THE WAY FORWARD
Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening.
There are many statistics to measure the ebb and flow of our economy, some of which give reason for cautious optimism. But no statistic can fully capture the pain and fear felt by those across our country and here in New Rochelle who have lost jobs, or homes, or the means to support themselves and their families.
I see it in the faces and hear it in the voices of residents who plead for help at City Hall, who struggle to keep a business afloat, who visit our soup kitchens, sometimes shocked to find themselves reliant on the resources of last resort.
Even those who have avoided personal crisis are feeling the pinch more acutely than ever before, wondering if they are one tax bill, one insurance premium, one pay cut, from slipping into the red.
What is true for individuals is true also for our entire community. The City’s budget is stretched to the limit. Economic development has slowed to a crawl. And programs once launched with great hope have been deferred or cancelled outright.
Who can be surprised by the anger and frustration directed to government at every level, anger that demands to be respected.
So we must begin by recognizing, without denial or false cheer, the hard truths of our time. But let us not end there.
The people of New Rochelle expect more than a lecture on the challenges of the economy. And you didn’t come tonight just to be reminded of things already known from personal experience or observation.
Instead, my friends and colleagues and fellow citizens, what you deserve to hear and what I wish to discuss this evening, is the way forward. A way forward based on the firm belief that, together, through wise action and common purpose, we will chart a course to better days.
First, we will forge an even stronger compact with taxpayers to confront the ever-rising cost of living and to provide value in exchange for every dollar.
Second, we will establish a broader planning and development strategy to better seize the changing opportunities before us.
Lastly, we will improve the physical and environmental fabric of our city through public policy and individual action.
A COMPACT WITH TAXPAYERS
So let’s talk specifics, starting with dollars and cents.
Every budget fits into a historical context. Like a chapter in a book, it flows from the prior and leads into the next.
This is relevant, because recent actions in New Rochelle build on a long commitment to lean and efficient government.
In fact, under Finance Commissioner Rattner’s tight-fisted supervision, we’ve made a habit of spending less and employing fewer people per capita than almost all of the comparable municipalities in the region.
We’ve been leaders on cost-sharing, too. Long before it became an issue for the County, New Rochelle’s Personnel Director Matt Iarocci negotiated employee contributions for health insurance, a policy that now saves our taxpayers some $3 million each and every year – equal to about seven percent on the property tax rate.
In short, we have always done more with less.
This year, with revenue in sharp decline, we had to take additional steps. The budget adopted by the Council for 2010 assigns an even higher priority to fiscal restraint and taxpayer protection.
We’ve reduced our workforce by almost forty positions, drastically cut our capital expenditures, frozen salaries for our entire management team, and scaled back a variety of other programs.
I don’t recount these steps with pleasure. The items and personnel scoured from the budget are not examples of the proverbial waste, fraud, and abuse – quite the reverse, whether equipment for public works, inspectors to enforce quality of life codes, or investments in traffic safety, they contribute to the vibrancy of our city.
But as the good book tells us, there is a season for all things. And when so many of our taxpayers are struggling to make ends meet, then for government, it must be a season of austerity.
In this same spirit, we also made the difficult and unusual decision to cut proposed salaries for employees under contract, thereby forcing either the deferral of scheduled raises or lay-offs.
Now, as it turns out, the largest group of employees affected, our Fire Fighters, chose to accept the former and avert the latter, and they deserve our thanks for an action that was both selfless and public-spirited. But this was bitter medicine for everyone involved, with emotions still raw.
I want to make my own feelings clear. I accept responsibility for the Council’s unpopular choice. I believe it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. More broadly, I have asked and will ask our employees to accept sacrifices for the larger good, sometimes over angry objection.
What I will not do, and what I will never do, is denigrate the honor and worth of those who choose a life of community service. What is the City, after all?
It is the Police Officer who begins every shift not knowing if this is the day she will have to discharge her firearm. It is the driver peering through the snow at 3:00am, laboring to keep our roads safe in a blizzard.
It is the Fire Fighter who enters a burning building to rescue an unconscious child, with no thought for his own safety.
It is the kind individuals in the Clerk’s and Manager’s offices – and elsewhere – who field thousands of requests, most reasonable, some not-so-much, yet always addressed with courtesy and respect.
And, yes, it is also the planner or the attorney or the engineer, who works late into the night, with no additional reward beyond the satisfaction of a job well done.
I am proud to serve with all of them. They have earned our gratitude in good times and bad. And we can reform our public institutions, while still affirming their necessity and value.
Enough digression. If you put together our various actions in the last budget cycle, they reduced our expenditures for 2010 by more than $4 million dollars.
For a city of our size, that’s a lot. Unfortunately, it’s not enough.
So last December the Council made clear that its adopted budget was a beginning and not an end. Our compact with taxpayers demands ongoing action. And, indeed, we have continued to work in the weeks since, making some notable strides.
Thanks to a bipartisan initiative launched by Council Member Lou Trangucci, and then shaped by Council Member Marianne Sussman, the City reached a ground-breaking agreement with AvalonBay to accelerate payments that had been due a generation from now, and provide us with $9 million spread over the next five years, when we need the help most.
To find less onerous alternatives to the property tax, New Rochelle has joined communities throughout the County and State in promoting local authority to set a reasonable utility gross receipts rate.
This proposal, which would provide all cities and villages the same rights that already exists in Buffalo, Yonkers, and Rochester, is now, for the first time, included in the Governor’s Executive Budget, awaiting action by our own effective legislative delegation and the Legislature as a whole. If approved in Albany and then here, it could generate revenue equal to about 6% of the property tax levy.
And there’s more:
New Rochelle is leading a coordinated intervention with the State Public Service Commission with regard to United Water. We are fighting not just a whopping 55% proposed rate increase, but also the outrageous notion that taxpayers should have to rent hydrants in order to provide fire protection to our community. This supposedly in exchange for annual hydrant inspections that few of us believe actually occur.
These hydrant rental fees are costing us $1 million every year, and even more if United Water has its way. On behalf of our taxpayers, it is time we said no to this unconscionable expense.
Within City Hall, to reduce outside attorney costs, Corporation Counsel Kathleen Gill is undertaking a comprehensive reorganization of our Law Department, expected to yield a net savings of as much as $200,000 for taxpayers.
And New Rochelle will continue to explore, with an open-mind, options for sharing and consolidating services. To this end, we have established a joint City-School task force, which is already coordinating on truancy and gang prevention, and pursuing grants for shared technology.
In the same vein, with the able direction of Fire Commissioner Kiernan, the City is working with Fire Chiefs from throughout southern Westchester to explore the concept of a consolidated Fire District that could offer better protection at the same or lower overall cost.
Finally, our compact with taxpayers also demands candor and honesty about the limits of local action.
Think about it. Taxes aren’t uniquely high in New Rochelle. They are high in every community and every school district in New York’s suburbs. What does that say? It tells us that our tax burden is not shaped primarily by the actions or choices of City Councils and School Boards, but rather by the broader labor, municipal, and educational funding policies that cover New York State as a whole.
I am not trying to pass the buck – you’ve already heard about all we have done and will do within the scope of our authority. My point is only that New Rochelle’s taxpayers deserve to be treated like informed adults, who appreciate the truth over empty pledges.
The truth is we can’t deliver dramatic relief on our own. We can – and we will – deliver a City government that scrutinizes every line item, lives within its means, strives to get the best value for every penny, and acts as a staunch ally to those who pay its bills.
A BROADER PLANNING & DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY
If our way forward requires difficult budget choices in the short term, then it also requires flexible and innovative planning for the long-term.
We need a growing, thriving, diversified economy that produces jobs and commercial tax revenue, that funds improvements in our urban fabric and infrastructure, that offers a range of quality goods and services, and that strengthens our civic image.
All of these goals are interlinked. And just as with fiscal matters, history provides important context.
Between the end of the second World War and the early 1990s, New Rochelle experienced a slow and painful economic slide.
At its lowest point, our downtown was dominated by vacant lots, an abandoned mall, a crumbling garage, and all the urban energy of a ghost town.
Thankfully, in the almost twenty years since, City leaders and community advocates have devoted energy and resources to breathing life back into our central business district.
We’ve had successes and setbacks. Some choices have been broadly popular, and others have been controversial.
What is beyond reasonable doubt, is that we are a far stronger and healthier city as a result of this strategy.
Gone is the sense of a downtown facing inevitable and accelerating decline, replaced by the evidence of real, though still unfinished, progress.
In fact, New Rochelle is seen now as a leader in the region on smart, transit-oriented development that takes maximum advantage of our access to road and rail, using tools as diverse as zoning, streetscape, density bonuses, and financial inducements.
Beyond the large projects that attract the most attention, is the broader prosperity that has always been our ultimate goal.
Go, for example, to Division Street today and see the beginnings of what all of our downtown can be. A blending of old and new. A soaring tower that anchors shops of more intimate scale. Restaurants, retailers, service-providers, designers. Many behind facades recently restored.
We have come a long way. And . . . we have a long way still to go. So what’s next.
A year ago, I spoke about Lecount Square and Echo Bay as the obvious steps ahead in the renewal of our economy.
I do not regret the time and attention devoted to these projects – the benefits to our community that would result from their successful completion are enormous. And to be very clear, we are not throwing in the towel.
But it is increasingly apparent that the national economic climate, coupled with the scarcity of capital, poses serious obstacles to their momentum.
To move forward, we need to acknowledge and adjust to this new reality.
Therefore, at Lecount Square, I have asked our partners, Cappelli Enterprises, to explore alternatives that better conform to the current state of the market. These may include scaling back the project’s overall dimensions, rebalancing its various components, or accommodating, instead of relocating, the United States Post Office.
Given the project’s uncertain timing, and because site maintenance signals any developer’s respect for public concerns, it is also essential that conditions on the Lecount block be restored to an attractive and vibrant appearance, a priority the Cappelli team is starting to address.
Finally, in light of recent news concerning financial relationships at this and other sites, we look for Cappelli to find partners with the strength, commitment and capacity to carry the ball over the goal line.
The Council will evaluate Lecount Square in its totality later this year. In my opinion, if these short-term objectives can be achieved, then it will be in the community’s interest to keep working patiently for a positive long-term conclusion.
Echo Bay poses its own distinct challenges.
Now, perhaps in the context of the City’s century-old desire to establish a more inviting shoreline, a delay of a year or even a decade is not especially consequential, but I won’t disguise my eagerness to get going or my frustration that progress is on hold.
The good news is that we continue to have an experienced partner in Forest City. We continue to have a general land use plan based on sound principles and extensive public input. And we continue to have significant community support for the vision of a New Rochelle more fully linked to the water.
So during the remaining nine months of our Memorandum of Understanding, I am calling on Forest City to conduct a thorough review of the project’s scope and specific features to determine whether it should be reduced, phased, or repositioned to better reflect economic constraints and possibilities.
For me, some points are non-negotiable. Full public access to the shore, thorough environmental remediation, and scale respectful of site and surroundings. Everything else is on the table – and we should consider good ideas from any source, provided they are realistic and advance the central goal of an open shoreline for all the residents of New Rochelle to enjoy.
As we continue working on these two projects, our strategy must also expand to encompass new opportunities.
After all, the way forward does not run through any single site, but rather through many locations, each with their own potential for positive change and contributions to the whole of New Rochelle.
At the Church-Division and Prospect lots, just a half block from the core of Main Street, the City envisions a mixed-use mid-rise development, coupled with expanded and enhanced public parking.
On Garden Street, a stone’s throw from our Transit Center and from I-95, we see a location ideally suited for Transit-Oriented Development, an anchor for the northern gateway to the central business district, and a better link to the expanse of North Avenue.
These are not abstract, distant goals. In less than three weeks, New Rochelle will issue Requests for Qualifications for both sites, making clear that we believe in our community’s assets, and that we intend to make the most of every second of every day, even in this economy, so we’ll be ready to hit the ground running when better times come.
In fact, some developments need not wait. In the Burling triangle, between North Avenue and Memorial Highway, a site also well-positioned for transit-oriented growth, the proposed Hammel Building will likely receive its final approvals within months.
While composed mostly of market-rate apartments, the Hammel Building will also mark the first time in New Rochelle that affordable workforce housing has been offered on an inclusive basis – that is: integrated into the larger development. It’s a great validation of the City’s affordable housing policy, and a credit to the leadership of Council Member Jim Stowe.
Because a healthy economy requires a strong physical foundation, our strategy must also include the maintenance and enhancement of our roads, parking facilities, sidewalks, and public spaces. So with local money tight, the City is taking maximum advantage of federal and state grants to invest in our infrastructure.
The prime examples: the Lincoln Avenue reconstruction and the second phase of the North Avenue corridor project, which have achieved dramatic improvements on two of New Rochelle’s most heavily trafficked arteries, with benefits for thousands of residents, commuters, and business people.
And thanks to the persistent efforts of Council Member Barry Fertel, those physical improvements are going hand-in-hand with better traffic management, making the lives of travelers just a little bit easier every single day.
Utilizing our parking enterprise fund, we have begun a multi-year enhancement of our downtown parking inventory to make it cleaner, brighter, more efficient and more user-friendly.
Now, with invaluable guidance from Council Member Al Tarantino, we are updating our parking regulations to achieve optimum usage patterns, better determine private on-site parking requirements, and align our management with the needs of both business owners and residents.
Because small businesses are so critical to the overall health of New Rochelle, their success, too, must be part of our strategy.
Last year, we worked in close partnership with the BID to promote our downtown restaurants, market upper floor space to artists, and create a downtown showcase that attracted almost 2,000 people, while raising awareness about local products and services.
In the year ahead, we will build on our partnership, with similar programs that combine volunteer labor, a small investment of capital, and a lot of creativity to help our business community get through the tough times.
And, following the advocacy of Council Member Richard St. Paul, we should also better coordinate, package, and market the City’s own business retention and recruitment tools, so that entrepreneurs have the best access to information about everything from façade improvement grants, to small business loans, to IDA regulations.
Initiatives like these are part of the reason why, for all our troubles, New Rochelle’s business sector has actually weathered the storm better than many others in the region, with even large commercial vacancies typically filled quickly with new tenants, ranging from furniture stores to supermarkets.
I am grateful to all who have demonstrated continuing faith in our city and, we should act together to justify their confidence with every new step we take.
A NEW BEGINNING FOR DAVIDS ISLAND
Before concluding this discussion of development and planning strategy, I’d like to mention just one more site.
It is mere feet from the New York City border, yet a world away in its character. It is unique, and valuable in ways that defy standard measure. It is a nearly eighty-acre blank canvas that has stirred passion and debate for more than fifty years.
It is Davids Island. Now, lest we forget, history tells us that Davids Island is a tough nut to crack.
The myriad visions inspired by it are often incompatible – with each other, and with the hard realities of economics, politics, and environmental concern. One person’s dream of tax- producing high rises, is another person’s nightmare of sewage and traffic. For every advocate of a public park, there is a skeptic who asks: where is the funding or the demand to make it real.
In almost every prior instance, the City has reacted to a proposal from outside, based on someone’s else’s interests, instead of first shaping a plan based on ours.
And because the conflicts it generates have proven so intense and distracting, when Davids Island is on the front burner, it has a way of knocking everything else off the stove.
This history has, until now, made me hesitant to open a fresh debate about the island’s future. But the time is right at last.
First, through the great work of Congresswoman Nita Lowey and the Army Corps of Engineers, we have benefited from a federal investment of $26 million dollars, resolving many of the surface environmental conditions that would otherwise pose serious impediments to progress.
Second, to be honest, the slow economy reduces the time pressures associated with our various other initiatives, and allows us to devote to Davids Island the necessary effort and attention.
Third, new design sensibilities and technologies give us options that did not previously exist, possibly resolving tensions between economic and environmental goals.
And fourth, the opportunity costs are low, which is another way of saying: what have we got to lose.
So I suggest that the City do what, on Davids Island, it has never done before. I suggest that we devise our own conceptual plan, not in response to a sales pitch from any specific builder, but as a basis for issuing our own request for proposals, aimed at achieving our own vision.
Tonight, I am asking the City’s development and planning staff, led by our new Commissioner Michael Freimuth, to establish a process for soliciting community, regional, and stakeholder input, establishing development criteria, and then selecting an appropriate development partner or partners.
And while it would be entirely premature to settle, or even raise, every question right now. I offer the following general principles as starting points:
Number one, our plan should include meaningful public access to ensure that the beauty of Davids Island can be experienced by all of our citizens.
Number two, our plan should fit within the dimensional envelope of the City’s Draft Local Waterfront Revitalization standards, which place clear restrictions on height and density, set open space minimums, and establish a preference for water-borne access.
And number three, perhaps most important, our plan should feature sustainable design of world- class quality. We should insist on a product of global demonstration value, that befits the Island’s unique status and potential – visionary architecture, cutting-edge operation, and innovative approaches to energy use, waste reduction, resource consumption and conservation.
Let’s rule out right away run-of-the-mill, standard-brand construction that could be sited anywhere, anytime. And let’s find partners, reaching out to the very best in the field, who are just as interested in making a statement as in making a dollar.
The perpetual struggle at Davids Island has for too long pitted builders against environmentalists, local economic goals against regional planning models. A project based on and inspired by the concept of sustainability can at long last bring these objectives together.
There are no guarantees, and this road may prove as fraught with hurdles as those tried before, but let us resolve tonight to put aside our preconceptions and past positions, and with fresh eyes and fresh hopes, take the first steps together.
If we succeed, then people throughout the world who are interested in sustainable design and living will say to each other: to see the shape of the future, you must come to New Rochelle.
PROGRESS IN THE FACE OF TOUGH TIMES
Finally, our way forward demands actions, both public and private, that enhance the quality of life enjoyed by all of our citizens, and that nurture a spirit of common purpose to bind us together.
When it comes to these objectives, we can be proud of and grateful for the exceptional work of our staff under City Manager Strome, together with partners throughout the community.
To help achieve a shared base of knowledge and promote communication, we have just rolled out our brand new City website, among the best in the nation for exchanging news and ideas. Let’s hear it for Kathy Gilwit, for whom this has been a labor of love . . . emphasis on labor.
To improve recreational opportunities, especially for youngsters who need and deserve a positive outlet for their energies, we are breaking ground on a new City Park athletic complex that will provide the next generation of kids with a first-class playing experience. Hats off to Commissioner Bill Zimmermann and to our dedicated County Legislators, Jim Maisano, Vito Pinto, and Judy Myers for making it happen.
For breaking their own modern record and establishing a new 48-year-low in serious crime, we applaud Commissioners Carroll and Murphy and all of our men and women in blue.
We should recognize Ed Lynch, our planning staff and the citizen volunteers with whom they worked, for completing over many months the hard work of revising our zoning code to protect open space, limit density, and ensure that our neighborhoods retain their character and charm.
Let’s give a cheer to the revitalized New Rochelle Council on the Arts for all they are doing to celebrate the cultural vitality of New Rochelle, to strengthen our artistic resources, and to attract visitors from far and wide.
And let’s tip our hats to Commissioner Coleman and our DPW crews for confronting a tough winter head-on and delivering what has to be the best snow removal job that any of us can remember. (Now, about all those potholes . . .)
I’ve refrained tonight from saying too much about our Sustainability Plan, because it will receive much more attention after its roll-out in the spring. But let’s recognize the hard work of the volunteer Sustainability Advisory Board, coordinated by Deborah Newborn, whose expertise is helping us craft a detailed framework for both saving money and advancing essential environmental goals.
Let’s hear it for Ray Rice. (I taught him everything he knows about football.)
Last but not least, let’s say thank you to our hosts for tonight, to the Chamber of Commerce, including its new Executive Director Eli Gordon, for your ongoing service, and for your commitment, with generous support once more from the Valenti family, to bringing back the Thanksgiving Parade, better than ever.
There are many other individuals I could have mentioned by name, and countless other examples of actions, not necessarily flashy or dramatic, that evidence steady progress in the face of tough times, progress based on hard work and dedication to the common good.
These are the qualities that will open and guide us through our way forward.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
Tonight, I have not made the traditional claim that the State of our City is strong. There is no city in America that could make such a claim truthfully. But I believe in New Rochelle.
I believed in it as a little boy who knew its woods and its parks like the back of my hand. I believed in it as a student, who was privileged to have classmates and friends of every background and tradition. I believe in it as a homeowner and a taxpayer with a stake and investment in our future. I believe in it as a father thrilled by our sons’ experience in the public schools. I believe in it as a mayor, who sees every day the drive and imagination of our people. And I believe in it as a citizen for whom New Rochelle embodies both the challenge and the potential of our country.
We must succeed.
So the state of our city is not strong today, yet we affirm, with a pledge of wise and determined action, and with confidence in our way forward, that the state of our city will be strong tomorrow and in all the days beyond.
May God bless New Rochelle and all who would share in her future. Thank you very much.