The starting gun has fired, and the county’s second-largest city has leapt well clear of the blocks in its race to attract 20,000 new residents in the next decade through aggressive transit-oriented development. The construction disrupts traffic and business patterns but promises substantial rewards.
“It’s going to be a ‘new’ New Rochelle,” says Chamber of Commerce executive director Jennifer Lanser. “It could be really great for our city. There’s a lot of opportunity for business.”
That new New Rochelle will come from the Downtown renewal plan enacted by the city at the end of 2015. If all goes as planned over the next decade, it will create 6,370 housing units and 1,200 hotel rooms in 12 million square feet of new construction in the 300-acre Downtown district. “We expect the Downtown economy will be progressively successful as new investment pours in,” says Mayor Noam Bramson. “This will, in turn, create exciting business opportunities for entrepreneurs and others who want to plant a flag in New Rochelle.”
One of those entrepreneurs is Julio Ramirez, who opened the Brightway Insurance Agency in 2018 after working in the industry for 13 years in Brooklyn and Manhattan. “I came to New Rochelle to build a book of business in a place that has the desire to grow and change with the times,” he says. “The development here is awesome. New Rochelle has great potential.”
The ambitious development program is firmly underway, according to Bramson, with more than 30 projects approved and about a dozen currently under construction. If all goes as planned, the buildout is slated for completion around 2025.
The city needs the lift. Until the renewal construction started, the streets of Downtown New Rochelle were lined with small-storefront food stores, miscellaneous retailers, and eating and drinking establishments. The area hasn’t been a significant retail center since the 1990s, when Macy’s left town (Bloomingdale’s left in the 1970s) and the New Rochelle mall was replaced by the New Roc City entertainment complex.
Source: 2012 Economic Census
In addition to 5,500 new residential units, the Downtown revitalization plan calls for one million square feet of new retail space. Will there be tenants for that space in a county with rising retail vacancy rates? “Yes,” according to Seth Pinsky, executive vice president and investment manager of RXR Realty. “There is a natural order to redevelopment,” he says. “It starts with residential space. The residential market in the New York area is so tight, people will take chances on emerging neighborhoods with high-quality inventory at reasonable prices that offer diversity, character, and transit accessibility. A critical mass of population and talent attracts retail, and retail and talent, in turn, eventually attracts commercial users.”
Pinsky’s firm is the designated master developer for the city’s revitalization plan and is leasing apartments in its first 28-story building at 360 Huguenot Street, a 280-unit luxury rental building owned by a joint venture of RXR, ABS Realty, and Brause Realty. As master developer, RXR has the right to develop five city-owned surface-level parking lots in Downtown. The company has closed on the first of these parcels, between Church and Division Streets, and expects building construction to commence in October.
The tenants at 360 Huguenot and the others under construction are expected to be a mix of commuters walking to New Rochelle’s transit center and enjoying the quick 30-minute train ride to Grand Central, as well as young professionals working in Westchester and Fairfield County businesses and empty nesters looking to downsize yet wanting to remain in their communities. (According to the city’s 2016 comprehensive plan, more than five in every six residents currently work outside of New Rochelle.)
Source: 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, 2018 Population Estimates
Unlike nearby White Plains and Harrison, what New Rochelle doesn’t currently have is a stock of prime office space and the accompanying white-collar jobs. The Downtown revitalization plan includes 2.2 million square feet of office space to correct that deficiency. The county is widely recognized to have too much office space already, though, so it again raises the question: If you build it, will the jobs come? Pinsky says the talent and skills of the growing population will pull companies into the city: “We are confident that there will be a robust office market in New Rochelle, but it will take some time for some of the other uses to reach critical mass first.”
Jobs in New Rochelle itself now are largely in lower-paying sectors of the economy, including hotel and restaurants, retailing, and healthcare, putting New Rochelle’s median income well below that of Westchester County — and shrinking faster on an inflation-adjusted basis. The impact can be seen in residents’ $1.2 billion total in consumer purchases, where New Rochelle residents spend $235 million more outside the city than within it. That’s a surprisingly large gap considering the number of auto dealers and big-box stores in the city, establishments that typically draw customers from surrounding towns and thereby boost the local retail sales figures.
The single largest employer in the city is Montefiore, which includes Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital, Schaffer Extended Care Center, and the Montefiore School of Nursing. Combined, the facilities have 1,293 employees and 492 clinicians credentialed for practice. About 28% of the employees live in the city.
by alex potemkin/istock
While exact economic-impact data isn’t available, Montefiore VP/executive director Tony Alfano says, “On an annual basis, we contribute more than $750,000 in rental properties alone for physician practices throughout the city of New Rochelle. Whenever applicable, the hospital contracts with local vendors for landscaping, construction projects, and catering facilities for special events.” Alfano adds: “There is also the daily employee utilization of delis, pizzerias, and local restaurants and pharmacies, all equating to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.”
The hospital, located just outside the Downtown redevelopment zone, is expanding, as well, thanks to a $44.5 million state grant. Also expanding is Iona College, another major employer in the city, with 772 staffers. Located north of the redevelopment zone, the college recently unveiled not only a new space for the Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation in Spellman Hall, along with a “neighbor-friendly” reno to the Hynes Athletic Center, but was also (at press time) readying the brand-new home of its LaPenta School of Business in time for the spring 2020 sememster, in January. Monroe College in Downtown New Rochelle houses 1,000 students and serves a large commuter population, as well. (One question mark in the city’s education sector is the 15-acre campus of The College of New Rochelle, east of the Downtown area, which was being sold in bankruptcy proceedings at press time.)
New Rochelle’s business community extends far beyond the Downtown redevelopment zone. The city stretches a full 10 miles, from Scarsdale in the north to Long Island Sound in the south. While much of that consists of suburban neighborhoods, numerous commercial districts are distributed throughout, also east to west, along Post Road, from Pelham to Larchmont. Its neighborhoods are a collection of communties reflecting the city’s diverse population.
“We expect the Downtown economy will be progressively successful as new investment pours in. This will, in turn, create exciting business opportunities for entrepreneurs and others who want to plant a flag in New Rochelle.”
—New Rochelle mayor Noam Bramson
Mayor Bramson says the city is fully cognizant of the needs of the business community outside the Downtown area, but the goals for it are different. “Of course, we want all [of our businesses] to be healthy and vibrant, but our growth objectives are really concentrated in the Downtown area, where you have infrastructure that can support it, where you have access to mass transit, and where growth is appropriate,” he notes. “In other parts of New Rochelle, our primary objective is preservation. We want businesses to succeed within their current physical envelope and dimensions, as opposed to stimulating additional density or scale.”
The cranes and bulldozers moving through the city are evidence that the “new” New Rochelle is just around the corner. Rob Hayes, owner of the Beechmont Tavern, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and a lifelong resident of the city and graduate of Iona, says the overall outlook is decidedly bright. “The Downtown development is the big news, but there are a lot of businesses looking to come to New Rochelle. There is a lot of opportunity for new businesses to prosper,” he explains.
“We are extremely bullish on New Rochelle,” adds Pinsky. “It has incredible diversity, a Downtown that’s attractive and walkable, and a community that really cares about the city and the downtown in particular. There’s amazing connectivity to Manhattan.” He adds, “New Rochelle also has something a lot of communities in the New York area do not have: a government that recognizes that the key to continued prosperity is smart and well-planned growth.”
Dave Donelson has been a keen observer of New Rochelle since he moved his family there 40 years ago. Today, he lives and writes in West Harrison.