County officials and business leaders are pressing the Town of Harrison to dream much, much bigger in reinventing the outdated, dreary office parks around Platinum Mile, hoping to turn the I-287 corridor into lively neighborhoods featuring rental apartments, stores, restaurants and more.
The call for a new vision in an area that covers about 10 percent of the 18-square-mile town comes just as local officials are drafting a new comprehensive plan to manage municipal growth.
The detailed document, which has been nine years in the making, encompasses goals for all of Harrison, which includes Purchase, Silver Lake and West Harrison. But with too many vacant and half-empty aging office buildings languishing in a tough economy, the hot-button issue is bringing a real pulse back to Platinum Mile.
The problem for Harrison is that "there's been no progression," said Kevin McCarthy, a vice president with CBRE. McCarthy said his commercial real estate firm has had "limited success" in leasing office space in the sprawling office complexes that date back to the go-go 1970s and 1980s. McCarthy, 31, said he grew up in neighboring White Plains and when he looks at Harrison today, "it's sad but it really hasn't changed much."
AN EVOLVING ECONOMY AND MARKETPLACE
At its peak in 1984, Platinum Mile was home to Fortune 500 companies that fled Manhattan to build sprawling, single-tenant office parks off Westchester Avenue. The buildings once generated 60 percent of Harrison's entire tax revenue, according to the draft of the comprehensive plan. From 1972 to 1988, developers constructed 4.5 million square feet of new offices on 256 acres in Purchase alone.
As businesses floundered, downsized or moved away, the area's tax contributions to Harrison have shrunk to just 18 percent of the town's revenues.
In recent years, about a million square feet of space within the complexes has been revived by developers who obtained zoning variances from the town board for mixed-use projects. By mid-2014, the Minnesota chain LifeTime Fitness will open a $40 million, 209,000-square-foot health club and spa. In 2015, Memorial Sloan-Kettering will complete construction of a $200 million cancer center next door to Fordham University Business School.
Advocates for change say these projects could become anchors for an exciting, new Harrison filled with downtown-style neighborhoods -- if interconnecting streets and sidewalks are introduced to an isolated, office park section of town that is currently locked in a maze of dead ends.
But Harrison officials are concerned about traffic issues. They are willing to consider some connecting roads and a bit of age-restricted housing for seniors, as well as housing for singles or childless couples. A little retail would also be permitted.
The town's conservative tack has raised eyebrows at the county level. In a letter sent last month to Harrison officials, Westchester Planning Board Commissioner Ed Burroughs urged the town to break out of office park mode and welcome mixed-use development because the draft's goals are "not broad enough to envision the changes that we believe may be necessary to ensure the success of this corridor into the future."
COUNTY PLANNERS WANT VARIETY
In addition to calling for the creation of more roadway interconnectivity, Burroughs is recommending a broader variety of housing and retail -- short of big box stores and malls. In his letter, he said also asked Harrison to consider potential mass transit improvements that might take advantage of the replacement of the nearby Tappan Zee Bridge with a new $3.9 billion transit-ready span.
Harrison officials have heard from the Westchester County Association, as well. The business group is pushing for rezoning throughout the I-287 corridor, to encourage environments that will attract more young professionals and prospective employees with families, said Marissa Brett, the organization's executive director for economic development.
"We need vibrant communities where they want to live, work and play and we don't have a lot of that right now," she said. "This would be a great opportunity."
In the eyes of Chris O'Callaghan, managing director for Jones Lang LaSalle, Platinum Mile could become an amenities-rich variation on Ridge Hill, the 17-month-old downtown-style outdoor shopping center in Yonkers.
"If we had a streetscape similar to Ridge Hill, it would be a grand slam where you have office, retail, movies, dry cleaning, banking, bars, fitness clubs and entertainment," O'Callaghan said. "Today, companies go where they can attract the best employees."
McCarthy agrees and also points out that Harrison has a "phenomenal school district" that would be appealing to young families. While the town might be concerned about bringing in more children and the possibility of higher school taxes, new development will result in collecting more tax revenue that could help offset additional costs, he predicted.
"We would be very upset if Harrison was only going to have senior or age-restricted housing," McCarthy said.
With the comprehensive plan still a work in progress, Harrison Mayor Ron Belmont said he would refrain from discussing it until a final version is put before the town board for a vote.
"We hope to get it done in the next couple of weeks," Belmont said. "We're taking everyone's comments under advisement."