Thursday, May 23, 2019
Some members of the Board of Trustees, including, it appears, Mayor Falanka and Trustee Ferrara, have proposed to sell the Village-owned parking lot on Irving Avenue, just below the post office, to a company called Thelius Capital so Thelius can build a 110-unit apartment building and parking garage at the site. Thelius has dubbed the proposal “Project Sandlot,” after the empty lot next to a parking lot which Thelius is in contract to lease for the development.
Project Sandlot encapsulates a lot of what is wrong with development in Port Chester these days: a lack of transparency, poor long-term planning, and no real community benefits.
Lack of transparency. In November, Village officials sat with Thelius at a meeting closed to the public. Bob Freeman of the state Committee on Open Government later questioned the legality of holding the meeting in private. Then, this week, the Board of Trustees held a public hearing on whether to transfer ownership of the parking lot to the Port Chester Local Development Corporation (LDC). Why do we have Village officials inappropriately meeting with Thelius in private and then pushing to use the dormant LDC and its unelected board members to control the fate of the project? At the Board Meeting on Monday evening, May 20, it was revealed that the LDC would take ownership of the parking lot and of an RFP process where multiple developers will be invited to submit proposals for the parcel. What justifies taking this process out of the hands of citizens’ elected representatives on the BOT and giving it to the unelected members of the LDC?
On top of this lack-of-transparency concern, there is concern about Thelius Capital itself. This firm has not made public any background that would suggest they have the experience to successfully develop this project, and the company’s entire website is password-protected. Selecting Thelius Capital as the developer would seem to be a risky move by the Village.
Poor long-term planning. To allow Thelius to construct an apartment building at the lot, the Village would need to change the site’s zoning. That makes the project one of seven separate buildings proposed for downtown that have either won or are requesting a zoning change. Together, these new buildings would bring 760 new apartments to downtown Port Chester. Why do we keep considering these one-off zoning changes when the Village is in the midst of a comprehensive Village-wide rezoning? Shouldn’t the Form-Based Code be approved and enacted before big, new developments are approved? And, if every new project requires a zoning change, then why have a zoning code at all?
Approving Thelius’ plans for replacing the lost parking would also be poor planning. To make up for the loss of the 47 parking spaces currently in the lot, Thelius proposes to include 71 Village-owned, public spaces in a parking garage at the site. But this would leave just 58 spaces for residents of the 110 new apartments. With 110 units, the building should probably have 160 or more spots available for tenants (~ 1.5 spots per unit). If Thelius’ residents need to use the 71 newly-created “public” spaces, then where will the rest of us park when we want to catch a show at the Capitol Theatre, patronize the nearby businesses along Westchester Avenue, or attend services at St. Peter’s?
No real community benefits. Development on public land should create real community benefits like affordable housing with rents that current working families in Port Chester can afford and local-hire for construction jobs with a path to careers. Thelius is offering neither.
For these reasons, we urge the Board of Trustees not to approve transferring ownership of the property to the Local Development Corporation. This is a matter that should be handled by the Board of Trustees, the officials elected by the people of Port Chester. Unlike the LDC, if the Board ultimately lets Thelius carry out its plans, they will have to answer directly to residents of this village.
Let’s not be forced to look back on Project Sandlot as Project Quicksand!
Gregg Hamilton is a member of Sustainable Port Chester Alliance.