Borrowing from the old adage of “Location, Location, Location,” let’s say that “Real Estate, Real Estate, Real Estate” is the current mantra when it comes to Westchester’s economy. That was apparent this month as two major real estate summits convened in our borders. The Real Estate Institute at Fordham University’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies and The Business Council of Westchester (BCW) co-hosted Real Estate Mastermind Forum: 24-Hour Cities – Emerging Trends in Transactions, Technology and Transportation on Wed, May 10; and the Westchester County Association’s (WCA) first ever real estate summit, Transforming Westchester: From Innovative Planning to Regulatory Streamlining, took place on Thursday, May 18.
Both events brought together leading real estate minds to examine the future of Westchester’s real estate market and determine how the industry can evolve to meet the county’s needs — and continue to function as an economic driver. The conferences spotlighted the current trends of creating walkable cities that offer the live/work/play ethos that is currently top of mind for both Millennials and the so-called “empty nesters.” This trend is the driving force behind many of the new residential and mixed-use developments popping up across the county.
At the Fordham/BCW event, keynote speaker, Fordham professor and real estate expert Hugh F. Kelly, PhD, CRE, shared the impressive “walkability” scores given to some Westchester cities by Walk Score, an algorithmically based statistic that measures how close residents are to amenities such as coffee shops, restaurants, gyms, etc. “Many of the County’s downtowns [rank] as ‘Walkers Paradises.’ Typically, you have to achieve a score of 90 out of 100 to get that ranking, and you see that in towns like White Plains, New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, and Yonkers, among others,” Kelly explained. He continued, “To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that any organization has tried to look at this from the point of view of suburban cities, so you’re at the cutting edge here in Westchester.”
The event was part of a larger BCW economic development initiative that is focused on revitalizing Westchester’s urban areas; the BCW plans soon to release a playbook outlining strategies for the county’s urban areas. “We have many vibrant downtowns in Westchester: White Plains, Yonkers, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle,’’ said BCW President and CEO, Marsha Gordon at the event. “Our goal is to focus on attracting companies and developers to these areas as part of an overall economic development strategy. Today’s program offered some very valuable information toward this goal.”
The WCA’s focus on real estate stems from a similar broad initiative: its Smart Growth for Westchester initiative, which includes a robust Housing & Real Estate Task Force. The Smart Growth program “aims to address our region’s complex housing issues and meet the growing planning and development needs of our cities and towns,” explained Bill Mooney, WCA President and CEO last week. “Smart Growth is a new definition of economic development that encompasses more than real estate… It’s about creating a diverse and vibrant economic ecosystem through innovation, housing, technology and talent development.”
To further smart growth in real estate, the WCA is also putting together — in concert with top developers, brokers, land use attorneys, municipal leaders, and financiers — “policy recommendations and advocacy efforts regarding municipal planning, zoning, financial incentives, and attaining affordable workforce housing,” Mooney explained.
These philosophies were in evidence throughout the May 18 event. During the first panel, “Changing Landscape of Westchester: Creating the Right Mix of Housing and Commercial Development,” Simone Development President Guy Leibler talked about his firm’s devotion to repurposing old buildings for today’s mixed-use purposes, citing its Boyce Thompson Center project in Yonkers. Set to open this week, Boyce Thompson was an abandoned research center that has been given a new life as a healthcare center (medical tenants include a St. John’s Riverside Hospital ambulatory center and a WESTMED patient location) and retail/dining destination (draws include popular pizza restaurant Fortina, a Tompkins Mahopac Bank location, and a blow-dry bar). “We believe no one piece of property should have one use only. We like mixed use development,” explained Leibler.
Rendering of the One Lyon Place project
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Another mixed-use proponent, John Sullivan, FAIA, President of Sullivan Architects, spoke about their success with the One Lyon Place project at the site of the former White Plains Hotel. The developers are retaining the basic areas — approximately 250,000 sq ft of space — but creating a new, modernized façade. The residential component will consist of “maisonettes,” two-level units with direct access from the street. “We’re going to take this city and give it new life. And I’m hopeful that this building and others will lead to a re-identity and a healthy re-identity for those who want to live here,” Sullivan explained.
Their discussion also centered on the need to partner successfully with community stakeholders in order to get these projects off the ground, and through to fruition. “We have to find a way to work with government apparatus, and the community. Local government can’t just say no. We have to accept the fact that developers, community, and government have to work together,” Liebler noted.
This was echoed in the keynote address from Richard O’Toole, General Counsel and EVP, Related Companies, the developer behind high-profile Manhattan projects including Hudson Yards, the Time Warner Center, and City Place. O’Toole spoke at length about Hudson Yards, which is the largest private development project in the United States. “Hudson Yards will be New York’s next most exciting community. We couldn’t have done this without the help of the government,” O’Toole explained, pointing out the New York State investments of $465 million in the nearby Jacob Javits Center; a $267 Moynihan station renovation; $1 billion in surrounding city parks improvements; and a $2.4 billion #7 subway extension, that were all crucial to the success of the project.
The key takeaway for Westchester developers and other players in the real estate and business community? Real estate projects need to be about more than just the bottom line — they have to serve a purpose (or a “repurpose,” where appropriate), engage the community, deliver on marketplace trends driven by the end users, and be executed in a cooperative way that brings value to all stakeholders involved.