Five Questions with New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson
In launching the new Real Estate In-Depth regular feature “Five Questions With,” the editor and publisher of the print and online newspaper seek to interview key newsmakers of the day and ask probing questions on matters that affect the readership’s business and day-to-day lives, but also provide insight into how and why certain decisions were made.
With those guidelines in mind, the selection of New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson was not a difficult one. In the era of COVID-19, the City of New Rochelle was ground zero for New York State as the original coronavirus positive case in the state was reported on March 2. The nation then watched as a containment zone to prevent the further spread of the dreaded virus was established in about a one-mile section of the Queen City, which ended on March 25.
Prior to the pandemic, thanks to government reform and a rezoning of a major swath of the downtown district, New Rochelle was enjoying an historic and dramatic rise in new development projects, managed by designated developer RXR Realty and Renaissance Downtowns. Has the COVID-19 derailed that economic engine? For the answer to that question and others, see below:
Real Estate In-Depth: It must feel like an eternity, but it is almost five months since the first case of coronavirus in New Rochelle was discovered, which led to the outbreak that caused Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 10 to order a one-mile containment zone be established in a section of the city. What were your feelings at the time and the unwelcome national notoriety the COVID outbreak brought to the city?
Mayor Bramson: It was certainly a surreal experience. Dealing with a pandemic would be a challenge under any circumstances, but doing so in the glare of a national spotlight was even more difficult. I would be lying if I did not acknowledge intense concerns in those early days and as the (positive case) numbers continued to escalate, but at the same time felt a sense of pride and gratitude that people in our community confronted the challenge in a measured, mature and mutually supportive way and really rose to the occasion without undue fear and panic.
Real Estate In-Depth: How damaging has COVID-19 been to the city and particularly to the development momentum the city was experiencing prior to the outbreak?
Mayor Bramson: In general terms it’s been damaging to New Rochelle just as it’s been damaging to every community. There are many people whose livelihoods have been compromised. Absent federal assistance, it’s likely to have a devastating impact on our municipal budget and of course there are many families who are in mourning for the loss of loved ones. On the specific question of how it is has impacted our development momentum, the answer so far is not at all. There has been no developer or investor that has pulled back and multiple projects are still proceeding roughly on schedule.
Real Estate In-Depth: The city, along with the Downtown BID, the Business Council of Westchester, RXR Realty and others have established “Rebound New Rochelle” in response to the pandemic. Can you briefly detail the initiative’s goals and has it made a difference in helping businesses in need?
Mayor Bramson: Our goal is to provide businesses which have been heavily impacted by the COVID slowdown with direct material support using a combination of federal funding and private contributions from RXR (Realty). We are making funds available both to micro-enterprises and to small businesses. Our hope and expectation is that this assistance will help local entrepreneurs weather the storm and emerge from this crisis with viable enterprises.
There is a parallel program that provides rental assistance to residents of our community that meet certain income criteria. That program is also called “Rebound New Rochelle.”
Real Estate In-Depth: Has COVID-19 caused any delay in planned development projects and have any projects been postponed or cancelled due to the pandemic? Also, are you at all concerned about a possible second wave of COVID-19 to affect the region?
Mayor Bramson: The answer is “No” fortunately. It is still unclear how this will play out over the long term. There is a lot of evidence that the New York City housing market has been negatively impacted. It is even possible that the New Rochelle housing market will be strengthened as people look to alternatives to the five boroughs. So, so far things are moving forward as we had hoped and whether there will be a longer-term impact remains to be seen. That impact is just as likely to be positive as it is negative.
Of course, we all should be concerned about the potential for a second wave as well as the interaction with the traditional flu season. We are better prepared in terms of our testing infrastructure, in terms of our understanding of how COVID is transmitted, in terms of metrics through which we can monitor and address the spread of the illness and of course, we have all undergone radical behavioral shifts over the last few months. But, I am still concerned as we look at outbreaks in other parts of the country we know clearly that the crisis is not over and won’t be over until there is a widely available vaccine.
Real Estate In-Depth: While we have no idea if the region will face a second wave of the pandemic, in looking back on the past five months, is there any event or moment that affected you personally the most and has there been anything positive to come out of this that you can point to?
Mayor Bramson: Let me take the second half of that question first. The positive is that our social infrastructure has proven to be strong and resilient. Not-for-profit agencies have stepped up in remarkable fashion. Community organizations, health care providers, distributors of food, housing agencies, all of them have done heroic work and I think as a result of our experience we now have stronger and more durable partnerships between all of these organizations and the city government that will serve us well not only through the crisis but also in just our normal order of business. And, in fact, we have brought on a Director of Community Engagement (Julie Konvisser of Volunteer New York!) whose mission is to nurture those relationships. So, that I think is a long-term positive.
In terms of an event or moment that affected me personally, it’s hard to pick out one, especially given the blur of the last few months. But, I will probably always remember a conversation I had with the City Manager (Charles B. Strome III) early on following a sleepless night in which we discussed a whole series of not-probable but plausible challenges, such as civil unrest, food shortages and food riots, the spread of the illness among our essential workforce; a review of worst-case scenarios and what our response could be and should be in those circumstances. It was an extremely sobering conversation of a kind I never expected to have and I will probably always remember. And, thank goodness that although this has been a very difficult experience, those worst-case scenarios did not materialize.