By CHRIS EBERHART and KATIE HOOS
The fight over New Roc-helle’s planned Echo Bay development is about to end.
Protests led by United Cit-izens for a Better New Ro-chelle, a bipartisan organization created to hold New Rochelle government accountable, and New Rochelle veterans have sent the mayor and developer Forest City backpedaling and put pressure on the remaining members of the City Council to vote in a bipartisan fashion against the project.
On Nov. 22, New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson, a Democrat who has long supported the project, released a statement saying the majority of the City Council is against the Echo Bay development, and he expects the council to vote it down during a Nov. 26 council meeting, after press time.
Despite the lack of support from the council and a resounding vocal opposition from the community, Bramson still says this project is what’s best for New Rochelle.
“I support the project because I believe it is in the best interest of our community,” Bramson said. “Our job now is to look toward the future.”
United Citizen’s reaction com-bined sentiments of relief and joy.
“New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson’s statement on Friday that a project he supported and promoted to New Rochelle’s 78,000 citizens does not appear to have enough votes is something to celebrate in time for Thanksgiving,” the group said. “After overwhelming opposition from all corners of New Rochelle’s diverse population, this ill-conceived, financially unfit project should be finally scrapped.”
Forest City’s development plan faced increasing protest before Bramson’s statement.
On Nov. 21, Republican City Councilman Lou Trangucci, District 1, who was opposed to the project, said, “We have the votes [to stop the project], and [Bramson] knows it.”
If the plan is shot down on Tuesday, after press time, the agreement with Forest City is over, Republican Councilman Al Tarantino, District 2, said. The council will then start the development process over again.
“We will discuss what we want to do with the commissioner of development,” Taranatino said. “The city will create a basic outline of what we want—like hotels or retail—so the developers that come forward know what we want. And then we will send out a request for qualifications or a request for proposals.”
Jeffrey Hastie, a member of United Citizens, said nothing about the Forest City plan made sense for New Rochelle.
“It was going to cost the taxpayers too much money; aesthetically it was not appealing because the buildings would have walled-off the water front and the already-overcrowded cla-ssrooms would’ve only become more overcrowded,” Hastie said.
Not only were protestors against the plan, but they were also against the developer Fo-rest City, which is mired in accusations of illegal dealings and controversial business practices.
Cause of Action, an independent government accountability group, launched an investigation into Forest City and published a recent report, which uncovered ties between the developer and Bramson, stating that the mayor received $22,500 in campaign contributions from Forest City investors and members of the Ratner family, who owns Forest City, since 2005.
In the report, Cause of Action also stated Forest City would be granted a $20 million tax abatement from 2016 to 2035 if Echo Bay were to be completed, despite New Rochelle’s continuously rising property taxes.
In efforts to restore the Echo Bay shoreline and revitalize downtown New Rochelle through sustainable development, the city began searching for developers with waterfront redevelopment experience.
In 2006, the city sent out a request for proposals and Forest City Ratner, a subsidiary of Forest City Residential, Inc., was chosen to redevelop 26 acres of property that would include 150,000 sq. ft. of retail space, two 150-room hotels, and more than 600 luxury residences along the waterfront.
Because of the recession, the project was scraped until 2010, when it was reignited but ultimately downsized considerably.
Much of the heated backlash came with downscaling the project in 2012, when the 26-acre project was reduced to a 10.8-acre proposal and 150,000 square feet of retail space was reduced to 25,000 square feet in favor of maintaing the residential units.
Since then, the blowback increasingly began to intensify culminating with tensions boiling over during a Nov. 12 City Council meeting, which started with a protest of about 70 citizens on a frigid Tuesday night outside City Hall chanting, “Go away Echo Bay.”
About 30 of the protestors spoke during the council meeting, only one of which—Robin Sherman, the vice president of Investment Design Properties Ltd., which is the city’s Industrial Development Agency chairman and Bramson-appointee Greg Merchant’s company—spoke in favor of the project.
At the meeting, Sherman pr-esented a petition with 550 signatures of residents she said want the Echo Bay project to continue.
“Many of my neighbors st-rongly support this project and want it to go forward,” Sherman said. “These include community leaders, civic leaders and neighborhood association presidents. We have been debating and arguing over this project for years. It is time to approve it.”
The City Review obtained a copy of the petition and a number of signatures were illegible, some were without an address or had an address outside of New Rochelle, while others included campaign contributors of Bramson’s for both his mayoral runs and his failed county executive bid this year, or came in response to an email sent out by Forest City.
Hastie said he didn’t believe the petition was legitimate.
“If you take a look at the petition signers on a map, it would be like the Verizon commercial,” Hastie said. “Their map would look nothing like the map of New Rochelle.”
After Sherman spoke, 28 protestors vocalized their opposition to Echo Bay.
Then the fireworks came.
After citizens to be heard, Bramson held a second vote to resume Echo Bay discussion after Tarantino made a motion earlier in the evening to table all talks about the project and wait to vote until 2014, a motion that passed 4-3.
The results of the second vote swung dramatically in Bramson’s favor.
Democratic Councilwoman Shari Rackman, District 6, said she was bullied by Bramson, into changing her vote to put Echo Bay back on the table.
The meeting was adjourned after the room erupted over the controversial vote, but the intensity spilled out onto the parking lot when resident Ashley Ward, an Echo Bay protester, shouted at Rackman from across the municipal parking lot behind City Hall.
Democratic Councilman Bar-ry Fertel, District 5, got out of his car and screamed into Ward’s face.
“We were leaving, and I saw Rackman being escorted out. I shouted that she was a disgrace, and she won’t keep her seat in office,” Ward told The City Review. “I was walking away because I was furious. As I’m walking away, [Fertel] flies out of his car and sticks a finger in my face and told me I can’t speak to her that way…He was so close to my face that I thought he was going to
Police escorted the council members to their cars. Mayor Bramson was also escorted home, according to eyewitnesses.
The following week, on Nov. 19, Bramson apologized for his actions and agreed to rescind his motion and wait until 2014 to discuss Echo Bay.
But in a surprise move, Ta-rantino planned to hold a final vote on Echo Bay at the council’s Nov. 26 meeting, after press time.
While Tarantino is confident the Echo Bay fight is over, he said he won’t celebrate until the votes are counted Tuesday evening.
“The power of persuasion of Forest City is something that never goes away,” Tarantino said.
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