Westchester Parking Space as Living Space?
Librado Romero/The New York Times
By ELSA BRENNER
Published: May 11, 2008
GENERATING both praise and criticism in a county with plenty of expensive housing but not much of the budget-friendly kind, a Department of Planning report urges towns and villages here to use land in existing office parks as sites for new housing, some of it for moderate-income families.
There are two big reasons that he believes the plan would work, Richard Hyman, an independent housing and planning consultant hired by the county for the study, says. To start with, office parks are typically created with more parking than they need, to meet standard zoning requirements. Additionally, the complexes are often built in campuslike settings, with room for more construction — in this case new residential buildings.
The recommendations came in response to a severe shortage of moderate-income housing in Westchester. Demand is expected to reach 19,083 units by 2015, yet between 2000 and 2005 only 970 units had been built, according to Deborah DeLong, the county’s housing director.
Because the roads and utilities in existing office parks are already in place, the study asserts, further development of those properties would not be as costly for developers.
Builders could afford to set aside as much as 15 percent of the housing for moderate-income families without relying on public funds, Mr. Hyman said.
Put another way, said Robert F. Weinberg, an Elmsford developer of mixed-use projects in Westchester: “Here we have already cut down all these trees, put in the sewer and water lines, so there’s no hole to be dug, no addition of parking lots and no extra runoff. It makes sense economically and environmentally.”
Mr. Weinberg, the president of the Robert Martin Company, is a shareholder in Mack-Cali Realty, which owns more than 25 office buildings and several office parks in Westchester. He was an adviser during the preparation of the report — one of several business executives whom the county interviewed, according to Mr. Hyman, who explained: “We didn’t want just an academic study. We wanted a report that was realistic.”
Five office parks in the county were cited in the report as examples of where the housing could be built.
One of them, Talleyrand Office Park, on White Plains Road in the village of Tarrytown — which is owned by Mack-Cali — has 178,000 square feet in two six-story office buildings and a restaurant, on a 75-acre wooded site. It also includes an apartment complex with 300 units, 60 of them designated as moderate-income.
Village officials in Tarrytown were less than receptive to the report’s suggestions. “On the surface it all sounds wonderful,” said Thomas T. Basher, the village’s deputy mayor, “but only if the office park has enough extra space for that. In our office park, it would be like squeezing 10 people into a Volkswagen, and I don’t mean a bus. It just won’t hold it.”
Mr. Basher also questioned why Tarrytown should shoulder more responsibility for moderate-income housing when “we’ve already done more than our share.”
During the 1990s, Tarrytown built 123 units of such housing, 56 more than the county had allocated for the village under a plan developed by a Housing Implementation Commission created by the County Board of Legislators.
But the panel issued a new plan in July 2005, updating the benchmarks for Westchester’s 43 municipalities to a 2015 timetable. According to that plan, Tarrytown has built only 6 of 111 additional allotted units.
Ms. DeLong, the county’s housing director, explained that the case studies in the report were meant only as examples of the feasibility of using office parks as sites for moderate-income houses and not directives for what any particular municipality should do.
She said the report would be circulated to other towns and villages throughout the county in the coming months. So far, only Tarrytown and Greenburgh have reviewed it.
Existing office parks are attractive sites for housing in part because they are already zoned for high-density development, although new regulations would be needed in some cases to permit residential use.
Additionally, the plan would enable municipalities to meet allocations established for moderate-income housing by the county without using undeveloped land, which is often in short supply.
The other four sites used as case studies are also along White Plains Road, but in the adjacent town of Greenburgh, where county officials met with Town Council members two months ago.
“There was no opposition here,” said Paul J. Feiner, the supervisor, “but no commitment either. In principle, though, if people can live close to where they work, they will spend less on gas, which is one of the reasons mixed-use developments make sense.”
The county’s plan to retrofit office parks is one of the first of its kind, Mr. Hyman said. Many mixed-use projects nationwide offer residential, office and commercial spaces, but they are mostly designed either from scratch on vacant land or as a major redevelopment project in a downtown area.
Mr. Hyman observed that local zoning laws governing small towns like those in Westchester — as opposed to downtown areas — were developed before the concept of mixed-use development was revived late in the 20th century.
Especially in suburban areas, zoning regulations enacted after World War II separated residential, commercial and industrial areas to protect property values, but at the same time increased dependence on automobiles.
The planning department hopes that as the report circulates, its ideas will gain favor. But because private companies own the office parks and municipalities control zoning, both groups must be convinced.
As Mr. Hyman noted, all the county can do is suggest and advise. “In the end,” he said, “zoning is the prerogative of the municipalities, so it’s going to be up to them.”