For Felix T. Charney, founder and chief executive of real estate management and investment firm Summit Development Corp., Chappaqua Crossing represents the culmination of a Job-like test of patience. It was a 12-year undertaking from initial property purchase to groundbreaking, spanning the administrations of four New Castle supervisors, dozens of site-plan proposals and counterproposals, millions in legal and environmental review costs, and a buzz saw of resident opposition over developing the roughly 115-acre expanse of the historic Reader’s Digest building and adjoining campus.
The project counts as the most protracted building-application process in the history of the Town of New Castle. Yet, it has emerged today — some 15 years after the partnership between Summit Development and real estate manager Greenfield Partners acquired the site in 2004 for $59 million — as a showcase of mixed-use that includes 64 rental apartments, 450,000 square feet of office and medical space in the main building, and 120,000 square feet of adjoining retail that currently houses Whole Foods, Life Time Chappaqua, and Chase Bank.
“The process to get here was painful,” admits Charney. “But what you see here is an absolute living and breathing example of compromise. We certainly didn’t have an exclusive on the bright idea. Something of this scope must be collaborative. Everybody has fingerprints on this — from elected town officials to our partners in this project.”
The 95,000 sq. ft. area that previously housed the office portion of the former Reader’s Digest HQ now features landscaped courtyards, two fitness rooms, a club room, and a complimentary shuttle to the Metro-North train station in downtown Chappaqua. It has already lured such marquee tenants as Northern Westchester Hospital, which opened an ambulatory center there, and CareMount Medical, which has made Chappaqua Crossing the site of its corporate headquarters.
“Summit/Greenfield and the town went through a very long process, but the result speaks for itself. It is a great development and we are proud to be a part of it,” says William Balter, president of Wilder Balter Partners, the housing developer selected by Summit/Greenfield to build the affordable and market-rate apartments at Chappaqua Crossing. Wilder Balter has a 99-year lease on the cupola building, rented the first units in 2018, and 100% of the units were rented by the end of 2018. “There were fits and starts for [Charney’s] team, but he stayed through it,” Balter adds.
Meanwhile, Verizon, Compass Real Estate, and a local jewelry store called Rocks have signed on to move into the $50 million retail complex, which Summit built in partnership with Boston-based developer The Grossman Cos. Still awaiting approval from the New Castle Planning Board are 91 townhomes to be erected by national homebuilder Toll Brothers on a 31-acre back portion of the property.
Chappaqua Crossing is not Charney’s first time at the rodeo. To date, the 64-year-old, who founded Southport, CT-based Summit in 1981, has developed roughly four million square feet of commercial space and nearly 1,000 residential units, primarily in Fairfield County. He estimates that when completed, the total cost of Chappaqua Crossing will be roughly $200 million.
“We have employees here who were probably babies when this whole thing began,” Charney says. “It feels good to be in the ‘fourth quarter,’ I can say that.”
The Chappaqua Crossing odyssey began in late 2004, when Summit partnered with the Westport, CT-based Greenfield. The tandem was selected over 100 other eager bidders to acquire the property, over which the Digest had held dominion since 1939. The legendary Georgian-style building, with its distinctive cupola framed by a quartet of Pegasus statues, was for generations a familiar landmark off the intersection of the Saw Mill Parkway and Chappaqua’s Roaring Brook Road. At one point, the pocket-sized publication it generated boasted roughly 16 million readers a month and a workforce of more than 5,000. But the rise of digital publishing, coupled with a waning readership in general-interest magazines, saw the pop-culture-oriented periodical founded by DeWitt and Lila Bell Wallace in 1922 fall on hard times.
After going public in 1990, the company reported red ink for six consecutive years from 2005-2010 and scaled back occupancy in its headquarters space from 600,000 square feet to 200,000. It subsequently hired commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield to locate a development partner for the by then largely vacant building. In 2009, the HQ operation relocated from Chappaqua to Manhattan, the same year its parent company, Reader’s Digest Association (RDA), filed for bankruptcy. RDA filed for Chapter 11 a second time, in 2013, citing nearly $500 million in debt.
“The process to get here was painful. But what you see here is an absolute living and breathing example of compromise…. Something of this scope must be collaborative. Everybody has fingerprints on this — from elected town officials to our partners in this project.”
—Felix Charney Founder and CEO, Summit Development Corp.
“At first, New Castle said they wanted age-restricted housing on the property,” explains Charney. “So, our initial plan was to build approximately 350 units of age-restricted housing, leave 200,000 square feet for Reader’s Digest, and the rest would be open space. At first, New Castle seemed supportive but then backtracked over the number of units. On top of that, there were many protests by locals about developing what they saw as a historic landmark, exacerbated by concerns that 350 units would flood the schools and lower tax revenues. We eventually reduced the number to 199 units, which included 20 units of affordable housing. Then, after delays and rejections, it became a question of what could we ever get approved here?
“Remember,” Charney continues, “this was once the largest taxpayer in town, and now New Castle was losing a significant amount of revenue because nothing had been done with the property. They had no plan and didn’t seem to be interested in talking about a plan.”
Eventually Summit/Greenfield filed a legal action, which Charney admits was more form than substance. “It basically told them we were not going away, and it forced them to talk with us. Eventually Susan Carpenter [the third New Castle supervisor to hold office during the application process] ultimately extended the olive branch. She knew what we had done with Whole Foods in Connecticut and the last grocery store in Chappaqua, D’Agostino’s, had closed in 2011. Residents had to go to the A&P in Millwood. And that closed four years later, when A&P filed for bankruptcy. Can you conceive of a town of this magnitude not having a grocery store? So, we began talking.”
Carpenter left after one term, and Rob Greenstein was elected New Castle supervisor in 2014.
“I told them there’s been a lot of litigation and review and discussions, and that’s not where we want to be,” remembers Greenstein. “When I got elected, I reached out to Felix. I said we want this to be a win for you and the community. So, we sat down with the planning board and came up with something we both agreed upon, and now traditional housing is integrated with retail. It works for Felix, and it works for us.”
In addition to the other concessions, Summit/Greenfield Partners agreed to fund at least $4 million in road enhancements to the Bedford Road and Roaring Brook Road intersection, along with traffic-improvement measures at Horace Greeley High School. Meanwhile, the 400-seat auditorium, formerly used for Reader’s Digest conferences, was donated to New Castle and now functions as the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center, which was conceived to serve as a community-gathering hub.
Through it all, Charney — whose next feat will be converting the 1.2 million sq. ft. former Union Carbide headquarters in Danbury into an office/retail/residential complex named The Ridge at Danbury — has chosen to remain philosophical, stating, “This is something the community will benefit from for a long time. And, really, what more can you ask than that?”
Bill Carlino is a freelance writer living in Armonk.