The owner of one of Yonkers' largest retail and housing developments owes the city $3 million for a new firehouse.
In 2006, when the then-Yonkers City Council was debating a development agreement for the proposed Ridge Hill plaza, Forest City Ratner, the developer behind the project, offered the city money for a new firehouse to sweeten the deal. They hammered out an agreement: New York City-based Forest City Ratner would give the city $3 million, and the city would acquire the land and cover the bulk of the costs, including manpower and equipment.
But the money was never given to the city, and more than six years later and after the project opened earlier this year, the firehouse has yet to be built. Also at play is whether Yonkers can afford to hold up its end of the deal: The city is facing an $89 million deficit this year and was forced to cut spending, increase taxes and water rates. That shortfall is expected to balloon to $420 million by 2016.
Christina Gilmartin, a spokeswoman for Yonkers Mayor Mike Spano -- who worked as a lobbyist for Forest City Ratner before he was elected to the city's top job -- said the city hasn't received the money but downplayed the significance. She said the money was merely pledged by the developers to offset the cost of added coverage, but not a contractual obligation.
"And $3 million doesn't cover the cost of a new firehouse, let alone purchasing the land," Gilmartin said.
She said the city's new Fire Commissioner, Robert Sweeney, is "assessing the need" for a new firehouse in the Ridge Hill neighborhood, but no decisions have been made. The closest fire station is about a mile away from the new plaza.
"We have to assess the need for a new firehouse, not just in Ridge Hill but citywide," Gilmartin said.
Firefighters, however, see it a bit differently: Barry McGoey, president of Yonkers Fire Union 628, which represents the city's rank-and-file firefighters, said the union has been pushing for the new fire house to be built for years, but has gotten the "runaround" from city officials.
"[The former city council] pushed that project through with the promise that there would be another firehouse built and additional fire companies added to accommodate the growth," he said. "We've had a significant amount of new development, including the Ridge Hill project, and we just don't have the capabilities to respond to all these new developments."
A spokeswoman for Forest City Ratner confirmed that the company never paid the $3 million but declined to comment, saying only that "the city is still in the process of assessing the need for a new firehouse" in the area.
A 2005 environmental impact review found that the Ridge Hill development -- one of the city's largest development projects in recent decades -- would likely require additional fire equipment to ensure that the development is fully protected.
In a Aug. 24, 2011 letter to union officials, the city's Deputy Corporation Counsel Edward Dunphy wrote that the resolution passed by the Council in 2006 obligated Forest City to build a new Ridge Hill firehouse or give the city the $3 million, while the city was required to provide the land, equipment and firefighters for the new station.
“The developer clearly has committed to undertake construction of a firehouse or, in the language of the resolution, " the project sponsor has agreed to undertake design and construction of the firehouse,”’ he wrote.
He wrote that the resolution contained a clause the if the developer gave the city the money and the firehouse wasn't built within five years, the city would have to give the money back, adding that that didn’t happen.
“Contrary to what some might suggest, this clause did not negate developer's obligation to construct a firehouse nor has the developer's recognized pledge to construct a firehouse expired.”
McGoey said the fire union is considering legal action to force the city and developers to build the new firehouse.
Spano is headed into arbitration talks with the city's firefighters over a raft of divisive contractual issues such as staffing levels, wages and benefits. Union officials say the department is short about 40 firefighters.
The Ridge Hill development -- which cost an estimated $700 million -- was a fiercely contested proposal to develop an 80-acre piece of land off the Sprain Brook Parkway in Yonkers. The mixed-use, commercial and residential development led to a sharp divide in the council then, with most of the members filing a lawsuit to stop the project.
The project was approved in July 2006 after then-Councilwoman Sandy Annabi -- who had previously opposed the development project -- changed her vote, giving the developers the five votes they needed to approve the new complex.
Annabi was convicted on federal bribery charges in April, along with her cousin, former Yonkers Republican Party chief Zehy Jereis. Prosecutors said she accepted nearly $200,000 in bribes in gifts and cash from Jereis in a scheme to sell her affirmative vote on the Ridge Hill development. Annabi, 42, was sentenced in November to six years in prison.