New Castle solicits input on municipal, recreational uses of Reader’s Digest property

See photos from inside Reader’s Digest campus in “Read more.”
March 21, 2008
by Christine Yeres

New Castle has submitted the final scoping document to Summit Greenfield, the developer of the Reader’s Digest property. The town and its residents could just wait to see how the developer answers the questions and concerns about the developer’s proposal outlined in that document. However, the town board is proceeding with its own exploration of alternative uses of the Reader’s Digest property – both municipal and recreational – and is soliciting ideas from the community.

At the end of February, the board approved the final scoping document by a 4 – 1 vote. Member Robin Stout, the lone “no” vote, felt that this second application from the developer did not differ substantially from the first, which the entire board turned down in December 2006. That rejection was based on fundamental problems with several of the same elements of the current proposal, mainly increased traffic and doubts that age restrictions will prove enforceable.

But this time around, the majority of board members believed that by proceeding with the scoping process, the town has the opportunity to learn valuable information that may help it to determine what the best uses of the property might be – uses that could benefit both the town and the developer.

First, let’s make a list

In a joint work session with the planning board on March 3, members of the town board broached the subject with the planning board, inviting them to work with the town board to identify uses for the Reader’s Digest property that might benefit the town, including uses that the developer has not been eager to pursue. In excited tones, members of both boards brainstormed, creating a wide-ranging wish list. For example, the town might be interested in renting space in buildings Summit Greenfield has slated for demolition (the two newer, northernmost buildings in the complex) or in purchasing open space, field space, the auditorium (also marked for demolition under the developer’s current plan) and space for an indoor or outdoor community pool.

For the last five to ten years, town hall has operated “beyond capacity” Supervisor Barbara Gerrard reported, raising the possibility that renting space at Reader’s Digest could be an economical alternative to a substantial expansion of the police department at town hall that experts have estimated might cost $14 or $15 million. If the recreation department or the building department could be moved to space at Reader’s Digest, the police might gain sufficient space to remain at town hall without a major expansion of that building. It was also suggested that NCCTV needed more space than the high school could offer and that the library might be able to put to better use its theatre space if permanent access to the auditorium at Reader’s Digest were obtained by the town.

Touching on the proper methodology to pursue this route, Clinton Smith, the town attorney, suggested the boards needed to “define what these possible uses are first and figure out how to collect those ideas [of possible uses.]”

“We are hoping the public will give us some input,” responded Supervisor Gerrard. In their work session on Tuesday, March 11, town board members discussed their decision to produce a “generic environmental impact statement” of their own, which would include analysis of all the ideas on the the town’s wish list. The town board is using the services of a financial consultant to help them understand the economics of the developer’s proposal, and is now poised to hire a consultant to help weigh its options at Reader’s Digest. By mid-April, the board also expects to have hired a full time town planner to assist in this analysis as well.

Affordable senior house a possible adaptive reuse of RD building

In front of the League of Women Voters on Wednesday, March 13, Supervisor Gerrard noted that there are uses that would comport with New Castle’s “Comprehensive Plan,” such as adaptive reuse of some of the existing building space for affordable senior housing. Although the applicant Summit Greenfield is not obliged to consider alternative uses the town board might prefer, the board has a great deal of discretion in deciding what use it might allow the developer to make of the property, and some negotiation would likely result. Gerrard told the audience that the fact that the town board is undertaking to create its own generic environmental impact statement sends a message to the developer that the board is committed to finding a solution that benefits the town.

Northern building seen from east side

…and from west side

Theater, slated for demolition