By: Marissa Weiss, JD anticipated May 2016
How do you become the preferred transit-oriented destination in the New York Metropolitan area? New Rochelle is currently looking for the answer by inviting developers to invest and partner with the City on potential TOD projects. The City recently published two documents: a Transit-Oriented Development Smart Growth Study, initiated by the New York and Connecticut Sustainable Communities Consortium, and a Request for Qualifications: Master Developer for Transit-Oriented & Downtown Development Clusters, based upon the study’s research. The City hopes to create “an active, mixed-use district with convenient, safe, and pleasant access” to the New Rochelle Transportation Center.
Both documents seek to implement the 2011 TOD recommendations established by New Rochelle in GreeNR, the City’s sustainability plan that will direct the City’s development over the next 20 years. The main goal of GreeNR is to “site at least 95% of new housing units within walking distance of mass transit, including at least 65% of new housing units within a ½ mile of the New Rochelle Transit Center.” This commitment requires strong infrastructure investment to better connect mass transit with neighborhoods, instead of creating islands of transit a large distance away from housing. In addition, GreeNR recommends several other goals such as increasing sidewalks and bike parking spots, as well as reducing travel time on busy streets. All of these transportation recommendations are centered on making New Rochelle a more livable, pedestrian-friendly, and sustainable city with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
The City itself boasts numerous benefits that make New Rochelle’s downtown area an attractive destination for TOD development. At the heart of its downtown lies the multi-modal New Rochelle Transit Center, the busiest Metro-North Railroad New Haven Line Station in Westchester County with over 4,000 riders daily and Amtrak service. The Transit Center lies 30 minutes from Grand Central Station in Manhattan and 40 minutes from Stamford, CT. It is also fortunate to be nestled between three colleges (Iona, Monroe, and the College of New Rochelle). In only a few years, the planned expansion of Metro-North’s New Haven line will also connect the City directly to Penn Central Station on Manhattan’s West Side.
New Rochelle’s TOD Smart Growth study builds off of these transportation and municipal asserts by identifying significant development opportunities in the areas surrounding the City’s Transportation Center. The report not only identifies these areas but also proposes development type and densities for consideration. Much of the development is focused on mixed-use with an emphasis on commercial development (including office and retail). For example, the study recommends that much of the proposed development area be rezoned to Downtown Business, with an allowable building height of six floors and FAR of 2.0, which would encourage a mix of retail, housing, and office development. This change would help encourage pedestrian usage of streets and improve streetscapes – one of the goals of the GreeNR sustainability plans.
As part of the study, the City engaged in a significant public outreach effort with multiple public forums held during the summer and fall of 2012. These efforts targeted hard to reach populations such as minorities or the poor. Topics discussed included specific neighborhood concerns with urban design and preservation, economic development, mobility and infrastructure, open space, and land use. Through this effort, the City was able to address any neighborhood disapproval towards redevelopment and attract the mainly Hispanic population living in the neighborhood surrounding the Transit Center. This process generated more public support for potential TOD projects.
The TOD study’s findings stress that numerous structural improvements are needed in New Rochelle to feasibly accomplish GreeNR’s sustainable transportation goals. These improvements include zoning code updates to some areas, as the existing code (with height restrictions of two to three stories and allowable auto-oriented uses) is inconsistent with the densities and heights required in a TOD district. In addition, parcel consolidation needs to be considered to create parcels of sufficient size, as well as better pedestrian and bicycle connections in the half-mile radius surrounding the Transit Center. On a more optimistic note, the study does compliment the growing commercial real estate market in New Rochelle, as well as opportunities for expanded and improved transportation options with Metro-North and Amtrak, and housing redevelopment in the surrounding Transit Area.
The study ends with recommendations for the future, as well as next steps for New Rochelle on its journey towards becoming a sustainable, TOD-friendly city. These recommendations include updating the zoning regulations to better facilitate TOD development, as well as encouraging new parking regulations and programs such as a reduction in parking ratios for office use, car-sharing, shared parking, and bicycle parking. Finally, the study recommends that New Rochelle create a Master Plan Development Process in which the City prioritizes sub-districts for potential TOD development. By creating this document, New Rochelle will simultaneously update its comprehensive plan while planning for business and residential restructuring.
New Rochelle’s newly released Request for Qualifications (“RFQ”) steps in where the TOD Smart Growth study leaves off. The RFQ splits potential development sites into two clusters based upon the sub-district recommendations from the TOD study. The City believes these two clusters – the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Cluster and the Downtown Cluster – will better advance the goals of GreeNR by allowing for the flexible distribution of uses across multiple areas in New Rochelle needed for TOD development. Both clusters are further divided into subareas: The TOD Cluster into three zones and the Downtown Cluster into four. Each cluster is composed of mostly public owned land, but there are also numerous private included that, if redeveloped, will help advance the City’s TOD goal.
Through the RFQ, the City seeks to integrate mixed-income and energy efficiency by providing a range of housing choices, open space, and street design accommodating multi-modal users. To do so, the City of New Rochelle invites developers to provide proposals for one or both of the clusters. The City expects each developer to be fully committed to their sustainability visions, sensitive to public impact, and prepared to seek community input to foster support, as well as have a desire and the ability to move quickly with the project. Developers must include the following specific elements in their plans where appropriate: workforce housing; green design (as per GreeNR); parking; equal opportunity hiring; project labor agreements; master developer escrow agreements; historic preservation (including the Public Library); public outreach; architectural design review; and need for any applicable environmental studies (e.g. as per SEQRA and NEPA). Developers should also not let current zoning hinder their proposals, as the City is committed to implementing any changes needed to execute the chosen plans. New Rochelle also envisions partnerships with groups like the Public Library, Montefiore Medical Center, and Metro-North; many of these would need to be further negotiated by the developer. These partnerships are integral for successful implementation of the New Rochelle TOD program.
According to New Rochelle, the “process of creating a vibrant and culturally rich experience in [their] urban core must include a transit-oriented focus.” While it will be no easy feat for the City to achieve its sustainability goals, engaging developers to design and construct the TOD clusters is a momentous leap forward ensuring New Rochelle’s position as one of the preferred cities to live in the New York Metropolitan area.