February 19, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
Port Chester, NY – At the most recent meeting of the Sustainable Port Chester Alliance, (SPCA) a broad based coalition that has taken on the civic responsibility of questioning the type of development that Starwood Capital is proposing for their village, round table participants listened attentively to Perla Zuniga, Field Representative from Don Bosco Workers, (an organization committed to the eradication of wage theft). She reported on her recent visit to a local Port Chester school. “The conditions are already crowded,” she tells her colleagues. “The cafeteria is no longer large enough, and many students are already eating lunch in either the auditorium or the basement.”
At first glance, to a newcomer, it may seem disjointed. What do wage theft, basement school lunches and real estate development have to do with one another? The answer is community. The alliance is comprised of local clergy, educators, social justice organizations, trades people and other community activists. In short, they are the stakeholders in Port Chester; those who live and work in the area, and are not amenable to a knee jerk reaction to the phrase “economic development.” The devil, as they say, is indeed in the details. Their message is two-fold and clear: yes we welcome development, but development must be responsible and beneficial to the community. The group has some legitimate questions for Starwood.
How will this new development affect local schools? With hundreds of new apartments being built, how many of them will house school aged children who need and deserve public school services? How many of them will be in line with median income parameters for truly affordable housing? What type of job creation can Port Chester expect from the development. Will the initial construction jobs be done by responsible contractors who maintain sites that are safe for workers and pedestrians? Will those workers be paid at a wage rate that is in keeping with area standards? And will the permanent jobs that are created also receive the type of compensation
that allows Port Chester residents to work and live above a poverty line. What about the thriving small business community in Port Chester? Will this new development, as it is now proposed, have any negative impact on this same group of entrepreneurs who have been the mainstay of Port Chester’s economic base since the crash of 2008?
One would think that with Starwood Capital’s army of well paid attorneys, accountants and public relations staff it would be a simple task to respond quickly and clearly to these concerns. But Starwood refuses to meet with the Alliance and chooses instead to engage in a barrage of PR mailings to residents discussing the benefits of their development while they lobby local elected officials for a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes). For many, the $60 million in savings for Starwood does not add up to benefits for Port Chester. What is needed to relieve the anxiety of the Port Chester Alliance is a Community Benefits Agreement. There is ample precedent for
this, and some of it is as close to home as Yonkers and New Rochelle. In those cities, developers have come to the table, and in return for multi-million dollar profits, have agreed to a range of terms that address the needs of all concerned. But none of those things can take place without that conversation.
The SPCA has no intention of taking “no” for an answer to its invitation to Starwood, and simply folding up their tents and going away. In fact, Starwood’s intractability on the issues has caused quite the opposite effect. The group, initially formed in July of 2015, not only maintains its purpose but continues to gain momentum, attracting more groups and individuals to the cause on a daily basis. “We’re not going away,” one board member said after volunteering to print up more flyers. That statement seemed to capture the sentiment alive in the room.
The Alliance’s next move is to sponsor a “Trustee Candidate Forum.” The event takes place Thursday, March 3rd at 7 PM at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Westchester Avenue in Port Chester. Every candidate who is running in the March 15th elections for Village Trustee has been invited to attend. At this event, village residents will be afforded the opportunity to raise their concerns about the development, and pose questions to the candidates about how they would go about addressing those concerns.. There are likely to be some tough questions put to the candidates. It will be an audience looking for specifics, not sound bytes.With the event being held a scant 12 days before elections, it is doubtful if the voters are likely to forget the answers they receive.
Anyone interested in attending the forum or seeking more information on the issue can visit www.PortChesterAlliance.org.