Is Yonkers About To Experience A Giant Revival?

i.Park Hudson, a 24-acre downtown office campus, is home to firms like Kawasaki, ContraFect, and Mindspark.

In 2006, Yonkers bought an eight-page section in the New York Times to trumpet billions of dollars of development based on expected 10-percent population growth, the addition of 10,000 permanent jobs in the ensuing 10 years, and an economic growth rate projected to be twice the national average. Developers were granted property-tax abatements, mortgage and sales tax relief, grants for brownfield mitigation, and anything else the city fathers could think of to induce them to build something—anything—in downtown Yonkers. The timing couldn’t have been worse, coming just as $4.1 trillion in debt held by the five largest investment banks in the US turned to something that could have poured out of the sewage treatment plant just south of downtown Yonkers, and plunged the world’s economy into near-depression. 

All that was yet to come when I wrote about the city’s (original) renaissance in the June 2007 issue of Westchester Magazine. I built the story around an appropriate symbol of the city’s rebirth: the opening of Peter Kelly’s X2O Xaviars on the Hudson atop the municipal pier. Westchester’s own celebrity restaurateur, winner on TV’s Iron Chef, owner of multiple award-winning Hudson Valley restaurants (not to mention a producer of Napa Valley wines), had returned to the city of his birth to invest $2 million in a dazzling eatery. His story seemed to epitomize the pending rejuvenation of the tired old industrial waterfront.

Today, Kelly’s situation also reflects the current state of the city’s economy. The restaurant has been successful, although not to the grand scale once envisioned, since almost all of the other projects that were to bring thousands of new prospective diners downtown collapsed before they began. “Our reputation was big enough to bring people here as a destination,” Kelly says. “But even with that, it’s been flat.” Kelly is also embroiled in a messy lawsuit with the Yonkers Pier Development over some $462,000 of unpaid fees and utility bills he says he withheld in protest of the city’s failure to deliver on promises of more than $1.5 million in repairs and incomplete work, in addition to energy issues and a landlord dispute dating back to 2007. But Kelly expects the dispute to be settled, and he remains cautiously optimistic about the future of Yonkers. “I’m still a believer,” he says. “When I stand in my restaurant and see where we are, 25 minutes from Manhattan, the center of the universe, I’m not just drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Nor are today’s developers, according to former Yonkers Industrial Development Corporation (IDA) CEO Melvina Carter, who left office this year. “I’ve seen development surge and then pull back because of the economy,” she says. “In 2012, though, when Mike Spano took office, developers saw a new opportunity. They decided it was time to get the ball rolling.”

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A Plethora of Projects

Today, many downtown development projects are in flux, but several look like they’ll actually sprout cranes and girders in the near future. After many years of starts and stops, Yonkers completed the first phase of the $48-million day-lighting of the Saw Mill River, turning a two-block eyesore parking lot into a park-lined riverfront in the heart of downtown. The city has started the second phase of the plan, turning a neglected downtown lot into a pedestrian mall named Mill Street Courtyard and opening a 75- by 30-foot section of the river’s underground flume. That, in turn, will signal the construction of phase one of The Rising, a $22-million plan masterminded by New York City-based developer Nick Sprayregen to turn five properties on Main Street into lofts, retail, and restaurant space. 

The $48-million Saw Mill River day-lighting project turned a two-block eyesore into this riverfront attraction.

“The daylighting of the river, coupled with the re-development of our properties there,” will drive additional development downtown, bringing new visitors to the retailers, restaurants, and the park, Sprayregen says. The Yonkers IDA approved the financial incentives for this phase in late 2013, but Sprayregen says it’s just the beginning of his plans for the area around Larkin Plaza. The second phase of his plan is now moving toward the financing stage.

“The crown jewel of our properties will be a 24-story tower combined with the low-rise overlooking the Saw Mill River park,” Sprayregen says. “It will be one block from the Metro-North station and overlooking this beautiful amenity. Between the library, the day-lighting of the river, and the Metro-North station, the site just begs for a good development.” The Yonkers planning board approved the $150-million tower plans in the spring of 2013. “Now it’s a matter of moving forward with the financing of the project,” Sprayregen notes.

Also moving off the drawing board is Teutonia Hall on Buena Vista Avenue downtown. It will become the site of a 24-story residential tower with 361 units. The IDA has authorized the first phase, approximately $8 million in demolition and site remediation, and authorized a mortgage-tax abatement and sales-tax exemption on construction materials. Still in the financing phase, the Yonkers-based developer Metro Partners hopes to begin actual construction in the first quarter of 2015.

The biggest success on the Yonkers waterfront has been the developments from Collins Enterprises LLC, which opened Hudson Park South with 266 one- and two-bedroom apartments in 2003, then survived the economic tsunami to complete Hudson Park North, two towers with 294 apartments, in 2008. The Stamford, Connecticut-based company is trying to secure funding to build a 23-story residential complex on a lot just north of Hudson Park North at the corner of Wells Avenue and Penne Lane, which will complete its downtown Yonkers hat trick.

Recently finished is the Main Street Library, a project completed by New Jersey firm Fidelco Realty Group. The retail portion of the property that replaced the old Yonkers Library has been leased, and 23 units of live-work loft rentals have a waiting list, according to Fidelco Chairman Marc Berson.

Fidelco wants to pursue its plans for several other sites in the city, but its prospects are clouded by its status as the only remaining partner of SFC, the city’s erstwhile master developer that once was expected to lead $1.6 billion in projects from Nepperhan Avenue to Alexander Street. Among the current projects in Fidelco’s sites are a $100-million low-rise residential rental development on the waterfront between the sculpture garden and the sugar plant, a plot identified as Palisades Point, or legally as parcels H and I. In addition, Fidelco owns the site just north of Altman Lighting on the waterfront—a residential site that is the next development for the company after the H and I project. “In the meantime, we’re doing some planning work on the site. It will probably also be a rental development with 400 units or so,” Berson says.

The infamous Chicken Island is where SFC’s relationship with the city fell apart. That’s the site of an underused municipal parking lot and some surrounding property that was to have been developed into River Park Center, 2 million square feet of retail, office, and entertainment space literally crowned by a ball park perched atop an 11-story building. None of that is going to happen, so the city has moved to open the area to offers from other developers. “That doesn’t frustrate or upset us,” Berson says. “We have a real partnership going and we want to cooperate with the city. I am not interested in banking land for the next 10 years, so if they want to go in a different direction, I’m sure we can work something out.”

Ambitious Future Plans

Plans are in the works for a new 24-story residential tower overlooking Larkin Plaza and the Saw Mill River.

There is no shortage of waterfront projects that have been announced but are not quite ready for prime time. Chief among them is the long-abandoned Glenwood Power Plant, which is now under development as an events space and arts exhibit hall by Lela Goren. The founder and president of Goren Group bought out her erstwhile partner, Yonkers investor Ron Shemesh, not long after he closed his Excelsior Packaging Plant in the aftermath of Sandy (costing the city 112 jobs), and sold another site on the waterfront at 35 Water Grant Street that has gone undeveloped from owner to owner since it was abandoned by Sun Chemical Corp. decades ago. Goren expects the $70-million rehab project will be followed by a $60 million second phase that will add a boutique hotel, restaurants, marina, and other amenities to the power plant site, which has in recent years become known for its graffiti collection and rumored gang initiations. 

Goren Group also purchased Alder Manor, a 72-room mansion on North Broadway, with plans to restore while partially demolishing co-located Bosch Hall, a former school building, and turning the remainder into a restaurant or event space. 

The old Yonkers jail holds another piece of good news. Not long after taking office, Mayor Spano moved the prisoners and police operations from there to the Cacace Justice Center on South Broadway. That freed up the waterfront jail for development by art and photography dealer Daniel Wolf, who—along with his wife, award-winning architect and artist Maya Lin—will use it as a gallery, studio, and loft. Shortly after the $1-million sale was announced, Wolf applied for a $300,000 tax break from the city.

Downtown retail, dining, and entertainment enterprises seem to be lagging, but Yonkers Downtown/Waterfront BID Executive Director Daniel Lipka sees signs of change there, too. “Developers like Nick Sprayregen, Collins Enterprises, and Metro Partners have been moving forward to bring more residents and vitality to downtown,” Lipka says. “Hopefully, that will spur new stores and properties.”  

In the non-scientific-sample department, four of the five new downtown businesses I interviewed in 2007 are now closed, and Lipka admits some problems remain. “A number of storefronts are vacant and the misconception is that they are failed businesses,” he explains. “Actually, those are mostly developers waiting for the financing to build new things or refurbish what they have. In the meantime, we’ve just started a project to beautify those areas by putting art in the windows and painting the walls to give the positive feeling we want.”  

Lipka points to a growing calendar of promotional events around the newly day-lighted Saw Mill, the amphitheater by the Hudson Riverfront, and the library. He also cites Wine In Due Time, a new store by the waterfront, and Casa de Cafe, a new coffee shop, as examples of new businesses taking a strong community approach, by bringing people to events like open-mic nights and art shows featuring local talent. So is downtown Yonkers on the cusp of yet another renaissance? Architectural renderings are flying, press releases are streaming, ribbon-cuttings occur whenever two politicians and a photographer can be assembled in one place—the signs are there. On the other hand, while the housing bubble that burst in 2007 may belong in the history books, the stock market was flirting with bubble territory when we went to press this year. And Chicken Island? So far, it’s still a parking lot. 

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