A Suburban Model for Successful Downtown Growth

This is a guest post by Noam Bramson, mayor of New Rochelle, New York.

In my city of New Rochelle, New York, our innovative and successful downtown development plan illustrates the critical role that small cities can play in achieving sustainable regional growth. Our experience could serve as a model for similar communities throughout America.

Located just north of New York City, New Rochelle has roughly 80,000 highly diverse residents and a blend of urban and suburban characteristics, with a dense transit-served core, surrounded by lower density single-family neighborhoods. A classic “First Suburb,” New Rochelle experienced exceptional growth and prosperity in the early 20th century, followed by a painful economic slide in the post-war years. By the early 1990’s, New Rochelle’s downtown was deeply distressed, with abandoned superblocks and a high commercial vacancy rate.

A strategy of transit-oriented development began to revive the city’s fortunes in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, but stalled with the onset of the Great Recession. As the national economy recovered, New Rochelle began to explore fresh possibilities. Our new downtown plan, approved by a unanimous, bipartisan city council in late 2015, is the most ambitious in our history and the largest in New York’s Hudson Valley, calling for more than 6,000 housing units and more than 12 million square feet of total build-out over a ten-year period.

What most distinguishes our plan from prior efforts, however, is not its scale, but rather the comprehensive framework through which we intend to achieve our vision. This framework has four key components.

First, a master development agreement was established with private sector partners, who have an exclusive opportunity to build on several publicly-owned sites, comprising about a dozen acres in total. These catalytic investments will bring value to our community, while sending a broader, positive signal to the marketplace.

Second, we instituted a new form-based zoning code, covering our entire downtown area – roughly 300 acres in total. The code is flexible and market-responsive with respect to use, but highly prescriptive with respect to design, ensuring that new development conforms to best planning principles.

Height limits across six sub-zones are organized in a TOD density pattern, with a maximum of 48 stories close to our transit center, stepping back to lower levels at the downtown periphery. Height bonuses are offered in exchange for a checklist of predefined public goods, such as historic preservation, public open space, LEED certification or affordability above New Rochelle’s basic 10 percent requirement.

Third, we performed a generic environmental review that rigorously examined our entire build-out scheme. This review, having been completed and approved by the city council, relieves individual projects of the burden to prepare independent environmental impact statements – sweeping away the delays, upfront expenses and political uncertainties typically associated with major development.

Finally, we developed a schedule of tax incentives that, while competitive, ensures that new revenue from development exceeds new service and infrastructure costs. Through a combination of annual PILOTs and one-time “fair share mitigation” payments for capital needs, local taxpayers can be assured that they are coming out ahead.

In combination, these features give developers unprecedented predictability and speed of approval, coupled with minimal political risk, provided that their projects are consistent with New Rochelle’s overall vision, which was established upfront with robust and extensive community involvement and input. In short, our entire downtown is shovel-ready.

The results have been remarkable. Nearly twenty projects have already received site plan approval, with many others under construction. Our master developers are taking a lead role – topping off a new 28-story tower with 280 rental units, 15,000 square feet of retail and a black box performance space, while breaking ground on a second 700-unit development – but they are far from alone, with multiple development teams now playing enthusiastically in our sandbox.

For New Rochelle, the goal is more than dollars and cents, or brick and steel – it’s the creation of a culturally vibrant, walkable and attractive urban center that provides expanded job opportunities, an appealing range of goods and services and a positive anchor for our community’s image and brand.

For our region, the benefits of success are equally compelling. As a transit-served inner ring suburb, New Rochelle is becoming an important part of a sustainable growth pattern for the New York metro area, with new housing that is affordable relative to Manhattan and Brooklyn, conveniently accessible to the metro-core without dependency on car ownership and attractive to the younger people who have been abandoning the suburbs in droves for a generation.

The characteristics that define New Rochelle’s challenges and opportunities are hardly unique and our resurgent fortunes, based on a coherent, creative and demonstrably effective plan, offer a positive example for other “First Suburbs” coast-to-coast.

For more information, visit www.ideallynewrochelle.com.

About the Author: Noam Bramson is the mayor of New Rochelle, New York, a city of 80,000 residents located just north of New York City.  Since assuming office in 2006, Mayor Bramson has been a strong advocate for sustainable growth and development.