Local Summit will be on the environment and the one in May will focus on “Aging in Place on the Sound.”
Elaine Chapnick is on the board of the Local Summit., an informal community council that works to make the community a better place to live for everyone. It holds a regular public meeting on the third Tuesday of the month at the Nautilus Diner.