Now that the lawsuits have been permanently withdrawn, we’re able to look back and speak more openly about the biggest challenge that my administration inherited in 2014: Chappaqua Crossing.
Shortly after purchasing the Reader’s Digest corporate campus for $59 million in 2004, Summit Greenfield (“SG”) began exploring various redevelopment options with Town officials. Generally, these options involved residential development, but SG and the Town struggled to find common ground.
By 2011, the matter had explored into litigation. SG filed a federal action alleging that the Town had violated its rights under the Fair Housing Act and other federal laws. SG also filed a state action alleging that the Town’s delays and other actions had deprived SG of all economically viable use of the property and prevented the construction of affordable housing on the site.
At the time, many residents, including us, believed that the Town Board was mishandling Chappaqua Crossing. By 2011, SG had already spent 6 years before the Town Board. The Town Board looked lost. They didn’t know what they wanted at Chappaqua Crossing and were spinning their wheels. Only the lawyers benefited – they were paid handsomely!
The Town and SG reached a settlement in December 2012. What broke the impasse? Retail zoning. Specifically, the Town Board decided to invite SG to pursue the conversion of 120,000 square feet of commercial office space to retail space that would include a Whole Foods as the anchor tenant. The lawsuits were suspended while the Town Board studied the traffic, safety and other impacts that might be created by the conversion to retail.
As part of the settlement, the Town Board agreed to waive $628,000 in consulting fees that were owed to the Town. Years later, we learned that the prior Town Attorney, who was also district leader with the New Castle Democratic Committee, and other consultants had ran up over $1.5 million in fees that SG refused to pay.
But there was more. In October 2013, one week before we were elected, the Town Board adopted a SEQRA Findings Statement. A Finding Statement is a legally binding document that closes the book on the Town’s ability to review a project’s impacts on things like traffic, and explore possible mitigation measures. The Town’s Findings Statement determined, among other things, that the adverse traffic, safety and other impacts from having retail at Chappaqua Crossing would be minimal after road improvements were done to Route 117 and Roaring Brook Road. In very simple terms, what the 2013 Findings Statement did was prevent our administration from stopping the conversion to retail zoning based on our concerns over how the project would impact traffic, safety, community character and other environmental issues. The Findings Statement resolved all of those questions in favor of SG and retail zoning. The prior Town Board purposefully tied our hands right before we took office. We inherited this disaster.
Given the binding effect of the Findings Statement, going back to court with SG to fight over retail zoning was a very risky and expensive option. Chappaqua Crossing is a $68 million development project. Being of the losing side of a lawsuit over a project of that magnitude could have been disastrous for the Town. Three different law firms advised us that our potential liability far exceeded the limits of the Town’s insurance coverage ($13 million) and our ability to pay.
If that was not bad enough, there was an additional, non-quantifiable liability. In the federal lawsuit, SG alleged that when the prior Town Board only approved 111 housing units – 20 of which had to be affordable housing units – it made the project economically nonviable to build. And since meant that the affordable housing units would never be built, SG alleged that the Town’s actions had violated the Fair Housing Act (i.e. our actions had a disparate impact on affordable housing). This exposed the Town to a range of equitable remedies that could have reshaped the landscape at Chappaqua Crossing through judicial decrees and court-appointed monitors. We would have lost all control over the project. There was also a very serious question as to whether our insurance policy would even cover the disparate impact liability claim.
Instead of taking that risk, the Town Board decided to make the project as good as it could be, with the best amenities, best aesthetics, and the tax dollars we need. With input from our Planning Board, we persuaded Summit Greenfield to move away from its original proposal to build big box stores, and instead to design a more community-oriented, walkable retail development. We also negotiated with SG on additional improvements and benefits for the Town, including the following:
• We required that 20% of the total retail space on the property be dedicated to health and fitness-related uses. Life Time Fitness is now coming to Chappaqua Crossing. Lifetime will be utilizing 1/3 of the retail space. The remaining retail space will include a mix of new restaurants and small stores that will compliment, not destabilize, our existing merchants.
• We persuaded Summit Greenfield to pay the Town $1.5 million, which will be used to create other recreational opportunities and further mitigate impacts associated with the development.
• The townhouses on the site will be taxed as individual, fee-simple properties, not as condominiums. This will ensure that townhouse owners pay their fair share of property taxes.
• We persuaded Summit Greenfield to widen and approve the driveway entrance into Horace Greeley High School to alleviate the traffic congestion that occurs there every weekday morning.
• We saved the Wallace Auditorium from destruction. We persuaded Summit Greenfield to transfer ownership of the facility to the Town, for free, so it can be used and enjoyed by our residents, civic groups and other organizations.
• We created new open space by persuading Summit Greenfield to remove the houses it owns along Roaring Brook Road and transfer those properties to the Town, for free, so the land can be forever preserved as a natural buffer between the development and surrounding neighborhood. Click graphic to watch a virtual tour.
• The cupola building is being redeveloped for market rate, workforce and affordable rental housing. The renovation is already underway, and I’ve walked through the building. It’s awesome. It’s a project we can all be proud of. Click graphic to watch a video.
Here we are in 2017. All of the Town approvals have been granted for retail. The lawsuits that SG filed have been dismissed. Construction is under way. Whole Foods, Life Time Fitness and new restaurants will be opening next year. The Wallace Auditorium has been renamed as the Chappaqua Performing Arts Center and is already being enjoyed by residents.
Given the cards we were dealt in 2014, we are proud of what we accomplished at Chappaqua Crossing.