To hear Mayor Mike Spano tell it, Yonkers is on the verge of a renaissance.
Spano, a former state assemblyman who took office last January, has been touting a series of big-ticket redevelopment projects that could help Westchester County's largest city rebound from the worst economic slump in a generation.
A few of the projects have languished for years, either from lack of support from previous city administrations or because of financial problems brought on by the recession.
But better days are coming, Spano keeps saying.
"Yonkers is on the cusp of something great," the mayor told Newsday on Tuesday.
Skeptics suggest that -- despite some recent noteworthy successes -- Yonkers remains associated more with talk than action, when it comes to real estate development.
One of Spano's pet projects is the planned redevelopment and conversion of the iconic Glenwood Power Plant -- dubbed the "gates to hell" for its menacing presence along the banks of the Hudson River. Idle for decades, the building has been magnet for gang activity in recent years. Plans for the site envision a state-of-the-art mixed-use complex, organized around a new hotel and restaurants.
Another Spano favorite is the conversion of the Boyce Thompson building off Executive Boulevard -- where investor William Boyce Thompson conducted research to boost the world's food supplies in the mid-1920s. Again, a hotel will be the centerpiece, surrounded by shops and gardens.
Both projects are being developed by the partners Ron Shemesh and Lela Goren, who together give the redevelopment scenario substantial credibility. Shemesh is the president of Excelsior Packaging, a successful manufacturing firm with headquarters on Alexander Street in Yonkers. Goren is a real estate development professional with high level experience at Extell Development Co., a major developer based in Manhattan.
Spano has given the two projects top priority for funding support from Mid-Hudson Regional Economic Development Council, a kind of clearinghouse for support from the state. The Glenwood project benefitted from $1 million in seed money through the council last year. The developers are now seeking $20 million in federal tax credits for investors. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has gone to bat for the project, calling upon federal authorities to approve the credits.
The mayor's office argues that, with adequate government support -- including the tax credits -- financing for both the Glenwood and the Boyce projects will come together rapidly.
MORE ACTION ON ALEXANDER STREET
Alexander Street -- the riverfront thoroughfare that was once the mainstay of a thriving industrial district -- already boasts renovated historic buildings, restaurants and riverfront walkways, as well as a gleaming $35 million public library overlooking the Hudson. The area benefits from the appeal of the revamped Beaux-Arts Metro-North train station. Among the projects in the planning stage: several new high-rise apartment complexes and the conversion of the old city jail into an upscale restaurant.
Finally, Spano hopes to see redevelopment of the crumbling, century-old Teutonia Hall, on Buena Vista Avenue. That plan includes restoration of the facade of the old opera house, as well as the construction of a 24-story residential tower to include a garage and 360 apartments, some 70 of which are to be offered as affordable housing. Before construction can begin, the developers must complete a $5 million environmental cleanup of the old site, which got under way in March. The project is slated for completion in 2014.
To help push the projects, Spano said the city will invest about $350,000 in the next year on marketing and advertising campaigns. He said he has directed the city's Industrial Development Agency, which can offer tax breaks and other incentives to developers, to scale back on such breaks, believing that redevelopment of the city's waterfront has generated momentum that makes extreme tax breaks unnecessary.
"We don't want to give away the store," Spano said Tuesday. "There's no reason a housing development should be getting 30 years of tax credits."
METROPARTNERS PLAYS A MAJOR ROLE
The Teutonia Hall project is the latest undertaking of MetroPartners, a firm that has played an important role in revitalizing Alexander Street and the Yonkers waterfront. Headquartered at 92 Main St., the company is now marketing Metro92, a complex offering luxury loft spaces with 20-foot ceilings and 10-foot windows. A few doors away, the firm has built 66 Main, a residential complex with a view of the waterfront.
Alan Litt, president of MetroPartners, credits Spano with making Yonkers more attractive to developers, by "providing clarity" around the process of getting projects approved.
Litt feels Yonkers is rising from the ashes of the recession, slowly but surely.
"There's a feeling of change and confidence in Yonkers," Litt told Newsday. "There's a feeling that as long as you are willing to play by the rules, the city is going to do whatever it can to guide you through the development process."
SKEPTICS WANT TO SEE SHOVELS IN THE GROUND
Skeptics point out that Yonkers has a history of putting resources into redevelopment projects that ultimately go belly up. The skeptics say developers are still struggling to get adequate financing from recession-weary banks.
"If you went to a city planning board meeting, you would think the place is jumping," said Terry Joshi, a member of the nonprofit Yonkers Committee for Smart Development. "But in reality many of these projects are still on paper."
Experts suggest the city has the material resources it needs to engineer a major renaissance, but may remain hobbled by image problems rooted in decades past, when the failure of local industries led to high crime and stagnation in the downtown business district.
"The biggest hurdle the city faces is how to overcome that negative image and attract the market," said Farrokh Hormozi, a professor of economics and public administration at Pace University. "Bypassing that will be a major challenge."
Spano and other champions of investment point to a drop in the city's violent crime rate and improvements in public schools. They argue that those factors -- combined with the city's stunning views of the Hudson River and ready access to Manhattan via Metro-North trains -- have already made the city a more attractive place to live for young professionals and even retirees.
"People really want to live here," Litt said. "And that's creating a buzz."
Recent census data appears to back up such claims. Yonkers population, which remained stagnant from 2000 to 2010, grew by more than 1,400 in 2011, according to recent estimates. City officials attribute the growth to newcomers filling up housing complexes like the 294-unit Hudson Park North on Alexander Street. The developers, Collins Enterprises, are building another 200-unit high-rise complex nearby that's expected to break ground later this year, officials say.
Last month, the Westchester Association bused more than 200 developers to the city to showcase several projects under way. The developers spent a day visiting sites and talking with city officials.
"They were really surprised by the energy and feeling that Yonkers is a city on the rise," said Marissa Brett, executive director of economic development for the association. "Obviously the projects need to be built, but there's certainly a lot of activity and sites that are being proposed for redevelopment, but also moving along in the review process."
POLITICS HAS BEEN AN IMPEDIMENT
Longtime observers of the Yonkers scene recognize that politics has impeded development, at times. They say new mayors and city council majorities have a nasty habit of delaying and in some cases killing the pet development projects of their predecessors, especially when their predecessors were from the opposing political party.
"Politics unfortunately plays a part," said Councilman John Larkin, the board's Republican minority leader. "It's probably one of the reasons we haven't progressed as much as we should. We tend to hold ourselves back. Personally, I don't care who gets the credit, as long as it's a win for the city."
So far, Larkin says Spano has not played those kinds of games.
"If that means I'm giving credit to a Democratic mayor for moving the city forward," he said, "so be it."