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Amenities Aren't Enough To Draw Renters To Westchester, But Shiny New Downtowns Are

Cities throughout Westchester County are undertaking transformations of their downtowns, boosting their supply of a once-rare real estate product type for the northern suburb of New York City: urban-style rental apartments.

Those revitalizations are aiding the cities' long-term stability and growth, which elected officials are trying to demonstrate to current residents.

“Having people live in your downtown transforms your community in the sense that it maintains your downtown,” White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach said at Bisnow’s 2024 Westchester State Of The Market event Tuesday. “If you let your downtown go away, it's a quick spiral and all of a sudden vacancies make people feel unsafe.”

Westchester County's Ken Jenkins, Kings Capital Group's JD Summa, RXR & Red Oak Street's David Garten, H2M Architects + Engineers Jay Pisco, New Rochelle Mayor Yadira Ramos-Herbert and White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach onstage at Bisnow's 2024 Westchester State Of The Market event.

White Plains is an epicenter for downtown transformation in Westchester. Developer Louis Cappelli is leading a group of developers and investors, including SL Green, in the $2.5B redevelopment of the Galleria mall in the city's center. The project is planned to include more than 3,000 apartments.

That project is indicative of the increasing demand for rental apartments as newly lively downtowns act as a selling point for prospective tenants, developers said onstage at the Scarsdale Country Club. Well-amenitized buildings still attract tenants, but they have to exist in locations where people already want to live, they said.

“People want these hamlets, these villages. They want the walking experience. It goes back to that lifestyle shift,” Minno Wasko Architects and Planners Principal Stuart Johnson said. “There's a shift in quality of life, and more focus on health, wellness and experiences.”

That’s something that Hines has seen at its Northlight Edge-On-Hudson development in Sleepy Hollow, a transit-oriented development with more than 1,000 units of housing, a 140-room hotel, 135K SF of retail and 35K SF of office space, according to its website. Hines thinks about the retail space as an amenity outside the building, managing director Lily Ackerman said onstage.

“More typically, it's been the young adult in the city that wants access to more space and at better value,” she said. “But that same person also wants to be able to walk and be able to still have that experience of not having to get in their car to get everything that they need. So having access to retail or services within your community within walking distance is a huge draw.”

Hines' project has also revealed a demographic shift in the kinds of renters looking for space somewhere like Northlight, she said. In addition to younger renters, there are baby boomers looking to downsize without sacrificing access to outdoor space or lifestyle luxuries they got used to in New York City, she said.

“Between those two, where I think the Venn diagram really overlaps is the access to outdoor space, the access to green spaces within your community,” she said. “Can you see the water? Can you see green spaces from your living room or bedroom?”

Minno Wasko's Stuart Johnson, Hines' Lily Ackerman, Saber-Hightower's Greg Belew, Caspi Development's Josh Caspi, Mill Creek Residential's Keith Rand and McCullogh Goldberger & Staudt's Seth Mandelbaum onstage at Bisnow's 2024 Westchester State Of The Market event.

Minno Wasko has concentrated heavily on building amenities tailored to resident demographics, such as a flexible space in a luxury New Jersey rental that can be used as either a mahjong lounge or a coworking room. That concept of hospitality-inspired design is one that the firm has seen interest in from renters in Westchester, too.

“Older and younger demographics are much more aware of the indoor air quality environment they're living in. They're more accustomed to the experience,” he said. “In some ways, it's less about the amenities arms race that it's been the past five to 10 years, who has the best amenity. [Now it's] who has the best experience?”

Johnson is seeing multigenerational demand for “curated, hotel-resort” experiences among renters in Westchester, but in-building amenities themselves aren’t enough, he said. Greg Belew, principal at developer Saber-Hightower, agreed. Renters want to be able to walk to get groceries or go to a bar, he said.

“People aren't going to live their whole life in the buildings, although we all try to develop these huge robust amenity packages,” Belew said. “It's not just what's in your building. It's what's around your building when you walk out.”

Readily accessible downtown areas, even in smaller, wealthier suburbs like Scarsdale, are a draw for everyone from Gen Z renters to older renters looking to downsize, Johnson said. 

Paredim Partners' David Parisier, Titanium Realty Group's Diego Hodara, Toll Brothers' Bryan Oos, JLL Capital Markets Americas' Steve Simonelli and Citrin Cooperman's Vincent Altieri onstage at Bisnow's 2024 Westchester State Of The Market event.

“We think of downtown Scarsdale. We think of the downtowns of these villages in these communities. To be able to walk to dinner, have a glass of wine and walk home, there's a real demand for that,” he said.

Commercial real estate development in itself has been fundamental to creating those sorts of downtowns, New Rochelle Mayor Yadira Ramos-Herbert said onstage. New Rochelle has been the beacon of dense, suburban development in Westchester, with 6,300 apartment units approved and more than 2,500 built in the past eight years, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Its downtown redevelopment is at the heart of that effort, with Uniondale-based RXR investing more than $1B in its role as master developer of a 300-acre swath of the city.

“Our partnership with our RXR, through the master development plan, has really been transformative in bringing high-end apartments but also affordable housing to the heart of the downtown,” she said. “That kind of show of confidence in the city really helped kickstart investment.”

Downtowns without investment can quickly begin to resemble scenes from post-apocalyptic movies, with boarded-up windows and broken glass everywhere, White Plains Mayor Roach told Bisnow's audience. But it doesn't have to be like that. A bustling downtown in White Plains allows for the city to offer services like pickups of old furniture three times a week at residents' convenience, he said.

"We don't charge," Roach said. "So where does that money come from? It's coming from a strong downtown."

Overcoming residents' opposition to development, especially to city funding mechanisms like payment-in-lieu-of-taxes programs, is a key part of ensuring the future of these cities, New Rochelle's Ramos-Herbert said. 

Ramos-Herbert now carries a printout of an orange bar chart in her handbag, demonstrating how much funding her city will receive over the next 20 years from PILOT programs for real estate development.

“That's money that the city's earning that we can invest in our city without property tax increases,” she said. “To take it a step further, New Rochelle is undergoing a flood mitigation plan, looking at all of its watersheds — all the city, top to bottom, east to west — and identifying 300 projects to work on. And the only way we can find it is because we know that we are creating the opportunity for steady revenue.”