LETTER: Port Chester’s Choice: Sane vs Insane Development

Submitted by Al Shehadi of Byram and Marissa Torento-Butkiewicz, RA of Port Chester

To the Editor

Port Chester has approved or is considering close to a dozen development projects that include more than 1,000 residential units, tens of thousands of square feet of commercial space, a hotel and more. It is an overwhelming level of development that will demolish much of the historic downtown, dramatically increase the density of an already dense Village and further burden already heavily burdened Village infrastructure, schools and traffic. Members of the board of trustees supporting such development point to Port Chester’s fiscal challenges and insist the only choice for the Village is hyper development or bankruptcy.

That is a false choice. The real choice is between sane and insane development.

What does insane development look like?

Destroying your strengths is insane. Port Chester has many strength. A vibrant, intact historic downtown which draws visitors from a wide area to shop, eat and be entertained is one of its biggest. Current development plans propose to demolish multiple blocks of the historic downtown, evict existing local businesses and replace them with mega-block projects up to 15 stories tall. That’s insane.

Believing development alone will solve the Village’s problems is insane. Port Chester is not under developed. From the large Waterfront development 20 years ago, to extensive retail in the revived Kohl’s/Whole Food’s shopping center, substantial commercial development along Midland Ave (Home Depot, BMW, Strauss Paper, etc.) to large new residential projects such as the Castle, Lighthouse and Mariner, Port Chester is more densely developed than surrounding communities. Why hasn’t that level of development “solved” Port Chester’s fiscal challenges? Do we know? Proceeding with massive additional development without understanding why existing development hasn’t left the Village in a fiscally strong position is insane.

Pretending the current level of proposed development comes with no cost to the Village is insane. What will be the impact on Port Chester’s already overburdened schools, already challenged traffic, already strained infrastructure from this level of development? Uncritically accepting developer’s studies that there will be no increase in traffic, no infrastructure, school or other impacts from the proposed level of development is insane.

Giving away much the tax benefit of additional development through IDA subsidies is insane. Port Chester has a checkered history of giving substantial tax subsidies to select large developers through the IDA. The justification for those subsidies is at best opaque. Are tax subsidies awarded to the projects with the most benefit to the community, or those with the most connected developers and lawyers? Do

those subsidies make development that wouldn’t happen go forward, or do they deplete Village coffers to subsidize projects that would have proceeded anyway? Continuing to award substantial tax subsidies in an opaque and unaccountable manner when the Village has fiscal challenges is insane.

What might sane development look like?

Protect what already works. Protect the many unique local businesses that make-up Port Chester’s vibrant visitor economy. Protect the fabric and scale of the existing downtown. Embrace the two proposed historic districts along Main St. and Westchester Avenue and the financial benefits that come with National Register designation. Build on the Village’s existing strengths. That’s sane development.

Focus downtown development on vacant lots and non-historic structures. There are multiple lots along Main St, Abendroth and Westchester Ave that are vacant or developed with one-story “placeholder” structures of no historic value. Promote in-fill development that is compatible in scale and design with the existing downtown. That’s sane development.

Extend downtown to adjacent under developed areas in walking distance to the train station. The Lifesaver Building is a good example. It’s a half-mile from the train station just past the heart of Main Street. Yet many residents walk to and from the train station to commute to NYC every day. There are substantial under developed lots along Horton Ave near the Lifesaver Building, Midland Ave near South Main St. and the east end of Route 1 that are as close or closer to the train station as the Lifesaver Building. Direct larger, mixed used developments – think the scale of the proposed Tarry Lighthouse – to the under developed periphery of downtown to enlarge the Village core, not demolish it. That’s sane development.

Target IDA subsidies to developments that provide concrete benefits to the community, not high-end projects that should work financially without subsidy. If a developer overpaid to assemble multiple downtown parcels (the rumored prices paid in anticipation of the Village’s new code are astronomical), it’s not the Village’s responsibility to bail the new owner out with tax subsidies. IDA tax subsidies should be used only sparingly and targeted to developments that go beyond the minimum requirements for amenities that benefit the broader community such as affordable housing, community facilities or other public benefits. That’s sane development.

It’s time the BOT stops pretending the choice that confronts Port Chester is bankruptcy or hyper development. It’s not. The choice is between sane and insane levels of development. Insane development might be in the short-term interest of a few property owners and large developers. Sane development is in the long term interest of the whole community. To us the choice is obvious.

Al Shehadi
Byram, CT

Marissa Torento-Butkiewicz, RA
Port Chester, NY

Mr. Shehadi is a consultant with 30 years’ experience in community development and real estate finance,
is Chair of the Byram Neighborhood Associations’ Land Use Committee, and has been coming to Port
Chester on an almost daily basis for 60 years.

Ms. Torento-Butkiewicz is a resident of Port Chester, is a licensed architect with 13 years’ experience in multifamily residential and mixed-use projects in NY, NJ and CT, including the rehabilitation of historic buildings.