L to E: Train station leasing “process”—“Welcome to the House of Mirrors”
Saturday, June 7, 2014
by Carla Gambescia, Founder and Owner of Via Vanti
“What is past is past, and, whether you believe it is right or wrong, the current Board is confident that the process that is presently underway will be open and fair to all applicants.”
~ Town of New Castle Deputy Supervisor Lisa Katz (NewCastleNOW, March 28, 2014)
Some of the fondest memories of my childhood are of summers on the Jersey Shore and evenings spent there on the boardwalk where I was captivated by all the rides and attractions, and especially the House of Mirrors.
The disorienting labyrinth of glass reflections – where up was down and down was up; where fat was thin and thin was fat – never failed to engage and entertain me. But after a while I was always happy to come back out!
So what really happened with the new Town Board, and why? Such questions take me back to the House of Mirrors . . . though not with the nostalgic fondness of my youth.
I am sharing the following information so that interested New Castle residents might understand why I’ve chosen to support the Permissive Referendum initiative regarding the Chappaqua train station lease. If I were to remain silent – which would be the easier course – I would be abetting and implicitly sanctioning conduct which runs counter to my deepest convictions about integrity and fair play. So much that has transpired in recent months points to a breakdown in process and proper governance. New Castle residents and those who wish to do business in (and with) New Castle deserve better.
By way of background, Via Vanti! was awarded the train station lease in April of 2013 but did not receive the Town’s proposed lease document until after the November elections. This unusual delay arose at least in part because of delays in structural remediation to the building’s foundation which was needed before we could prepare the space for restaurant operations. At that point it was the decision of the former Town Supervisor to let the new Board finalize the lease.
The “Bathroom Availability is Paramount” Illusion
The extent of evening bathroom access was one of the items discussed between newly elected Councilman Adam Brodsky and me in the very brief period we were engaged in negotiations this past January – without, I might add, the involvement (and cost) of a Town attorney, or of any legal representation for myself. My position was that I wished to have the bathrooms reserved for guest use during the evening, simply because I didn’t want to compromise the guest experience during dinner hours given the intimate size of the space.
The bigger context for this preference was both my personal desire and the Town’s avowed interest in creating a destination dining amenity that could help revitalize downtown Chappaqua, especially at night. (What I proposed replicates the hours of public bathroom access required by the MTA in my Mount Kisco train station lease.) My position was restated in an email sent to Councilman Brodsky while I was away for business towards the end of the month. Following that, on January 27th, the councilman and I had a cordial phone conversation in which he expressed both his understanding and support of my preference, as well as his intention to express it to the full Board.
I did not hear back from Councilman Brodsky for the next two weeks but assumed that the Board was preoccupied with much-publicized Chappaqua Crossing developments. Only after following up with him on February 11th by email did I receive this reply: “We are going to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for the space to see if we can find a user that can accommodate the open bathroom policy. I apologize for this misunderstanding but the newly elected board feels the bathroom availability is paramount. We also feel that an open process for the space is important so that the residents understand that we have left no stone unturned.”
I was shocked. When I asked Councilman Brodsky (a real estate attorney) how a negotiating position could become a deal-killer without notice, he offered no explanation. When I asked him why I wasn’t advised that full-time bathroom access was a requirement – indeed “paramount” – he offered no explanation. When I asked him whether a simple phone call to me wouldn’t have been easier than to crank up a new RFP process, he offered no answer. When I said I would agree to comply with the Board’s “open bathroom policy,” he said “we are happy to put you in the mix” as long as Via Vanti! was agreeable to “revisiting the rent number.”
In our brief earlier encounters Councilman Brodsky asserted that the monthly rent of $2,500 agreed to by the prior Board was “half” the space’s true market value of $5,000, or $46 per square foot (annualized basis). [NOTE: The winning bid of the new RFP process began at $2,500 a month and was subsequently negotiated up to $3,300 a month: still one-third less than Councilman Brodsky’s claim for fair market value.]
Weeks later, in NewCastleNOW, Supervisor Rob Greenstein persisted in the party line: “As far as Carla Gambescia from Via Vanti, she had reneged on the public’s access to the bathroom.” Never mind that the new Board’s designated negotiator unilaterally ceased negotiations: it was about the bathrooms—and certainly not about the new Board abrogating the prior Board’s agreement.
[NOTE: On Februrary 13th Councilman Brodsky emailed me an RFP dated May 2012 which I had never seen and pre-dated my involvement with the station by six months. It stated the bathrooms should be accessible to the public during the time the building was open, but did not specify any set hours. The councilman said in his email that he had no prior knowledge of it.]
The “There is No Meeting Scheduled” Illusion
Wednesday, February 12th
Councilman Brodsky tells me by email that the Board is scheduling presentations for the train station lease the following month, on Tuesday, March 11th
Wednesday, March 5th
NewCastleNOW asks Supervisor Rob Greenstein various questions including the following regarding the March 11th meeting for the train station lease : “Who are the other candidates? Did the town issue an RFP for the lease of the train station, to which the March 11 candidates have responded?”
Friday, March 7th
Councilman Jason Chapin informs me by email that, “I just learned that the train station presentations are not on the agenda for March 11 and don’t know why we were told otherwise. We will get back to you when we know more.”
Saturday, March 8th
Supervisor Greenstein’s interview responses, appearing in NewCastleNOW, include the following statement: “There is no meeting scheduled to hear proposals for the train station space. We have not issued the RFP yet.”
Sunday, March 9th
Councilwoman Elise Mottel informs me by phone that the March 11th train station meeting is back on the schedule again.
Tuesday, March 11th
I present as originally scheduled on March 11th as do Peter and Erin Chase of bpc (by peter chase).
Tuesday, March 18th
Due to scheduling confusion, Gerry Petraglia of Thornwood Deli and Leslie Lampert of Café of Love and Ladle of Love present to the Board a week later than originally planned.
The “Open and Fair to All Applicants” Illusion
This may have been the grandest illusion of them all.
The cart went before the horse.
Candidates were invited a month or more in advance to make a presentation of their respective visions for a food service operation in the train station. During that period the Board offered no sense of its own vision, objectives, priorities or decision criteria in the form of an upfront request for proposal (RFP) which, as a standard practice of good management or good governance, would routinely PRECEDE and inform any such presentations.
Councilman Brodsky did offer me three pieces of counsel: 1) I should be prepared to make my case in 15 minutes; 2) I should be prepared to discuss bathroom access (even though a settled matter by that point); and 3) I should not bring any food.
Somehow I sensed that other candidates must have received different guidance. (One, for instance, brought soup for Board members to sample.) But that was impossible to know with any degree of certainty since there were no joint briefings or uniform briefing materials forthcoming from the Board to ensure transparency and an even playing field going in.
The RFP document became accessible online to the public late in the day on Thursday, March 20th leaving barely a week for additional candidates to find out about it, schedule a site visit and prepare a thoughtful written proposal by the Friday, March 28th deadline.
Not surprisingly, no new candidates emerged. With the RFP’s impossibly small window, the Board effectively deprived the Town of any meaningful opportunity to attract additional credible operators as applicants. In the prior month Councilman Brodsky had written to me that “an open process for the space is important so that the residents understand that we have left no stone unturned.” In reality the Board turned over just three stones.
The Board’s Decision
Try this thought experiment:
Proposal A: a boutique farmer’s market plus casual lunch and light diner venue with full bar; initial monthly rent of $3,247; capital improvements (unquantified) to the current Café La Track and ticket booth spaces
Proposal B: “grab and go” items, light eat-in fare (until 8 pm) without table service, and an indoor market with fruit, flowers and shelf-stable products; initial monthly rent of $2,500; no capital improvements
Proposal C: a lunch and dinner destination venue with small plates, the area’s only mozzarella bar, plus wine bar; initial monthly rent of $3,000 with 2.5% annual escalation; additional $620 / month in capital improvements
Imagine you’re a Board member. Which of these best befits the “Crown Jewel” of Chappaqua? Here’s what the New Castle Town Board did after receiving these submissions:
Candidate A was contacted and asked for a translation of its per-square-foot bid into a monthly rent payment. Answer: $3,247. No further contact from the Town.
Candidate C was contacted and asked, “Is that your highest bid?” Answer: “If we are selected, everything is negotiable.” No further contact from the Town.
Candidate B, the ingoing low bidder, was contacted and entered into 7 weeks of lease negotiations (cost to the Town of $9,000+ for April alone with May yet to be billed) yielding a final cash bid of $3,300 per month; a 5-year renewal option was added for a 15 year commitment.
Several questions come to mind:
Why did the Board focus on the low bidder to the exclusion of the other two more robust proposals?
Why did it cost so much and take so long?
Why did the Board decide to grant a 5-year lease extension option – NOT part of the original RFP – given that no investment in capital improvements was being proposed?
“Open”? “Fair to all applicants”?
The Town Board ended up awarding the lease to Candidate B. Even after the negotiated adjustment, that candidate’s bid remained the lowest of the three when the value of capital improvements was factored in.
After learning secondhand of the decision, Candidate A followed up with Council Brodsky and was told by way of explanation that nobody knew who they were. This raises another question: Was being “known” a decision criterion? If so, how “fair” or “open” is that?
Was this the best deal for the Town? Was this process small business friendly?
The ultimate issue, in Deputy Supervisor Katz’s words, is whether the process they engaged in was “open and fair to all applicants.” Was it?
[NOTE: The names of individual applicants have been omitted above because the capabilities and character of those individuals are NOT at issue here. All three parties have succeeded in a tough business in a tough environment, and by all appearances have done so with character, class and genuine concern for the communities they serve. All were worthy contenders.]
The “You Can’t Fight City Hall” Illusion
We’ve all heard the expression “You can’t fight City [or Town] Hall.” This just might be the most dangerous illusion of them all if it ends up deterring good people from speaking out and holding their elected representatives accountable for bad governance.
Since the Chappaqua train station is a property owned by the Town of New Castle, concerned residents have a powerful tool that allows their voices to be heard. It is called a Permissive Referendum – a legitimate and legal mechanism available for a local community to contest and stop the sale or lease of its Town property . . . THEIR property! [For further explanation see: What is Permissive Referendum and how does it work?, NCNOW.org, 5/30/14.]
Most all of the actions of Town Board members cannot be challenged between elections. This referendum is an exception and is probably the only opportunity New Castle residents will have to send a strong “official” message to their Board before the November 2015 elections.
While the Chappaqua train station may or may not be a high priority for you personally, the principle involved here could not be more crucial: the quality of governance you receive is the quality of governance you demand. What standards of conduct do you expect from your elected Town Board members?
What kind of business climate do you want to foster for entrepreneurs who wish to bring their dreams to (and invest in) downtown Chappaqua?
As a former independent marketing consultant for nearly 20 years I have been a veteran of competition for most of my professional life. I have won and I have lost. Obviously I prefer to win (who doesn’t!), but I can be peaceful with not winning if I feel the process was fair and the decision just.
But again the ultimate issue isn’t one of “winning” or “losing” but rather “openness” and “fairness” on the part of the Town Board. The three newly elected Board members ran and won on a platform of business friendliness, transparency and ethical conduct. Is it too much to hold them accountable for their own avowed principles?