Five Questions With White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach

Five Questions With White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach
Thomas Roach, White Plains Mayor

A little more than a year ago, White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach presided over a city that was enjoying a renaissance of new development projects in its Downtown District that promised to reshape the city’s skyline and economy for years to come.

Fast forward to April 2021 and while the COVID-19 pandemic still infects and kills Westchester County residents each day, vaccinations and safety restrictions have many hopeful that the worst of the pandemic is behind us. With that in mind, Real Estate In-Depth turned to White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach to discuss how the city is faring, the pandemic’s impact on development and whether it had long-lasting impacts on the city’s fortunes going forward.

In this month’s “Five Questions With” feature, Mayor Roach, who took over as acting mayor of White Plains in February 2011, was elected mayor in a special election shortly thereafter and won election to his first full term in office in November 2013 and re-elected to a second term in November 2017, says he has never seen so many construction cranes in the city before. He also previews what could be a transformative project taking shape at the property he calls “The Great Wall of Galleria”—the Galleria at White Plains property and at the Gateway II site near the White Plains train station.

Real Estate In-Depth: Has the coronavirus delayed any development projects in the city and with the changing demand COVID-19 has caused, have any projects shifted from say retail to other uses?

Mayor Roach: So, I would say nothing has been delayed. We had a brief period where construction paused, but the jobs really wanted to keep going, the workers wanted to keep going and as soon as they could reopen they did. For example, White Plains Hospital (expansion) is such a huge project and they are going to complete it on time…

I am not seeing this (COVID pandemic) causing any shift in the projects that were approved because the shift away from retail toward residential was already pretty firmly established (pre-pandemic). We have a bunch of residential units under construction right now. There are as many cranes as I can remember seeing up in the city and we have new ones coming. So, it has been very busy—The Mitchell, The Continuum, City Square, Brookfield Commons, which is Windbrook, Waterstone and the Robert Weisz project at 1133 Westchester Ave.—have all been pushing on. So, it is looking good.

Real Estate In-Depth: What is the status of the city’s quest for development around the White Plains Metro North Station?

Mayor Roach: There are two parts to this. The first part is the train station improvements ($90-million MTA project) are about to be finished. Along with that was a pretty big grant we received to do infrastructure improvements involving the train station, so we got the new protected bike lane done, we got the new HAWK (traffic) signal that is coming in on Main (Street) and the bike storage facility is being built. There are also a bunch of Transit-Oriented Developments that have been approved down there that have 2,100 units.

In terms of our project at the train station, we received good response to the RFPs (Request for Proposals), which were reviewed by the committee and we are setting up now for me to start talking to some of the developers. So, that is moving forward, but right up the hill Gateway II should be the agenda in April for approval and they are ready to get in the ground.

Editor’s Note: The Gateway II project is a long vacant 3.5-acre downtown site calls for 500 apartment units at 85 N. Lexington Ave. in Downtown White Plains. The plan calls for two buildings—a 25-story tower and a 16-story building.

Real Estate In-Depth: Can you fill us in on when construction will start on the former Westchester Pavilion property, which remains an eyesore featuring a large excavation hole in the center of the CBD? Also, have the plans for the Esplanade property advanced?

Mayor Roach: So, there is a new owner for the Esplanade coming in and it is our understanding that the new owner wants to move forward on the approved project. It has been bouncing around because they have been talking about doing different things, but the new group that is coming in, who seem to mean business, would go ahead with the approved project.

The Westchester Pavilion property is the same group (Lennar Multifamily) that is building the project at the corner of Post Road and Mamaroneck Avenue that is under construction. So, their plan is to go ahead with the approved project (at the Westchester Pavilion site) and roll the mobilization right over when they get near the end of that one.

Real Estate In-Depth: Recently, you previewed what is expected to be major changes to the Galleria property in Downtown White Plains. What can you share on this potentially transformative project?

Mayor Roach: It is interesting that I keep getting questions from people about what they want to fill the Sears space with. The mall owners (Pacific Retail Capital Partners) are trying to get Sears out of there. So, I think you are going to see the anchor stores go and I think you are going to see a big residential component to it, but still a mall, but a mall of the future. I am just seeing now they are doing stories on malls and what stores aren’t going to be in malls and things like that, but this has been coming for so long that it’s no surprise as the Galleria was already moving forward on this before COVID. There will be more community centers and entertainment forums with retail but not the traditional (makeup) where you walk past any mall in the United States and you walk past the same stores.

What is most exciting to me is that the mall itself, the way it was built, and I have talked about this a lot, it served its purpose, but it is a mega-block that disrupts traffic and makes Main Street in that area desolate and sterile. I call it “The Great Wall of Galleria.” There is no connection to the street and when you come around the corner onto Court Street you have the “Great Wall of Macy’s.” You can’t have a functioning street in the downtown where one side of the street is a blank wall. So, what we have been talking to them about and what I expect to see is that on that side of the street is terraced areas with outdoor dining with spaces for outdoor entertainment that kind of slides right into what we created on that space on Court Street with the brick and into the Renaissance Park with the fountains.

So, we have the ability to create this wonderful outdoor vibe in that part of the city. It is something that I have wanted for so long and the Galleria was the biggest impediment. You know, this development should actually turn the Galleria into the biggest asset down there…

Editor’s Note: The mayor later discussed the future look of the Galleria Mall.

The main portion of the mall would be brighter and open and provide an easier and safe passage from let’s say you are at the White Plains Library and want to cross over to what I call the “Death Star”—the Verizon building. You can come directly through the mall and the idea is to improve the flow. The (existing) tunnel is kind of bleak and that would be tuned up dramatically. So, just to brighten it all up and make it all part once again of the community around it is exciting. It is a huge project and that one is not launching tomorrow.

Real Estate In-Depth: A recurring theme has been that White Plains would someday create its own Industrial Development Agency and no longer have its projects incentivized by the Westchester County IDA. Has the city revisited this idea of late or will it continue working with the county IDA for the foreseeable future?

Mayor Roach: We have pushed for it (the city’s own IDA) but the reality is that Albany is not really interested in doing any new IDAs, that is just the message we get repeatedly. Over time, prior county executives have not wanted, whether they said it openly or not, they have not wanted White Plains to get its own IDA because we’re the main driver for their IDA and the revenue that it brings in. But, George Latimer is different. If we want our own IDA, he supports us getting our own IDA. I just think and we may look at it, but realistically I don’t see it coming. Certainly not anytime soon. So, we have tried to work within the existing structure. Some of the things we did back before George was the County Executive was we took the position that we are not going to waive the sales tax on these projects and we are not waiving the mortgage recording tax. If that doesn’t get worked out, we have the right to object and if we object the deal is done and it can’t go forward. So, we said we were going to start objecting and it was a short conversation. We weren’t threatening… The developer will now write us a check for what would have been the mortgage recording and sales tax. It is not immediate, but it comes when they would have paid it and so we are kind of working within the structure…

We have been talking with them. We have gotten some money for our own economic development, but it has been a small amount. We want to have a serious conversation about more of that money coming our way so we can do our own economic development because the money that they get from these projects comes with a lot of cost but it is economic development for the county and we think it is only fair that we have some money targeted for us to the extent that we are generating revenue.

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