In February of this year, there was plenty of evidence of New Rochelle’s ongoing facelift. Nearly a dozen construction sites were active in Westchester’s second-largest city: On LeCount Place, workers bustled around the naked frame of a new building. On Garden Street, plywood walls barely concealed a small fleet of steam shovels. And just a few blocks away, on Division Street, an empty lot stood prepped and ready for groundbreaking.
It’s a striking change of pace for New Rochelle, which invested in development only relatively recently. “In the 10 years prior to 2015, we had one building built in our downtown,” says Luiz Aragon, the city’s commissioner of development. “Today, we have 31 projects and 11 construction sites.”
But it’s not just the volume of new development that’s remarkable; it’s also the type. All 11 construction sites are for mixed-use developments, which combine residential and commercial space — including restaurants, retail shops, offices, and even a medical space. There’s North Avenue West, which will bring 75 apartments and 7,000 square feet of retail to the city. Close by is 277 North Avenue, which couples more than 400 apartments with thousands of square feet of retail. Then there’s 14 LeCount Place — 27 stories of shopping and residential units. And lots more.
New Rochelle is a microcosm for what’s happening across the county: an influx of development that’s pairing new housing with shopping right next door or, in some cases, just down a flight of stairs. For residents, it means a more convenient Westchester.
One Westchesterite appreciative of the trend is Michael Cleary. Cleary, 46, lives in 360 Huguenot, a towering development in the heart of New Rochelle that features apartments with views of the Sound, erected by RXR Realty, the NYC and Long Island-based company that’s been named New Rochelle’s master developer. There’s ample space on the ground floor for retail, and the building has many of the amenities that mixed-use developments are known for, like in-house gyms, lounges, and cafes. (“I stopped buying espresso coffees in the morning,” Cleary says. “I just get it downstairs.”)
Cleary moved into the apartment last year with his fiancée, stepson, and dog. “We want for nothing in our building,” he says. “I can have my groceries dropped off to me. Our dry cleaning is right there. It’s totally accessible to everything.”
Working in Brooklyn currently and having previously lived in New York City, Cleary says New Rochelle offers the same walkability. “Literally just two blocks away is restaurant row,” he says. He also commutes by train each morning, rather than driving into Brooklyn.
Today’s mixed-use boom can be traced back to the successes of earlier Westchester projects, like Ridge Hill in Yonkers. The 84-acre project, perched on a hilltop in the city’s north end, opened in 2011 as a shopping mecca. The complex features scores of businesses, medical facilities, and anchor stores, like Whole Foods and Dick’s Sporting Goods. And residents of the Monarch apartments, also on the hilltop, can walk to any of the businesses in a matter of minutes.
By the end of the decade, mixed-use developments had spread significantly. “It’s happening across the county, everywhere from Peekskill down to New Rochelle,” says Bridget Gibbons, Westchester County’s director of economic development. Peekskill’s latest addition — Lofts on Main — officially opened in 2019 and features 75 apartments atop a street-level bakery, beauty salon, and other retail. There’s more on the horizon, too: Peekskill’s 10-story One Park Place is slated to be completed by the end of 2020. Architects’ renderings imagine Lacoste and Calvin Klein stores claiming the ground-floor real estate.
Westchester’s sleepier suburbs aren’t missing out on the trend, either. “Smaller communities realize they need a vibrant downtown; they need boots on the ground,” Gibbons says. “They have seen the demand.”
In Chappaqua, the recently opened Chappaqua Crossing reinvented the former Reader’s Digest headquarters with apartments, office space, and retail. In Dobbs Ferry, Rivertowns Square opened in 2017, offering more than 200 apartments alongside restaurants, a gym, an urgent-care facility, and shopping.
Meanwhile, there’s more coming: The former Westchester Pavilion in White Plains will be transformed into hundreds of apartments and sprawling retail space over the coming years. And in Pelham, the $28 million MatriArch Development project aims to build dozens of apartments and ground-floor retail. “It’s going to really transform the downtown area,” Gibbons says.
“Transformation” is the right word for what’s afoot. Mixed-use properties are part of an evolving Westchester, spurred on by everything from growing housing demand to the lifestyle preferences of Millennials and baby boomers to economic pressure from online retailers, like Amazon. We spoke with residents and a range of experts — from developers to city planners to economists — about what’s driving the mixed-use trend, who’s benefiting, and what it augurs for the future of the county.
The proliferation of mixed-use developments is neither a coincidence nor a gamble, says Gibbons. “Real estate developers do extensive research and are years ahead of what they anticipate to be the market demand,” she explains.
“Based on their research, they have determined there’s a need for rental housing for both empty nesters and Millennials,” Gibbons continues. But these two demographics aren’t settling for traditional apartments: “They want to be in a downtown lifestyle. They want to have lots of great activities all around them — a restaurant in the lobby, a gym, a coworking space.”
Martin Ginsburg, one of Westchester’s most prolific developers, agrees. He has built a local empire based on “the idea that you can live, work, and play in the same area,” he says. Ginsburg, who founded Ginsburg Development Companies, has a half-century pedigree in the local real estate industry. Walkable communities — “where there’s a sense of liveliness and less emphasis on the automobile” — are more than a fad, he says. In other words: Westchester’s bedroom communities are growing up.
Ginsburg is currently transforming the former Westchester Financial Center in White Plains into City Square, a mixed-use project featuring revitalized office space and new apartments. The site’s amenities range from restaurants and retail to art installations and a two-acre park in the heart of the development.
Another bullish developer is Charter Realty & Development. “We are currently the brokers for several mixed-use projects underway in Westchester,” explains Dan Zelson, principal of the company. One project, near the Harrison train station, comprises 143 apartments and more than 27,000 square feet of new retail space. Another Harrison project, the Carraway, will add apartments and a Wegmans grocery store to the town.
“We want for nothing in our building. I can have my groceries dropped off to me. Our dry cleaning is right there. It’s totally accessible to everything.”
—Michael Cleary, resident, 360 Huguenot, New Rochelle
Charter’s most ambitious project is Kirby Commons, a development in partnership with Gotham Property Acquisitions. The project will feature some 50,000 square feet of retail, medical, and community space and 217 apartments, spread across two buildings by the Mount Kisco train station. “It presents the ‘live, work, and play’ scenario many people are looking for today,” Zelson explains.
“There is a need for quality residential that takes advantage of a wonderful downtown and easy train access,” he notes. “When you add to this the ability to walk out your door and have a train get you to other parts of New York, I think you have a real win.”
RXR Realty is also fueling the trend, having developed several New Rochelle projects, as well as the mixed-use Larkin Plaza in Yonkers, overlooking the Hudson.
David Garten, senior vice president at RXR Realty, says a range of needs are driving the trend and that a number of factors make Westchester the ideal location for the trend to play out. “New York City has incredible affordability challenges,” Garten explains. “And at the end of the day, there’s only a finite amount of space — there’s always a supply issue. To address these challenges, we have to think regionally.”
Cities like New Rochelle and Yonkers are regional solutions, Garten says. “They have a lot of the ingredients that we believe make for a successful mixed-use development: walkable downtowns, proximity to mass transit, diversity, and a certain sense of character.”
Many Westchester municipalities have another “critical element” for mixed-use developments, Garten notes: leaders who are amenable to the trend.
To many of Westchester’s mayors and city planners, mixed-use developments are a boon: They revitalize flagging retail sectors, stimulate the economy, and provide a healthy boost to tax bases.
In Yonkers, Mayor Mike Spano says the commercial components of mixed-use projects are often creative, carving out niches where Amazon and other digital retail giants cannot compete. “People are shopping more often online, and so people are looking for experience-driven retail [offline],” Spano says. Some of Ridge Hill’s biggest businesses — like Legoland Discovery Center and iFly Indoor Skydiving — provide something you can’t experience through a laptop or tablet.
Spano adds that the developments are serving two of his city’s largest demographics: young professionals and parents of grown children. “It’s what empty nesters and Millennials are looking for,” he says. The trend is also expanding the city’s tax base and making Yonkers more walkable, he adds.
New Rochelle lawmakers have a similarly optimistic view. Mixed-use developments are a central part of the city’s downtown revitalization effort, an ambitious initiative that’s been underway since 2015. It entails millions of square feet of new construction across 300 acres, including 7,000 new housing units.
“The goal is to encourage investment, attract residents, and propel the New Rochelle economy forward,” says Aragon, the development commissioner. Many of the new mixed-use projects were enticed by New Rochelle’s shovel-ready policy — an ability to approve projects “not in nine years or nine months, but 90 days,” Aragon adds.
Chappaqua may be far different than New Rochelle, but the small, suburban hamlet in the town of New Castle is also welcoming mixed-use development. It’s even written into New Castle’s 2017 Comprehensive Plan: “Promoting new mixed-use development in the hamlets to meet the community’s housing needs and fostering thriving commercial and civic spaces,” the relevant portion reads.
The capstone development so far is Chappaqua Crossing, a project that transformed the long-unused Reader’s Digest headquarters into a residential and commercial hub. “Currently, there are 64 units of housing,” says Ivy Pool, New Castle’s town supervisor. “Additionally, 91 townhouses are planned in the future.”
Pool continues: “In 2018, the retail portion of the site began to open its doors, which includes a Whole Foods market and a Life Time, among other businesses.” Pool notes that some Chappaqua residents were initially skeptical, anxious about traffic that could disrupt the sleepy atmosphere of the area. But “now that the retail portion of the site has opened, most of the community has embraced this addition,” Pool says.
“Through the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency, we have been supporting these developments through sales-tax exemption and mortgage recording tax exemption.”
—Bridget Gibbons, Director of Economic Development, Westchester County
Tom and Cathy Quaranta are among the residents who have embraced Chappaqua Crossing. The couple — now the retired former owners of a bridal business — sold their Long Island home 14 years ago and moved to Connecticut. Then, about two years ago, they settled into Chappaqua Crossing to be closer to their children and grandchildren, who also call Chappaqua home.
“We have Whole Foods; we have a Life Time gym,” Tom Quaranta says. “I love that. And new businesses are coming in.” The couple are thrilled that a theater is part of the neighborhood, too: Chappaqua Performing Arts Center sits at the heart of the development.
Despite the urban feel, the Quarantas say a small-town sentiment remains. “I’ve gotten to know almost everybody by name,” Tom notes. “When you live in a private home in a neighborhood, you don’t have the experience of other people in your building.” Neighbors bump into each other regularly at local retailers, Cathy says, and also at the residence’s library and community room.
And while Chappaqua can’t build at the same scale as New Rochelle, there’s still room for more than one development. “There is a mixed-use building being built at 91 Bedford Road — a three-story building, with ground-floor retail and 14 residential units above,” Pool says.
It’s not just individual cities and towns that are encouraging these developments; the county is, too. “Through the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency, we have been supporting these developments through sales-tax exemption and mortgage recording tax exemption,” says Gibbons. “It allows these projects to be doable in Westchester.” In 2019, the county “incentivized $1.6 billion almost exclusively in the mixed-use residential-development space,” she adds.
Gibbons, like Spano, notes that these developments are helping Westchester adapt to the impact of Amazon and other online competitors. “We’re not seeing retail in the traditional sense, like a clothing store or something you can order online,” she explains. Instead, these developments are focused on “creative uses, experiential — a gym, a coworking space, restaurants, organic-food shops.”
What’s ahead for the mixed-use furor? Is it winding down or just beginning? Over the next three to five years, “we’re going to see this trend continue,” Gibbons predicts. “I say to people, ‘Come back to White Plains in two years; it’s going to be transformed.’ We probably approved 15 projects in White Plains alone over the past couple of years.”
Spano of Yonkers expresses a similar sentiment about his city’s eastern neighborhoods. “In my opinion, you’re going to see Central Avenue transform,” the mayor says. Garten, of RXR, concurs: “I think you’ll continue to see [mixed-use developments] throughout the decade.”
Residents who treasure Westchester’s sleepier quality may balk at the prospect. “There are some [municipalities] that still don’t see the vision of wanting more development,” Gibbons notes. “But in my opinion, that’s an old way of thinking. Having mixed-use zoning has been very advantageous for the health of the economies of these municipalities.”
Maggie Peters, the newly minted senior vice president of economic development for the Business Council of Westchester, puts it most concisely. When asked why developers are so bullish on the mixed-use trend, she replies: “Because it’s in demand. Because that’s what people want.”
Peekskill-based freelance writer Kevin Zawacki is a frequent contributor to both Westchester Magazine and 914INC.