Metro-North looks to cash in on real estate near stations, fuel rider growth

A view of the Poughkeepsie Metro-North train station

A view of the Poughkeepsie Metro-North train station from the Walkway Over the Hudson at the spot where a proposed 21-story elevator is being planned. (July 26, 2012) Photo Credit: John Meore

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Metro-North is forging ahead with plans to return rail travel to the pre-World War II era in some Hudson Valley communities by partnering with local governments to build housing so close to stations that commuters could just step out their doors and board a train.

A proposal to develop housing and retail space at the Metro-North station in downtown Harrison is inching closer to a groundbreaking, possibly later this year, that has eluded town leaders for nearly three decades, Newsday has learned.

Meanwhile, projects in Mount Vernon and Poughkeepsie are moving off the drawing board and into the planning phase as city leaders look to revitalize struggling downtown areas.

The Harrison project is the furthest along, following last month's selection of Virginia-based Avalon Bay Communities as the developer, officials said.

The plan calls for converting 3.3 acres of Metro-North commuter parking lots along Halstead Avenue into residential and retail space, while doubling the number of parking spaces available to commuters. Retail space for restaurants, flower shops and the like will serve as a facade to block a street view of a parking garage.

Metro-North has agreed to sell or lease its acreage to get the deal done. A price tag has not been decided.

Harrison Mayor Ron Belmont said similar proposals, including one that envisioned a high-rise hotel, have been kicked around for 30 years, only to go nowhere.

"This has been a hot topic for a long time," Belmont said. "It's going to be a shot in the arm for our downtown merchants."

Metro-North executives said the project will not only allow its parent agency, the MTA, to collect money from the sale or lease of the property, it will produce hundreds of potential riders steps away from the station.

"Lots of people want to be able to walk to the station or, in this case, live right at the station," said Linda Corcoran, the director of strategic facilities development for Metro-North.

Some people who work in downtown Harrison said the project is long overdue.

"I like the idea," said Rocco Troiano, who runs the Harrison Senior Center on Halstead Avenue near the station. "We need housing. And it's right by the train station. It would be great for the merchants downtown."

The public-private efforts, also known as transit-oriented developments, or TOD's, are an extension of what Metro-North executives call "de facto" developments that have sprung up at stations in Westchester County during the past decade. Within the MTA, they've been championed by Robert Paley, a former Avalon Bay executive, who directs the transit agency's transit-oriented development.

In Tarrytown, New Rochelle and Yonkers, developers promising quick commutes into New York City have built high- and low-rise developments with hundreds of units just blocks away from Metro-North stations, officials said.

The commuter rail nudged along the developments by contributing to multimillion-dollar platform and station upgrades at several stations. In Yonkers that included creating a backdoor entrance to the station so residents who live on the riverside would have easier access to trains, Metro-North spokesman Marjorie Anders explained.

Metro-North was eyeing the success of such developments near stations while aggressively pursuing deals that would let them earn income from MTA-owned property at its stations.

"This is an opportunity for us to leverage the property we own," Corcoran said.

And they've received the stamp of approval from smart-growth advocates pushing for more mass transit options that will get commuters out of their cars and reduce carbon gas emissions.

"You put these projects in downtown areas to support an economy where there's already an infrastructure in place," said Jeff Anzevino, the director of land use advocacy for Scenic Hudson, an environmental group. "In order to keep the cities vibrant it makes sense."

Several developments already have cropped up near Long Island Rail Road stations in Wyandanch and Farmingdale, giving low- and moderate-income workers easy access to jobs to the east and west, said Amy Engel, the executive director of Sustainable Long Island.

Engel said her group is such a proponent of the concept that it moved its offices to a TOD development in Farmingdale.

"We believe the TOD is one of the smartest things you can do from a land-use perspective," Engel said.

The proposals for the Poughkeepsie and Mount Vernon East stations are in the early stages and, so far, lack a detailed plan.

To kick-start the process, the city of Mount Vernon has turned to the state for help in securing a $354,000 Brownfield Opportunity Area grant, MTA records show. The grants go to cities and towns looking to build on land that may have been contaminated by industrial or commercial use. Metro-North has sent a letter to the state supporting the city's application.

In Poughkeepsie, a similar plan is being discussed as part of a waterfront development strategy that the city and Dutchess County have been pursuing. Among the proposals that have been floated is erecting a hotel.

The Harrison project will include about 140 residential units and 35,000 square feet of retail space, according to Matthew Whalen, Avalon Bay's senior vice president for development.

Avalon Bay has developed similar proposals for rail agencies across the country, including one in San Francisco for Bay Area Rapid Transit, Whalen noted.

Whalen, who said he worked with Paley many years ago, said Paley has correctly identified TOD's as a means to generate revenue for cash-pinched transit agencies with real estate to sell.

"It's a successful model that we've used across the country," Whalen said. "I'd like to think that this concept will add vibrancy to the area around the train station in downtown Harrison."

In addition to rezoning the area, Harrison town officials must clear several hurdles before the development is approved, including a state environmental review and a traffic study.

Whalen doesn't foresee community opposition to a project, which has been in the town's master plan for several years. "This isn't or shouldn't come as a surprise," he said.

Belmont is confident the Harrison proposal will come together before the year is out.

"Hopefully, we'll get it done," he said. "It will be a first-class project. Everything takes time."

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