R5 Extreme Makeover

 

Westchester’s biggest city is booming with billions in new projects: ritzy condos, towering office buildings, a revamped racino, and lots of artsy young professionals.

 

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Is Yonkers the New Tribeca-on-the-Hudson?

 

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Is Yonkers ready for the return of Peter Xaviar Kelly? For warm tartlet of West Coast oysters or perhaps ravioli with short ribs and foie gras in truffle butter? I hope so, because those are just two of the delectable dishes on the menu of X2O Xaviars on the Hudson, the exciting new destination restaurant brought to the Yonkers Pier by gifted chef and restaurateur Peter Kelly.

 

Perhaps the question, though,  should be, is Peter Kelly ready for Yonkers? Or better still, are we—you, me, and all of our neighbors—ready for the rebirth of the largest city in Westchester? Can we even grasp the city’s transformation from a gritty landscape of tottering smokestacks, crumbling used-to-be mills, abandoned factories, and graffiti-clad storefronts to a bustling, thriving new river city with sleek apartment towers, hip lofts, chic boutiques, new, trend-setting restaurants and, yes, four-star chef Peter Kelly? The old river city ain’t what it used to be when Kelly, at the age of five, toddled down to Green’s Department Store for an ice-cream soda with his sister, Eileen. And it ain’t what it used to be just 10 years ago when crime, poverty, failing schools, corruption, and racial discrimination were the terms most frequently seen in the headlines. If you think that’s what Yonkers is about now, wake up and smell the espresso at La Pinata—it’s changing.

 

Today’s Yonkers is booming with $7 billion in planned or underway projects including ritzy condos, artsy, edgy retailer shops, towering office buildings, emerald green riverfront parks, and even a revolutionary high-rise baseball stadium (well, in a few years at least). And there’s a new casino at the racetrack, a biotech medical research lab run in the old carpet mills, and even a project to let the sun shine again on the Saw Mill River in downtown Yonkers. Not to mention a co-op apartment building for actors at 35 Hudson, live/work lofts and apartments for artists and others downtown, and facelifts for the McLean Avenue and Midland Avenue business districts. And did I mention The Loft, a dance studio full of artwork, tango students, and belly-dancing aficionados; the raucous bars on Main Street and McLean Avenue; or Belle Havana, the swinging but sophisticated new French-Cuban restaurant in the center of it all? And it’s all erupting in the most run-down, most underused, most frequently-avoided-after-dark part of Yonkers. Grandma won’t believe you when you tell her, but downtown Yonkers—from Chicken Island to the riverfront—is poised to become East Village/SoHo/Tribeca-on-the-Hudson. Is Peter Kelly ready for that? Are you?

 

“I’ve always had a feeling for the area,” says Kelly, a dark-haired, stocky elf with a quick wit, quicker smile, and an even quicker hand with a whisk and well-honed fillet knife. “In 2000, it was grittier than it is now, but I saw potential.” So Yonkers-born Kelly took up his 360-year-old city on its offer to scout locations for a new restaurant. The city wanted Kelly. And Kelly? He wasn’t so sure he wanted another business to run. After all, he already bustles between his award-laden flagship, Xaviars at Piermont (teeny, elegant, and heady), and its casual next-door sibling, the Freelance Café (with its no-reservation policy that keeps fans, and there are many, waiting by the door to get in), Restaurant X in Congers (the biggest of the three with more than 200 seats), and a wine project in Napa Valley, California. There’s Versace china and Riedel stemware to be polished, a 750-selection wine list to be tended, and halibut to coddle in mousseline sauce. “I didn’t expect to open another restaurant,” he admits.

 

But Yonkers beckoned. Specifically, it was the Yonkers Municipal Pier that didn’t so much as wave at him as reach out and grab him by the throat. Yonkers Mayor Phil Amicone, deputy mayor at the time, was charged with selling Kelly—and anyone else he could buttonhole—on investing in the city. At first, the reluctant restaurateur showed some interest in the Gazette building, the space that Zuppa, the well-received modern Italian restaurant on Main Street, would later transform from a grimy printing plant into a velvet-flocked, flower-filled, candle-lit wonderland. “But when we showed Peter the pier,” Amicone recalls, “he said, ‘That’s where I want to be.’”

 

“He couldn’t have picked a more difficult location,” says Ed Sheeran, who was then special assistant to the mayor for the Yonkers Economics Development Agency. “It is owned by the city. It is park land. The attorneys said it couldn’t be used as a restaurant because it was a historical building. We had to get permission from the Commissioner of Parks, then we had to get approval from HUD because some federal money had been spent on it, then we had to send divers down to check the pylons to make sure they could handle the load.”

 

Kelly wasn’t the first to be seduced by a spot on Yonkers’s four-and-a-half miles of riverside. Real estate moguls have been eyeing the crumbling industrial wasteland on the other side of the Metro-North tracks for years. “Yonkers has the prettiest spot on the most historic river in the country,” says developer Bob MacFarlane, who hopes to break ground next year on a cool billion dollars’ worth of condos, retail, and commercial space on the old Phelps Dodge property a few hundred yards up the river from Kelly’s restaurant.

 

Arthur Collins, a Stamford builder, was the first private developer in 30 years to take the plunge on downtown Yonkers, securing the rights to build Hudson Park South, a 266-unit residential rental building with retail, restaurant, and office space next to the pier in the late nineties. According to Amicone, Collins’s commitment was contingent on the city fulfilling its promise to improve infrastructure in the downtown area. The Yonkers Riverfront Library on the abandoned site of the Otis Elevator Company was part of that, as was the renovation of the Beaux-Arts Getty Square Metro-North station, and the one-and-a-half-mile-long promenade on the waterfront dubbed Esplanade Park. Collins’s all-rental Hudson Park South property struggled in the early years, but today is more than 90 percent occupied. One bed/one bath apartments rent for $1,800. Collins expects to open Hudson Park Phase II in 2008.

 

Today, a pantheon of other developers stands with shovels at the ready. In addition to MacFarlane, Erik Kaiser awaits approval of his radical plans for condos, retail space, and a contemporary arts museum on the site of the Glenwood Power station and Struever Fidelco Cappelli, a trio of major league developers that includes Yonkers native Louis Cappelli, is poised to build twin 25-story residential towers on the riverfront as well as River Park Center, a retail, office, and entertainment complex incorporating a baseball stadium. Other huge projects are already underway. Brooklyn-based Forest City Ratner is building the controversial Ridge Hill community, Kaiser’s REMI is putting up Velocity at Greystone, a nine-story luxury apartment building, and the Cross County Shopping Center is adding 200,000 square feet of additional retail space. 

 

There are nearly 3,500 new apartments, condos, and townhouses going up from Ridge Hill to the waterfront, which means several thousand mostly new, mostly mid-to-upper-income residents to shop, dine, and entertain themselves in Yonkers, the fourth largest city in the state (about 200,000 people and about 18 square miles). That creates jobs, of course, something every city needs, but downtown Yonkers needs more than most: unemployment is at 4 percent, 16 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, and the median household income is still about a third less than the county average of $63,532. Kelly, by the way, expects to hire about 70 people.

 

With an impish grin, Kelly takes some credit for the boom. “It’s not so much that they’re coming here because I’m here, it’s because I brought it to their attention,” he says. “Xaviars coming to Yonkers is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

 

 

 

The Yonkers Recreational Pier juts out over the river like a refurbished relic from a glorious bygone era. The first floor of the structure is open to the public, with benches for contemplating the mighty Hudson, perhaps an ice cream stand or hot dog vendor for those who can’t afford the trip upstairs to X2O, and the ferry terminal, where the bright yellow New York Water Taxi boats carry commuters, sightseers, shoppers—and perhaps fine diners?—between downtown Yonkers and Battery Park City and Wall Street in about 45 minutes. And someday, service may be expanded to Haverstraw across the river.

 

Go upstairs and you’ll see why Peter Kelly had to have that particular space. “There are a few restaurants on the water,” he points out, “but this one is in the water.” Kelly spent $2 million on bamboo veneers alone. But the real visual treat is the river itself, which Kelly made sure is visible from just about everywhere in his restaurant. Yes, even in the bathrooms, you can gaze on the George Washington Bridge. The only guest seating area without an exterior view is the sushi bar, but there you’ve got a front row center seat to enjoy the theatrics in the kitchen. With the exception of two plush banquettes in the center, every table in the main dining room—a room that holds 120 diners at generously-spaced tables—sits right next to a window. “The Palisades,” says Kelly, who lives in Blauvelt, New York, “is beautiful in every season.”

 

Kelly isn’t the only person who has invested money on the pier. In some ways, the restoration of the Victorian structure was the first step in the city’s renaissance—and it came about in part as an aftermath of the ugly desegregation battle in Yonkers nearly 20 years ago. While the fight between the NAACP and the US Department of Justice over the location of public housing raged through the courts, the city fathers refused to apply for federal community development block grant funds for anything, mistakenly thinking they weren’t subject to federal laws if they didn’t use federal funds, City Council President Chuck Lesnick says. The battle finally ended in 1992, with the city nearly bankrupt, and the new administration, under Mayor Terry Zaleski, went to Washington (in 1994), hat in hand, to see how much of the desperately needed funding it could recoup. The city couldn’t just get the money that had been denied before; it needed a new reason to apply—and the pier was it. “We got three-and-a-half million dollars in the mid-nineties to restore the pier,” Lesnick notes. 

 

Later, additional funding came from the Port Authority and other sources. Altogether, about $5 million in public funds was spent on the pier. And now Kelly leases the top two floors of it for X2O from the city of Yonkers, much as Tavern on the Green in Central Park is leased from New York. If Kelly ever leaves, Amicone says, it won’t be difficult to find another tenant.

 

X2O Xaviars on the Hudson anchors a nascent restaurant row that extends up Main Street and around the corner on Warburton to Lejends Restaurant, a funky restaurant serving a fusion of Caribbean and African-American soul food. In between are Belle Havana (formerly Bistro Chartreuse), Tyrone House (a local legend), rave-review-inducing Zuppa, not to mention Pier View and Whiskey Rio, a pub next door to the pier. Lejends General Manager Kathy Israel says, “X2O is going to be good for all the restaurants in the area.”

 

Everyone hopes, of course, that all of this development will pay off for others too. “The waterfront is a whole package,” says Steve Sansone, executive director of the Downtown/Waterfront Business Improvement District (BID), the organization that’s largely responsible for cleaning up Yonkers downtown by providing garbage collection, graffiti eradication, and street decoration. “When people come to Peter Kelly’s, they’ll also see the business that’s been there for twenty years that they haven’t seen before.”

 

The delightful La Pinata Bakery is one of those. Dagoberto Espiritu opened the bakery, famous for its smartly decorated cakes, in 1993. He moved and expanded it to include a cappuccino bar in 2005, largely in anticipation of the boom. “Everything going on encourages other businesses to upgrade,” he says. “We want to be ready for more customers.”

 

While existing businesses scramble to make a place for themselves in the new Yonkers, a wave of edgy entrepreneurs is moving in, including Jacqueline Bouet, who opened The Loft Dance & Fitness, an art-inspired dance and fitness studio. “Downtown Yonkers has an urban edge to it,” she says. “Most of the people who live in the area are artsy young professionals.” The Loft offers massage therapy as well as belly-dancing for adults. Other unique events include African dance on Saturdays, tango and salsa nights, and even Ladies’ Night where strip tease instruction and sex toy demonstration enliven the evening. “My mentors told me that the biggest hurdle to opening a business in downtown Yonkers is being able to sustain until the party arrives,” Bouet says. “But it’s coming.” Developer MacFarlane says in five or 10 years you won’t recognize Yonkers.

 

But booms like these come at a cost. According to Amicone, the city of Yonkers already has invested more than a billion dollars in public infrastructure and improvements. The developers receive tax incentives too, in the form of everything from property tax rebates from the state government to sales tax breaks on construction materials—numbers that can mount up. Peter Kelly is no exception, although his tax breaks aren’t quite on that scale. He will be able to claim Empire Zone tax credits for wages paid for some of the new jobs he’s creating and for the sales tax paid on building materials used on his restaurant. He may also be able to tap Federal Empowerment Zone benefits.

 

Tax credits are the last thing on Peter Kelly’s mind at the moment, though. He’s busy squeezing in last-minute reservations from high-profile diners, checking to make sure the hamachi tataki with avocado pumpkin seed oil and wasabi foam is so fresh it could still wriggle a fin, and perfecting his tribute to the city that welcomed him back with a prime spot on the pier, a bouillabaisse-based cross between New England and Manhattan chowder called, what else, Yonkers Shellfish Chowder.

 

RIVER PARK CENTER

 

In the grand scheme of Yonkers development today, of course, a few million dollars spent on the pier is but a drop in the river. 

 

The first phase of the most ambitious project thus far, the Struever Fidelco Cappelli master plan for downtown Yonkers by itself is worth $1.5 billion. It includes Palisades Point, two residential towers on the waterfront; Cacase Center, a complex with a hotel and a new city fire headquarters at the corner of Nepperhan Avenue and South Broadway; and the piece-de-résistance, River Park Center, a two-million-square-foot, mixed-use complex with retail, residential, hotel, office, entertainment components, and—yes!—a new ballpark.

 

The 6,500-seat minor league ballpark—a 10-minute walk from Peter Kelly’s X2O restaurant—will literally top off River Park Center; it will all sit on the roof of the complex—11 floors above street level. It will be home to an Atlantic League team owned by Mary Jane Foster and Jack MacGregor, who intend to start a new team in Yonkers as part of the league’s expansion.

 

River Park Center will arise on what was Chicken Island, once an actual island in the Saw Mill River where a chicken processing plant used to operate. Two stretches of the Saw Mill itself will be loosed from its underground flume around the complex. The river will also flow in the open air through Larkin Square, forming the centerpiece for a riverwalk and park.

 

BETTER AT GLENWOOD

 

Just beyond Point Street Landing, Erik Kaiser promises to give Kelly’s diners something to look at, too. He’s spending $200 million to turn the abandoned Glenwood power station on the river into a place called simply “Better at Glenwood,” 250 apartments, 100 condos, a 15,000-square-foot contemporary art museum, and about 20,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. It’s slated to be the first carbon-free building in New York. 

 

With its oddly angled stilts, gravity-defying canted structural lines, and whimsically colored crystalline louvered skin, Better looks like something Dr. Seuss might have dreamed up. It’s the first project in the US for provocative international star architect Will Alsop, a swarthy, witty Brit whose Peckham Library in London, with its inverted “L” shape supported by apparently random steel pillars, won the Stirling Prize for architecture in 2000. His eye-popping cheese box with legs, otherwise known as the Sharp Centre for Design in Ontario, turns heads, too. Better will be quite a departure from the stately brick Glenwood Power Station. Kaiser says proudly, “It’s not a building about which you will be indifferent.”

 

Kaiser believes the hip, upscale residents of Better will love X2O Xaviars on the Hudson. “The restaurant is going to be fantastic,” he says. “You need entertainment outlets. You need places for people to go. You need nightlife, you need activity.” But he opines: “In the end, it all comes down to the stomach.”

 

POINT STREET LANDING

 

Diners gazing northward from their tables at X2O Xaviars on the Hudson will have views not just of the river, but also of MacFarlane’s Point Street Landing, with six to nine mid-rise residential towers, retail and commercial space, three parks, a small pier, and a promenade on 30 acres along the water’s edge. MacFarlane pledges it will be something worth seeing. “We will be hiring at least four architects of various ethnicities,” he says. “Cities are developed by different architects at different times with different modalities. Yonkers is an ethnically diverse community. Why can’t our architectural and economic values reflect that ethnic diversity?”

 

MacFarlane also says he is devoting 15 percent of the property—about 150 units in a parcel on the east side of Alexander Street—to be designated as “attainable housing” for people in the lower-middle income group. “How else do these people get a piece of property?” he asks. To make it happen, he and his wife, Emilia Nuccio, created Enclaves Group, a corporation that provides for a tenant to rent for three years, then get the ten percent appreciation in the value of the property to use as a down payment on ownership of the home.  MacFarlane hopes to take that concept to New Orleans and other places.

 

Point Street Landing will be MacFarlane’s second venture in the city. His first, the Station Plaza building at

86 Main Street

, opened September of last year (it’s about 65 percent leased).  

 

Dave Donelson lives and writes in West Harrison, but dines more frequently these days in Yonkers.

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