Whether you agreed with his policies or not, the renaissance orchestrated in the City of White Plains during the three terms of the administration of outgoing Mayor Joseph Delfino is irrefutable.
The White Plains native transformed forever the downtown business district of the county seat. In 12 short years he accomplished what many of his predecessors could not or would not–infusing life and vitality to what was a struggling and underperforming central business district.
Delfino needed to harness all his experience in the private sector, where he worked for 20 years at Kraft Foods, as well as his time in politics as a City Councilman and County Legislator, to begin the process of turning the fortunes of the City of White Plains around. In fact, Delfino, a Republican, instituted sweeping governmental reform measures and adopted policies that welcomed private investment, while working with a Democratic controlled City Council in a weak mayoral political system during his entire 12 years in office.
Westchester Commerce Magazine has covered the developments of the mayor’s goal to revitalize the downtown district in feature stories and in comprehensive annual supplements that detailed the emerging economic development activity in White Plains since his election as Mayor in 1997. A retrospective on the city’s transformation as a center of commerce as well as its latest efforts to bring green/sustainable policies/development to the city are the subject of a special supplement in this edition of Westchester Commerce.
The recent news that Mayor Delfino had decided not to seek a fourth term did not come as a surprise, however the business, real estate and investment communities were still saddened by his decision.
Westchester Commerce asked some of the county’s top business leaders for their thoughts on “Mayor Joe” and his influence on the business climate in Westchester County. Many spoke of his passion to get things done, his professionalism mixed with a folksy “small town” approach to the job. Mayor Joe became famous for driving around the city at night and visiting businesses to lend his support for their ventures as well as offering his welcomed comfort by attending memorials for families dealing with the loss of a loved one.
His commitment to foster positive change earned him the respect of many political, business and civic leaders in Westchester and across the nation and his accomplishments earned his administration awards for the policies that attracted billions of dollars in new investment in the city.
Westchester County Executive Andy Spano praised Delfino for his work in redeveloping Downtown White Plains. During the past decade or so, Westchester County has assisted the city and has helped provide some incentive financing for many of the economic development projects that broke ground in the city.
Spano said that previous administrations envisioned White Plains as a “day city” where workers came to work each day and left. “Well that created this vacant area at night, which wasn’t attractive to anybody. What Joe did was he created this space that became an attraction for restaurants and people coming down here at night to come to the movies, etc. right in the central core.” He said that by promoting the development of a significant amount of housing in the downtown district. Mayor Delfino brought people with income to shop at stores in the downtown. The influx of new residents also attracted new retailers to the city as well, he added.
Spano, although a member of the rival Democratic Party, shared, “I will be sorry to see Joe go. He was like a fixture here. He was very concerned about the city.”
Marsha Gordon, president and chief executive officer of The Business Council of Westchester, worked with Mayor Delfino on a host of projects and initiatives geared at advancing business interests in the county. “Mayor Joe Delfino was not only a great friend to business…he has been the innovator of business development in New York State and indeed the region. The City of White Plains today thrives as a business center, with diverse employment opportunities, economic generators and a quality of life second to none. The Business Council of Westchester is proud to call him our partner in working towards economic opportunity for all in Westchester and celebrating business success.
Christopher O’Callaghan, chairman of The Business Council of Westchester and a commercial broker with Cushman & Wakefield, has marveled at how Mayor Delfino has attracted new business to White Plains. When his administration first took office, White Plains had the highest office vacancy rate in the nation at more than 30 percent. Today, the city’s rate for empty office space is less than half of what it was 12 years ago.
“‘Mayor Joe’ as Mayor Delfino is affectionately known by many, loves people and loved progress! His ‘can do’ spirit and leadership in the City of White Plains transformed the city. He can be tough, as tough as anyone, but his good nature attracted development to a city where developers had shied away, and for many years,” O’Callaghan said. “People and business came back to White Plains during his tenure with a vengeance because they trusted him. There is never any substitute for trust.”
O’Callaghan added, “More then anything though, his legacy for me, will be that of a good man with integrity. I have a feeling that is what really matters to Mayor Joe!”
A sector that clearly benefitted from the public and private investment that took place in White Plains during the mayor’s time in office was the building and construction trades. Ross Pepe, president of The Construction Industry Council of Westchester & Hudson Valley, Inc., said rather succinctly, “Joe Delfino raised the bar for other elected officials to match. The marks of his success in leading White Plains’ economic resurgence are unmistakable.”
Another sector that benefitted during Delfino’s term was the housing sector, which saw thousands of new housing units developed over the past decade or so in and around the downtown district.
P. Gilbert Mercurio, chief executive officer of The Westchester County Board of Realtors, said, “I think that Mayor Delfino’s best quality was his appreciation of the fact that development proposals are not a sure bet. When they came our way he made sure they were thoroughly evaluated but also acted upon quickly. Thanks to him, White Plains has a skyline that might otherwise not be there, considering all the risk factors that confront major developments today.”
The real estate development sector also offered high praise to Mayor Delfino, noting that prior to his election in 1997, investors shied away from White Plains because they felt that they were not welcome. Almost immediately, Delfino streamlined the approval process and instituted a policy whereby developers met regularly with all city department heads at one time so that their plans could be extensively reviewed but would not be subject to conflicting requirements from different city agencies as was the case in the past.
Louis Cappelli, president of Cappelli Enterprises of Valhalla, said, “The mayor always had an open door policy for open and good dialogue; talking about what we as developers and contractors would need to be successful in helping turn around the city.”
Cappelli, who initially redeveloped the former Macy’s into City Center, then built City Place and Trump Tower at City Center and most recently built the lavish Renaissance Square and Ritz Carlton projects, said the policies the mayor instituted helped attract developers, banks and other investors to the city.
The veteran developer said that Mayor Delfino also had capable staff, including former Deputy Mayor George Gretsas, current Deputy Mayor Paul Wood and Commissioner of Planning Sue Habel, that fostered “honest and open dialogue.”
“When I think about Joe I think about his ability to communicate. He is a great communicator. He cares. To him it is all personal, in a good way… He is prepared to work 24-7. He is a mayor that rolls up his sleeves.”
Cappelli, who worked with the mayor for more than eight years, said that the mayor was the right man at the right time for the City of White Plains. His style of politics gave his firm the confidence it needed to invest more than $1 billion in the city of White Plains.
“He is honest and sincere. He will tell you like it is up front. You will know what you have to do to be successful or not,” he added.
Robert F. Weinberg of Robert Martin Company and Peter Gilpatric of LCOR collaborated on the development of the 500-unit Bank Street Commons development by the White Plains railroad station some years ago. Weinberg, president of Robert Martin Company, LLC of Elmsford, said, “Robert Martin Company had a long and successful history in the Urban Renewal Area with 13 diverse projects completed before Joe became Mayor. Shortly after he was elected, I met Peter Gilpatric of LCOR through an introduction by the city that led to the largest new residential development of the early 2000 decade, which transformed the ‘hole in the ground’ to Bank Street Commons, a twin tower, 500-unit rental community encouraged and supported by Joe Delfino and his staff.”
Weinberg, speaking on behalf of Robert Martin and LCOR, added,, “With 14 projects already completed and more in the pipeline, our companies salute his distinguished record.”
Gilpatric, senior vice president of New York City-based LCOR, added, “Our mayor has led an administration receptive to creative ideas, always demonstrating the leadership necessary to unite the community behind new concepts, so that they become a reality.”
He noted that the city has already approved a third tower at Bank Street Commons that will include a hotel as well as two additional towers down the street at 55 Bank Street that will feature more than 500 rental housing units and some storefront retail. Twenty percent of the units at 55 Bank Street will be affordable.
Another Westchester County developer that offered high praise to Mayor Delfino was Robert P. Weisz, chairman and CEO of RPW Group of Rye Brook. Weisz, who owns a number of properties in the city and has undertaken significant renovations to those buildings, noted, “Mayor Delfino has transformed the City of White Plains from a small suburban town to a thriving 21st Century city; and he has accomplished that never losing his affection for the common person and his touch for the ones in need.”
It is perhaps fitting that I conclude this tribute to the mayor by sharing a personal matter that illustrates the mayor’s affection for all residents of the City of White Plains and perhaps will provide readers a glimpse of the man’s good nature that he made part of his everyday job.
During the mayor’s travels during his term, my father Dennis, a retired New York City longshoreman and Dock Builder and proud White Plains resident, told me he had met the mayor a few times and talked to him about how he could not believe the amount of development taking place in the city. Our family moved to White Plains from Queens in 1973 and my father, a lifelong union worker, was so happy that the City of White Plains was coming of age and was providing good paying jobs to the construction trades.
About four years ago I told Mayor Delfino about my father’s worsening health problems and at every one of our subsequent meetings or conversations, no matter how pressed for time he was, the mayor never failed to ask how my father was doing. Unfortunately on Jan. 16 of this year my father’s struggle ended. About a day later, I placed a phone message to the mayor informing him of Dennis’ passing. To my surprise, the first visitor at my father’s memorial was “Mayor Joe.” My mother’s eyes lit up and she was so pleased that the Mayor of White Plains saw fit to honor her husband’s memory and to spend time with her during her most trying hour. For his kind thoughts and actions, my family and I are eternally grateful to Mayor Joe.
In conclusion, the true test of how a person performed at a job is whether the place is better off than when he started. Mayor, from the vantage point of someone who first began working in White Plains as a stock boy in Woolworth’s on Mamaroneck Ave. in the late 1970s, the city is definitely a much better place to live and work because of your efforts as mayor. Your legacy will be the many jobs and lives you touched in creating the renaissance that has resulted in the impressive skyline the city now boasts.
Illustration by Andy Scheiderich