7 Port Chester trustee candidates tackle development boom, housing, hospital site
March 7, 2019 at 9:27 a.m.
For the fourth time in the village’s history, Port Chester residents will go to the polls on Mar. 19 to elect six trustee candidates using cumulative voting. The first three times, starting in 2010, it was under a federal court-ordered consent decree; this time voters approved the voting method as a charter change in an October 2018 referendum.
This time around seven candidates are seeking six seats, meaning only one person will not be successful. All but two are incumbents.
Last weekend all seven candidates met in the Westmore News offices—albeit two on the phone—to debate some of the major issues they will be dealing with during the next three years if they are elected or re-elected. Among them are capitalizing on the current development boom, affordable housing and what to do about the former United Hospital site.
Dan Brakewood, running on the Democratic line, is the only incumbent who has been a trustee since before cumulative voting was used; at 51, he’s been on the village board since 2006.
Luis Marino, 51, was the first Hispanic trustee elected back in 2010 and is running for a third three-year term on the Democratic line. Although he believes cumulative voting is working and a diverse group of people—himself included as well as two African Americans—have had the opportunity to get elected using this unconventional voting method, he doesn’t like the system.
“I believe in one person, one vote,” he said. “I would love to go back, but we can’t.” Although cumulative voting helps, he believes he could get elected under the staggered term, at-large system Port Chester previously used.
Under the cumulative method, voters have six votes and can put all six on one candidate if they choose or divide them up as they wish, giving two votes to three candidates, three votes to two candidates or one vote each to six. They can even divide their votes unevenly if they like.
Greg Adams, an African American running on the Democratic line, has been on the board since 2013. The 68-year-old also served three years previously when he was appointed to fill an open seat while elections were halted by the Department of Justice. The village’s at-large voting system was ultimately found to have violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by disenfranchising Hispanic voters.
Bart Didden, 60, a registered Conservative who has served two split terms—from 2010 to 2013 and from 2016 to 2019—has the Republican endorsement as well as the independent Standing Up for Port Chester Taxpayers line.
Frank Ferrara, a registered Democrat seeking his second term, has been endorsed by the Republicans and is also on the City Status for Port Chester line, reflecting his goal since he got on the board. The 63-year-old is currently chairing a City Status Committee working toward that end.
The two non-incumbents are Alex Payan, 42, who is backed by the Republicans and has his own independent Community First line as well, and Joan Grangenois-Thomas, 58, seeking to be the first woman on the board in 17 years on the Port Chester Action Party line.
Payan is Director of Advancement for Family Services of Westchester and a professor at Long Island University. He was executive director of Port Chester Cares for five years and started his own Port Chester Community Gardens non-profit.
Grangenois-Thomas co-chaired the Citizens Voting Advisory Committee which researched and debated voting systems and recommended cumulative voting to the Board of Trustees. However, she personally favored districts to ensure representation from all geographic sections of the village.
Capitalizing on development
With all the current interest in transit-oriented development in Port Chester, which is largely residential, how does the village capitalize on the current boom to increase assessables while preserving Port Chester’s community character? That important question was posed to the candidates with many varied responses on all aspects of development and other related issues.
“I think the transit-oriented approach is the only thing that is in response to the economic conditions and the assets the village has being at the intersection of two highways and on the train line and the bus system and the only developable land we have is situated between the two exits and the train line,” said Trustee Bart Didden. “It is the only way we are going to increase the assessables and deliver real relief to the residents.”
“Transit-oriented development makes sense,” said Joan Grangenois-Thomas. “It is environmentally sustainable. More people are using mass transit to get around.” She wants to make sure the downtown remains accessible, walkable and caters to the folks who need to use it and the development “doesn’t fade the community in terms of height of buildings but maintains the aesthetics and charm of the community.”
“This is basically a response to the market, and I think it is important to listen to that,” said Trustee Frank Ferrara. “When we didn’t listen, we ended up with The Waterfront at Port Chester. I think it’s pretty clear that that project as much as it is our biggest taxpayer was not that well thought out.”
“I want to be very careful,” added Ferrara. “I am very cognizant of what makes Port Chester Port Chester. I don’t want to lose that, but we can’t be afraid of what the future looks like.”
Two issues Ferrara thinks are relevant: “There has been very little new housing in the village over the last quarter century,” causing rents to go through the roof, a lack of housing options “for the way older and younger people want to live today” and unsafe, overcrowded housing. “This will be a release valve for that.”
Secondly, “we need to expand our assessables.” He said in Rye Brook there is almost $300,000 in property value per person while in Port Chester it is about $90,000 per person or even as little as $70,000 if you believe the population is 40,000. “That brings home in a nutshell the problem we face, and we can’t sit and do nothing.”
“My perspective it is all about making smart public policies, smarter decisions,” said Alex Payan. “We need to maximize current resources,” implement short- and long-term parking solutions, create incentives for a business diversification plan, work with developers to home in on underdeveloped areas and focus on recreational use of the river, kayaking and boat slips to bring in revenue to the village. He recommended partnering with other organizations to expand usage of the waterfront.
Trustee Greg Adams is in favor of transit-oriented development but thinks the village needs to continue to explore the idea of a monorail system or a bus system to travel along I-287 from Rockland County to downtown Port Chester. “The benefit is less vehicle traffic and more people using our restaurants and stores in the village.”
“The first thing is we have to get our zoning laws right,” said Trustee Dan Brakewood. “We have to look at the level of density we are going to allow. We define what transit-oriented development will look like and what the mix of uses looks like through the form-based zoning. I want to make sure we remain a village and don’t turn into a city. We have to retain our character and the parts of what makes Port Chester Port Chester. Simply tearing down buildings is not going to do that. I am concerned about density and heights of buildings. I want to retain a walkable, historic downtown.”
Ferrara agrees that the way to protect community character is through the zoning code, limiting density in key places. He stresses that the new zoning code “is a public input process. We are the stewards of this process.”
A message that has come down to the board through the Planapalooza process is that people don’t want to see density on North Main Street, he said. The draft zoning code calls for six stories. However, a plan for the Tarry Market site calls for eight stories. He said that might be okay, but the developers can’t just go to the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for a variance. “I am making them come to the Board of Trustees. I am suggesting we might want to be lead agency. What is the value of the process when even before it is complete, we have people looking for variances? If we do the zoning code well, the ZBA should be used rarely.”
The new zoning code should also help businesses come into town such as Torrco Plumbing Supply which is moving to Grace Church Street and having all sorts of difficulties because of the current code. “A new zoning code would clear all of that up for people who want to bring jobs here,” Ferrara said. “We have a patchwork rezoning which can inhibit people who want to come here to invest.”
“The rezoning makes a lot of sense,” agreed Grangenois-Thomas, unhappy with the patchwork the current zoning code has produced. “We should implement it before we consider these other projects that are coming up.”
Brakewood wants to look at how the village incentivizes developers through the Industrial Development Agency both he and Ferrara are members of.
“We have a lot in the pipeline for very tall buildings,” he said. “We need to use the IDA to make sure the incentives go to the neighborhoods in need. The IDA should only give substantial tax breaks to properties that need to be developed and where the assessables are less than $3 million per acre” such as Fox Island Road, the Kohl’s Shopping Center and the old Key Foods site.
“Take massively underutilized properties and invest in those,” is his recommendation. Also, “we need to promote quality investment over quantity of investment.”
“They need revenue to support their project,” he said. He’s in favor of fewer units that are larger (not necessarily more bedrooms) so developers don’t need as big of a tax break.
“We are trying to figure out how to work in an environment where our taxes are ridiculously high and construction costs are ridiculously high,” said Didden. “In the past PILOTs (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) worked for questionable developments like Gateway Plaza” and the light industrial project on Midland Avenue which was highly contaminated. “Housing is not questionable. Do we have to give them PILOTs? No.”
“The IDA takes its signal from the Board of Trustees,” explained Ferrara.
“We need to be promoting an interesting, diverse quality of life downtown,” Brakewood added. “We need a place where people can live and where people can work and finally a place to play.” He is encouraged that Robison Oil is moving its headquarters to the Gateway Plaza in Port Chester.
“We’ve got the Capitol Theatre, restaurants, are getting access to the waterfront and we need to promote bike lanes,” he said. “Lastly is integration.” He was impressed with the outside planner who last month showed the trustees how to integrate downtown with the waterfront. However, there was no plan that leads from the public housing to the waterfront, which he pointed out. “We need to be promoting economic integration. We have a lot of work to do, but I think we’re on the right track.”
Whatever is built, Trustee Luis Marino wants to make sure the developers “do the right thing and pay the right taxes. With the PILOT system, if they pay the right share, it’s perfect. Sometimes the PILOT works in favor of them. My thing is to be fair.”
Marino is in favor of upgrading downtown buildings but does not want to see anything higher than 3-4 stories, not 10, 12 or 15, even across from the train station where the draft form-based code calls for up to 12 stories.
“I would like to see new buildings where we have bad conditions and empty lots,” Marino added.
“We need to maintain existing neighborhoods and make them convenient, attractive, safe and healthy,” said Payan.
Adams wants to see new development to bring in additional income to support the village and is anxious for the plans approved for the United Hospital site and Retail D (vacant lot across from the movie theaters) to become a reality.
“Quality of life means a lot…and should be considered in everything we do,” said Grangenois-Thomas.
Assisting small businesses
To help maintain Port Chester’s character, Grangenois-Thomas recommends assisting small businesses and making sure they are getting the services they need. She said there are over 700 Hispanic-owned businesses with over $60 million in sales that employ about 300 people. “The idea that development alone is going to be a panacea, we need to rethink that,” she said.
“We need to work with the Chamber of Commerce to find ways and programs to expand their businesses and thereby increase their revenue which directly will increase our tax base,” she added.
“The rents are driven by the taxes and also by the governmental overhead which are tremendously high, and the village is not friendly about sustaining and promoting small business opportunities,” countered Didden, who owns property downtown. “The Chamber can do more but is a volunteer effort and continues on the life support of a few individuals. There’s other issues that surround the downtown that the village could become more involved with if they were willing to open their eyes and roll up their sleeves and be part of the solution.”
“If the Chamber does not have the infrastructure, we have to think outside the box,” said Payan. “What else can we do?” He suggested a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, adding that “someone has to take the lead to bring business owners together and come up with a strategic plan.”
“It’s not impossible,” said Grangenois-Thomas. “Let’s think about this differently. The Chamber may be too anemic, but government can.”
“We looked a number of years ago at starting a BID (Business Improvement District) downtown, and it just doesn’t have the heft, so it’s difficult,” said Ferrara.
Didden said he supported the concept of a BID if it were to sponsor events to bring people downtown like in Stamford, for instance, but not as a way to shift expenses like sewer or bulkhead repairs that benefit everyone which had been considered in the past.
“We had a Panera Bread, Buffalo Wild Wings and Applebee’s and they are all gone,” said Adams. “What is going on at that facility (The Waterfront at Port Chester)? We need to look into why these businesses left so we can get similar businesses back.”
“The rent is too damn high, and the sidewalk traffic is too damn low,” Didden retorted.
“We need to work with the Chamber to get more insights,” Payan chimed in. “Do exit interviews with people who are leaving. There is actually more to this.”
“People are going out of business because the rent goes up high in the sky,” said Marino. “Rents go up because of the taxes. How we can help them out is not to increase the taxes. It’s hard enough to be in business.”
With the sale of buildings downtown, “new people are moving in and now they need to maximize their returns,” said Brakewood. “That’s when you will see a lot more action. You will see property owners banding together through their own efforts. The village should do a lot more to enable them or not hamper them from fixing things.”
Community benefits agreements and more
Grangenois-Thomas, until recently the volunteer executive director of Sustainable Port Chester Alliance, said the village should research the possibility of implementing community benefits agreements with developers to help maintain the quality of life. “It could be services that are supplemented or the building of a school.” She’s concerned about “keeping our young people so we don’t have a brain drain” and doesn’t want to lose “the rusty, dusty Port Chester that people really like.”
A community benefits discussion is being held on Friday, Mar. 8 sponsored by State Senator Shelley Mayer in Elmsford.
“They have been taking place across the country,” added Grangenois-Thomas about community benefits agreements. “We can make it work for us. We want to make sure developers are not taking advantage of Port Chester.”
“I fail to see how we can section off Port Chester from the market forces,” said Didden. “It is supply and demand. The idea of a community benefits program in this bucket of supply and demand is a cauldron. Who knows who is going to get the recipe right?”
Ferrara said the IDA looked into community benefits agreements in October 2016 and concluded that they would not work in Port Chester. “I believe they will completely discourage development,” he concluded. “I always keep an open mind, but based on the studies I have done, something will have to radically change to make a community benefits agreement workable today.”
Payan thinks the village should do a complete buildout analysis, which is planned in conjunction with the new zoning code. His other suggestions include “smart traffic management” with the timing of lights to help solve Port Chester’s traffic issue, seeking grants to replace antiquated traffic lights and doing a comprehensive plan exclusively for traffic. As far as parking solutions, he recommends giving tax breaks to private lots to develop public parking and requiring developers to pay into a parking fund to establish additional parking.
“We can control what gets built and where it gets built because it is so difficult to make it happen,” said Ferrara, adding that there are only so many things you can ask a developer to do because it is so expensive to begin with.
While zoning is for the long-term, Brakewood said “doing the right thing today so good things will happen tomorrow is what I focus on.” He meant, for instance, making sure the sidewalks are in good shape, investing in trees following the tree survey the village recently did which said $250,000 in new specimens is needed, and promoting access to the waterfront. “We need to focus on those things because we actually control those things,” he said. “Then it creates an environment where people are excited to live and invest more.”
Affordable housing has long been a controversial topic in Port Chester, and so it was for the seven trustee candidates.
“We need to strike a balance so we are sustaining the folks who are already here,” said Joan Grangenois-Thomas. “There has never been a dearth of luxury housing. There is nothing wrong with wanting to move out of your parents’ home. We need to take the boogie man concept of affordable housing out of the equation.”
“I would challenge there is no dearth of high-end housing,” countered Trustee Dan Brakewood. “We have very little high-end housing relative to other places around us.” He cited the $1 million a unit housing going up on the former GM site in Tarrytown.
“I am not suggesting we need to build affordable housing,” responded Grangenois-Thomas. “We just need to make the appropriate set-asides. It would be pleasurable to have the people who live here stay here. There needs to be attention paid to the crumbling housing stock. We have a housing fund that has not been used for that purpose. It’s all about striking a balance.”
“We need more affordable housing for our own people,” responded Trustee Bart Didden. “That flies against the ideas of fair housing. Everybody should have every opportunity. You can’t say Port Chester first. It doesn’t work that way.”
Trustee Frank Ferrara agreed. “You can’t build affordable housing for your own,” he said. “You can’t have a residency requirement.”
“The draft of our zoning code for affordable housing is 10%,” said Ferrara. “I know there has been pressure to see more. It is another one of those asks that makes development that much more difficult to happen and increases the other rents.”
“I believe we can do better,” said Trustee Luis Marino. “If they come up with the right number somehow, I’m okay with it. I would love to see more (than 10%).”
“The formula for affordable housing should be modified,” said Trustee Greg Adams. “It is based on the entire county. To me that is not fair to the people of Port Chester.”
“We don’t have a way of collecting the demographic information for the people of Port Chester,” responded Didden.
“The county is getting ready to do a housing needs assessment throughout the county,” explained Grangenois-Thomas, which may include a different formula for different income levels across the county. “It should be very interesting and give us some guidance of how we look at affordable housing. This approach needs to be comprehensive, not just new development but what we already have here, rehabbing crumbling housing stock.”
“I am interested in looking at the county study Mrs. Thomas talked about,” responded Didden. “I hope the county’s new estimates and surveys continue along the lines of the HUD lawsuit and it does not just get dumped on Port Chester but the rest of the county.”
“I agree with Greg and Joan that when you use the county numbers for median income, it is a step above the income levels we currently have,” said Trustee Dan Brakewood. The county’s median income is $90,000 for a family of four while Port Chester’s is closer to $60,000. “It is a step up from what Port Chester people can actually afford.”
Brakewood thinks the village needs to think about affordable ownership like the townhouses on Fox Island Road to create wealth for the homeowners rather than focusing on apartments. “That is the vision we should be creating,” he concluded.
“There is always going to be a certain portion of the population anywhere that need affordable housing, but it should not be our answer,” said Ferrara. “It robs the market of the ability to respond. What we really have here is a failure in leadership across the country. Leadership has not enabled housing to meet demand. This is a matter of political leadership.”
Continuing his theme of smart public policies, Alex Payan encourages smart affordable housing. “Review the current conditions of affordable housing and improve these living conditions,” he said, adding that if he gets elected or not, he wants to tackle this task for those in the Port Chester Housing Authority’s workforce and senior affordable housing.
“Through my work with Community Gardens, I have had the opportunity to talk to the residents,” he explained. “They are looking for help in job skills and training, healthcare and becoming a citizen. We have a wealth of non-profits and I will be more than happy to facilitate that process.”
Adams countered that the Housing Authority board, of which his wife is a member, keeps its finger on the pulse of the housing authority residents.
Vacant United Hospital property
Many know the former United Hospital property as the hazardous “eyesore” that greets visitors and residents as they enter the Village of Port Chester on Boston Post Road.
The site has been vacant since February 2005, after the hospital declared bankruptcy in light of an $80 million debt in December 2004. Though Starwood Capital Partners has owned the 15.4-acre property for the last 13 years, development on the property remains dormant, causing great frustration and angst to residents and the Board of Trustees.
Incumbent Luis Marino said as a trustee, he would love to move forward with developing the property as fast as possible. However, because it’s private property, he disclosed the circumstance is out of the board’s hands.
“It’s unfortunate the village doesn’t have arrows in their quiver to use under these circumstances,” said trustee candidate Joan Grangenois-Thomas. “It’s a unique situation where it would be great if we had more teeth in our policy that we could have used to get Starwood to have moved more quickly.”
“A million times I’ve had the same reaction as Joan, the ‘jeez, I’d like to have more teeth,’” noted trustee seeking re-election Frank Ferrara. “But you have to be careful what you wish for. You really have a problem property there, and at the end of the day it’s good that it’s the responsibility of someone other than the village.”
Dan Brakewood, an incumbent, said when Starwood expressed interest in the property, they claimed that because they’re based in Greenwich, Conn., they want wanted to do something meaningful in a nearby community. However, the firm failed to fulfill such promises.
After submitting several unfavorable proposals to the Board of Trustees, the investment firm worked with a village subcommittee in 2013 to devise an agreed upon plan for the hospital site. The proposal included market rate housing, senior and millennial housing, office and wellness space, restaurant and retail space and parking.
Though the Board of Trustees approved the final rezoning of the property to make way for the development in March 2017, Starwood never initiated construction. In September 2017, Starwood announced plans to sell the property and is still seeking a buyer.
“I have zero sympathy for Starwood Capital if they lose money on what’s happened at United Hospital. They’ve done nothing with the property,” said Brakewood, who was on the 2013 subcommittee. “They put bad proposal after bad proposal in front of the village. They withdrew some of those themselves, and the village rejected some. They finally got approval and did nothing with it. The property has declined and decayed over the past 13 years, a child died on that property because of their neglect.”
Brakewood was referring to Chris Aguilar, a 14-year-old Port Chester resident who died in June 2017. The Port Chester High School student broke into the abandoned site with a group of friends and fell through the roof of one of the buildings.
Incumbent seeking re-election Greg Adams said if nothing else, he wants to prioritize putting pressure on Starwood to demolish the buildings for the safety of the village.
Beyond that, when demolition and construction finally does begin, Adams wants to ensure all neighboring residents, the dog park, the nursing home and employees nearby are safe from asbestos, gases and rodents that are affiliated with the property.
“We gave them a zoning change and they did absolutely nothing,” Adams said. “Moving forward, should the Board of Trustees ever grant any kind of zoning changes, if you haven’t put a shovel in the ground within six months, your zoning change should be taken back.”
Ferrara responded with note that the zoning change was not done specifically for Starwood Capital, but moreover for the physical property. It was intended to encapsulate the village’s vision for the land.
Incumbent Bart Didden said in the future, he may urge the board to consult with their attorneys and corporation counsel to make rezoning time sensitive. Ferrara said he would not object to such provisions, though they both agreed that six months is not a realistic constraint.
Elaborating, Didden said potential developers would need at least two or three years to go through the permitting process.
“Zoning should reflect what the community believes is the best use of the property for the community. The zoning we were putting in place was not for Starwood Capital, it’s whoever owns that property, whether it’s now, 10 years from now or 50 years from now,” Brakewood argued. “So, I’m very comfortable with the zoning we put in, and whoever builds it really needs to adhere to the zoning laws that we put in place. If they want to come back to us with a different proposal and expect us to just willy-nilly change it, I think they’re going to be in for a long, tough slog of hearings.”
In response, Didden said that’s a nice thought but not realistic. The board needs to be responsive to the property owner, he said. As a “worst case example,” he depicted a scenario where a frustrated developer ultimately sells the property to a church or educational facility in retaliation. That way, the property would no longer be on the tax rolls.
“All the praying and the planning you’re hoping to get by a rezoning plan is to help the taxpayers,” he said. “They’re the ones that get harmed by crazy ideas and lofty goals of politicians and the Board of Trustees when they don’t come around and try to find a middle ground to increase the tax base, get the property productive, get rid of the eyesore and the health hazard. There’s so many positives to moving that project along. But the only thing you can do is find a partner who owns the property and in the process come up with a project that benefits all and moves the ball forward.”
Concerned with the health and wellness of neighboring residents, candidate Alex Payan said moving forward the board needs to stay on top of whoever buys the United Hospital site to ensure something is done as soon as possible.
“The fatigue felt by Port Chester residents has gone on for too long. This is much more than an eyesore, it’s our welcome mat to the world. It’s what you see when you come into Port Chester and what you see when you leave. It’s inconceivable how this thing has lasted for this long,” Payan said. “As a board, we need to be vigilant and make sure it’s moving in the right direction. It needs to be negotiable, it needs to be fair to Port Chester and the developers as well.”