Every urban area within driving distance of Williamsburg is striving to be “the new Brooklyn.” In a happy turning of the tide, Millennials are forswearing their suburban upbringings and returning to their grandparents’ (or great-grandparents’) city-based lifestyles. In Westchester, the cities of Yonkers, White Plains, and New Rochelle, along with other steadily urbanizing towns, are reaping the benefits, as these younger adults flee the unaffordable rents of Manhattan and Brooklyn for similar but more sustainable lifestyles. And companies large and small that are targeting this type of employee are following their trail, relocating from New York City or from county office parks in more suburban settings to a downtown Westchester location.
The increasing popularity of the urban lifestyle here — which scores points for affordability, convenience, a wealth of entertainment options, and a chance to leave the car in the garage and walk around a bit — is driving an influx of business.
It’s all enough to make a city planner sleep very well at night. “It has really accelerated in the last year or two,” says George Oros, director of the Westchester County Office of Economic Development, of the population boom. “My kids live in Brooklyn, and I live in Peekskill. Lately they have said that maybe they ought to look at living up here.”
If they do, they will join a workforce that is increasingly attractive to many businesses. They are young and well-educated: 47 percent of county residents over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree or better, Oros says. That’s just the kind of employee Little Big Brands looks for. “I don’t think we would have this group of amazing people if we were in a more serene setting,” says John Nunziato, founder and chief creative officer of the brand strategy and design firm, which recently moved into a cool 8,300 sq ft space at One North Broadway in White Plains. The company moved from the “sleepier” downtown area of Nyack, says Pamela Long, the company’s director of client services. “It didn’t have a lot of business, and that was appealing about White Plains,” she says. “It is a little New York City, with some skyscrapers, some great restaurants, arts and farmers’ markets, lots of things happening.”
The rents were another draw. Though Nunziato admits they could have spent less in, say, Pleasantville, they still got way more bang for the buck than they spent when he first started the company, in Manhattan. “We like to say that in Westchester, you can get twice the space for half the cost,” Oros says.
Other firms have also relocated to White Plains in the past few years. Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation recently signed a 13-year lease for 101,000 sq ft at the Gateway complex at 1 N Lexington Ave. Heineken USA took more than 50,000 sq ft on two floors in a Hamilton Avenue high-rise in 2011. New York Life recently announced it was moving from Mount Pleasant to a 146,000 sq ft space at 44 South Broadway. And Danone, the food giant that includes Dannon, Evian, and other famous brands, is relocating its North American headquarters from Greenburgh to a 100,000 sq ft space at 100 Bloomingdale Road. Among the reasons it cited for the move were “the location in a vibrant community accessible via mass transit” and the fact that “being within walking distance to restaurants, shopping, and mass transit are important for our company.”
Downtown White Plains
This influx in new business downtown is “something we worked hard on,” says White Plains’ mayor, Thomas Roach. Along with the big companies now calling the city home, “There are numerous others, too small to show up on radar,” he says. “One of the keys is, you need to be a place where people want to live, which is the natural cohort these companies need to draw the people they want to hire.”
It doesn’t hurt that the county is eager to make financial concessions to lure these companies here. As just one example, the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency gave preliminary approval for a $1.9 million sales-tax exemption for Sumitomo’s office improvements at the Gateway. But Roach says that making the area attractive to workers comes first. That includes new housing options, improving the train station, adding pedestrian and bike infrastructure and the like. “Residents can walk to everything they need here and can be in Manhattan in half an hour,” Roach says. “It’s a pretty great lifestyle. That’s what we’re selling, and people are buying.”
In Yonkers, the county’s largest city, the new iPark Hudson complex has drawn Alpha-en, a green-energy company; ContraFect, a biotech firm; manufacturer Kawasaki Rail Car; and IAC Applications, a digital-app developer. IAC Applications has six global offices, all of which are located in urban tech centers, says Leigh Hartman, the company’s director of talent acquisition. “This is important as we recruit for a full range of corporate roles and disciplines, including technical talent,” she says. “Westchester continues to attract tech companies in a variety of industries, and in order to grow, we must attract top talent, so a centralized location within the county gives us that edge.”
Little Big Brands
Yonkers has its own industrial develop-ment agency to incentivize corporations to move into town, but its job has gotten much easier of late. “In the early days, Yonkers gave tax breaks of up to 30 years,” says Mayor Mike Spano. “Because of development in the city, we can offer less now, because people want to come here. FedEx came here, and they actually had no incentives. Another company got a five-year incentive. As the tide has gone up for us, people see the value in Yonkers, and the incentives required are starting to go down, which is great for the taxpayer.”
Over in New Rochelle, they are playing a bit of catch-up. “We are in the early stages of implementing a downtown-revitalization plan,” explains Mayor Noam Bramson. The first wave of that plan focuses primarily on residential development. “We anticipate business growth will accelerate as we get deeper in,” he says. To push that along, the city adopted a form-based zoning code, which allows multiple-use development. “It lets developers respond flexibly to market demands yet is prescriptive with regard to design. It’s focused on creating an appealing, attractive experience at the street level.” The city has also completed an environmental review for all its “buildout objectives,” comprising 12 million square feet of new development, Bramson says, so individual projects won’t need to conduct their own review. “Downtown New Rochelle is a shovel-ready environment,” he says.
Residential and commercial develop-ment are mutually supportive, he adds. “Population density is vital for business attraction. It is all part and parcel with the changing lifestyle preferences of the Millennial generation, which by all accounts is more interested in city living, less on being dependent on a car and eager for culturally enriching experiences,” notes Bramson.
County business leaders couldn’t be happier about this trend. “It’s an exciting opportunity for urban centers of the Hudson Valley,” Bramson says.