White Plains may not be the exact geographic center of Westchester, but it is the seat of county government, one of its foremost retail markets, and contains more than one-third of the commercial office space in the county. It’s also undergoing what is perhaps the most intense burst of development in decades. It’s an exciting place to operate a business.
“White Plains is the hub of Westchester,” says Vino 100 owner Stuart Levine, a retailer who has seen the city’s good times — and bad — during his 14 years as a downtown merchant. Today, he says, he’s optimistic that the building boom will boost business but is also pragmatically cautious, since “plans don’t always come true.”
“The climate in White Plains is definitely optimistic,” adds Morrell Insurance Senior VP Rick McClatchie, whose fourth-generation family business has been in White Plains since 1909. “The landscape has completely changed. Banks, real estate, insurance services are definitely more prevalent here now. There are also a lot more service establishments, like restaurants. That’s led to more growth for us.”
“We do a lot of business in New York City, and White Plains is a good place for us to reach out to our customers.”
—Gus Lebiak Chief Marketing Officer, Krasdale Foods
The city’s location is a big plus, according to Gus Lebiak, chief marketing officer for Alpha I Marketing, an affiliate to Krasdale Foods (recently ranked as no. 41 on Crain’s New York Business’ list of New York’s largest private companies), which supplies several hundred independent grocery retailers in seven states and has its headquarters in White Plains. “It is centrally located,” Lebiak explains. “We do a lot of business in New York City, and White Plains is a good place for us to reach out to our customers.” The family-owned company’s 250 White Plains employees commute from New Jersey, Connecticut, and NYC, as well as from throughout Westchester.
Also a big fan of the location is Paul Grenci, CEO of Red Key Solutions, a managed-technology service provider that does everything from performing CIO functions to computer repair with a staff of 15. “We love White Plains,” Grenci says. “We’re within striking distance of Manhattan, but our location and its lower cost of living and office rent gives us an edge. We also have great access to mass transit and the Platinum Mile. It’s hard to imagine the number of prospects available to us.”
White Plains At a Glance
Grenci adds that proximity to clients has some unexpected advantages for a company dealing with bits and bytes. “In this age of interconnected global commerce, we’re hyper-local, and we love it,” he says. “In a business that’s predominately automated or technology-driven, to be able to just ‘pop in’ to most of our clients inside of 15 minutes is priceless.”
White Plains has been particularly successful in attracting commercial office tenants for both the downtown area and the I-287 corridor. Some have relocated from other places in Westchester, but some have come from Manhattan, according to White Plains Business Improvement District (BID) Executive Director Kevin Nunn. “You can get to Midtown Manhattan in 30 minutes,” he points out. “With our rents at half those in Manhattan, it makes sense for companies to relocate here. And it’s not like they’re moving into the middle of nowhere. Companies need to know there is a qualified workforce and that there’s some activity and life in the area. White Plains has all that.” As proof, he points to recent moves by Danone, Sumitomo Bank, New York Life, and the NY State Insurance Fund. (Other large longtime White Plains tenants include Heineken USA and Combe Inc.) The city will become even more attractive to firms moving from Manhattan as Metro-North’s $94 million investment in the train station takes shape in the coming years.
White Plains mayor Tom Roach (center) cuts the ribbon at Walter’s Hot Dogs’ newest location, one of many new restaurants to open recently in White Plains. Photo courtesy of White Plains BID
While lower vacancy rates are a positive sign, they also push up rents, which can make it difficult for retailers and small businesses to get a foothold in the city. The White Plains Central Business district has the highest average asking rents for office space ($32.69 per sq. ft.) in the county — reflecting a vacancy rate of 15.5 percent in the third quarter of 2018, according to Cushman & Wakefield.
“If you are a small retailer or a startup, you will have some issues unless you’re well-capitalized, because rents are higher than other places in the county,” according to Nunn. He points to some businesses forced to move from the White Plains Mall, a development site, that were originally moved when the Galleria Mall was built. They are having trouble finding affordable space. He adds, “If you’re looking for industrial space that’s being converted, it’s not really available here either to the same extent it is available in other communities like Yonkers and Albany, which are already industrialized.”
The redevelopment of Westchester Financial Center will bring new office, retail, and living spaces to downtown. Rendering courtesy of GDC
Still, the White Plains office boom has been a boon to service-business owners like CPA Ed Heller, whose firm, Heller & Filippone LLP, has been in White Plains for 18 years. “The White Plains business climate is very professional,” he says. “In the last 10 years, there have been a lot of new restaurants, office buildings, and residential buildings. The main streets are in the process of converting from run-down stores to more professional offices.”
But some see the boom as a mixed blessing.
“The business climate is a complicated question,” according to Westchester Road Runner owner Andy Kimerling. “For corporate offices, it’s pretty good. For retail, it’s pretty awful. The streets of White Plains are okay for bars and restaurants, but the retail component has largely disappeared. We’re on East Post Road, which is a ghost town.”
Some 58,000 people live in White Plains, but the population triples during the day as workers, shoppers, and other visitors arrive, according to estimates from the White Plains BID. That daily influx is a plus, but it tends to disappear at the end of the day. “After six o’clock, you can’t even tell you’re in a city, it’s so quiet,” according to Heller. “I would like to see more shops along Mamaroneck Avenue and Main Street that would attract more people walking around. We need places [where residents and/or employees] can shop after dinner or have a reason not to leave the city immediately after work.”
There’s no question downtown White Plains has more vacant storefronts than it would like. Their absence is mostly a sign of change, according to Vino 100’s Levine. “Many of the out-of-date stores are being replaced, and much of the real estate has shifted to the restaurant/bar scene,” he says.
Vino 100 has seen both the best and worst of times in White Plains. Photo courtesy of Vino 100
“Many of the vacancies that exist now are because the property site itself is slated for development, and the owner has evicted the tenants to prepare for demolition,” Nunn explains. Retail space in White Plains Central Business district totals 5.2 million square feet, with about one-third of that in malls like The Westchester, the Galleria, the Source, and City Center.
A pending residential development boom is encouraging to retailers like Kimerling. “I am hopeful that all the new downtown construction will bring more traffic and that it will turn into more business for us,” he says. Developments totaling more than 3,000 residential units have been approved for construction in the city, and nearly 2,000 more were awaiting approval at press time. Many of them are in the heart of or adjacent to the downtown business district.
One of the largest announced developments is the conversion of the Westchester Financial Center, a 571,000 sq. ft. multi-building office complex not far from the train station, into a mixed-use development under the direction of Ginsburg Development Companies, which now owns the entire block in partnership with the Robert Martin Company and others.
Developments like these “are going to be pretty significant,” Nunn says. “Retail is all about feet on the street and follows people, not vice versa. It also changes the complexion of downtown, because it becomes more 24/7 when people live there.”
Levine points to another factor contributing to a positive outlook for stores like his. “Overall, White Plains has a real sense of community in the downtown area and the surrounding residential areas. It’s a very walkable city, too, which is good for retailers.”
“With all the new residents coming in and retail to follow, White Plains is becoming a thriving city,” Heller adds. “I’m optimistic about our business, and being in White Plains is part of that.”
Dave Donelson lives and writes in West Harrison, but visits nearby downtown White Plains several times a week to shop, dine, and be energized by the vibe.