The Selection of a Tenant for the Chappaqua Train Station Depot: What Residents Should Know
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
~ from Supervisor Robert J. Greenstein, Councilwoman Lisa S. Katz, Councilman Adam M. Brodsky
Following is a detailed chronology that led to the recent Town of New Castle Board decision regarding the new café that will be located in the landmarked Chappaqua train station depot.
Like any governing body in a democracy, there are often healthy and spirited debates that precede tough decisions. We all chose public service to make a difference and to make the lives of our constituents better. Yet, it is impossible for any Town Board to agree unanimously on every decision. The best we can do is place the interests of the public first and vote individually with our hearts and minds in that place.
We did that in this case. Four of the five Town Board members voted to award a lease to Leslie Lampert, the owner of Café of Love and Ladle of Love in Mt. Kisco. This came after all of us listened carefully to the presentations made by each applicant.
We share the community’s enthusiasm for creating a beautiful eatery in this historic building that adds to our qualify of life in New Castle. The Town’s efforts to repurpose its train station depot have been over two years in the making. Because a permissive referendum would further delay the use of the train depot as a café, require taxpayer funds to carry out, and force to the Town to forgo receipt of rental income for however long it takes the process to run its course, the Town Board wants residents to be fully informed about its decision last month to award the lease agreement to Leslie Lampert.
Supervisor Robert J. Greenstein
Councilwoman Lisa S. Katz
Councilman Adam M. Brodsky
The Original RFP and Tenant Search
On April 30, 2012, the Town posted a Request for Proposals (“RFP”) on its website seeking proposals for a food service operator to lease the Chappaqua train station depot. The RFP stated that the tenant would be required to provide “breakfast type food service” in the morning to coincide with peak commuting hours. In addition, the RFP stated that the bathrooms in the depot had to remain open to the public, and that few alterations to the depot itself would be permitted due to its landmark status and historic significance. The RFP explained that the deadline for responses was May 11, 2012, which gave applicants less than two weeks to submit their proposals.
In May 2012, the Town Board heard a presentation from a group headed by former Flying Pig chef Lesley Sutter. Lesley’s presentation called for a 60-seat restaurant with an emphasis on seasonal farm fresh products. The Town hoped to have a restaurant open at the train station during the summer of 2012.
Unfortunately, that was not possible. At that time, the depot building was in need of certain structural improvements, particularly to its interior floor. The Town had received proposals from engineering firms to develop a scope of work for the project, and had awarded the engineering contract to one such firm, but a problem arose with respect to insurance coverage. As a result, the Town withdrew its original contract award and chose to work with a different engineering firm in July 2012. The engineering work that the Town needed was then performed later that year.
During this period, the Flying Pig group abandoned its restaurant proposal. Although the Town did not reissue its RFP, by February 2013, two new applicants had expressed interest. Carla Gambescia, the owner of Via Vanti!, proposed creating a restaurant similar to the one she already operated at the Mt. Kisco train station. The other proposal that had been presented to the Town Board at that time came from Stetson Hundgen and Arnold Rufino. They proposed opening a café, to be known as the Burdock Natural Cafe at Chappaqua, that would feature healthy food choices using seasonal and sustainable foods. The Town Board heard presentations from both groups in February 2013.
At that time, however, the Town still had not completed the actual structural repairs to the depot building that had been studied the prior year. The Town issued a bid request and awarded a construction contract for the project, but various false starts with contractors delayed the commencement of the work. The Town rescinded a bid award to one contractor, and two other bids were withdrawn by their respective bidders. Finally, in July 2013, the Town Board approved a $122,660 bid to a contractor to undertake the necessary work and improvements.
In the Fall of 2013, the work on the train station building was completed. In September 2013, the Town and Via Vanti! signed a concession agreement that permitted Via Vanti! to provide coffee and breakfast food service from the train station depot. In addition, the Town began negotiations with Via Vanti! for leasing the space as a restaurant and provided a draft lease to Via Vanti!. Significantly, and despite comments that have been made to the contrary, the Town never signed a lease with Via Vanti!.
On Thanksgiving Day 2013, Via Vanti! finally provided comments to the Town’s draft lease. While apologizing for their delay in reviewing and responding to the draft, Via Vanti! took strong exception to some of the proposed lease provisions, including: (i) Via Vanti!’s not having up to a 6-month rent abatement period; (ii) restrictions on Via Vanti!’s ability to assign the lease, and (iii) concerns about keeping the depot’s public restrooms open during dinner hours when it would be serving meals to patrons of the restaurant.
The Town has been steadfast on keeping the depot’s restrooms open at all times as a convenience to residents. Indeed, the Town’s 2012 RFP stipulated that “at all times that the building is open, there must be public access to the rest rooms.” Nevertheless, Carla advised the Town that she had never seen the original RFP and had been unaware of requirement regarding specific bathroom hours. In an email sent to former Town Supervisor Susan Carpenter on November 28, 2013, Carla stated that keeping the restrooms open to the general public after 11:00 a.m. on weekdays was “not a workable condition for us as it will be disruptive for our guests and an ambiance killer.” By email sent on December 12, 2013, Town Counsel advised Carla that, “Public access to restrooms has always been a condition of this tenancy. No change.”
The 2014 RFP and Expanded Search
Discussions with Via Vanti! continued into early 2014, but did not progress smoothly
due to the restroom access issue and other concerns. In March 2014, Town Supervisor Greenstein announced that the Town would be soliciting additional proposals to lease the train station depot.
By that time, nearly two years had passed since the Town had issued its original RFP. The Town had no way of knowing whether its negotiations with Via Vanti! would lead to a satisfactory lease agreement. Moreover, without having any competing applicants in the mix, the Town had no assurance that it would be obtaining the best possible tenant and lease terms for its residents. At the time, Councilman Brodsky explained, “We were elected to do what’s right and we have a fiduciary responsibility to make the best decision.”
Almost immediately, other applicants expressed interest in the opportunity to lease the train station depot. At a public meeting on March 11, 2014, the Town Board heard presentations from Via Vanti! and Peter and Erin Chase, the principals of a hospitality development and management company. The Town Board encouraged all residents to view the presentations for themselves, either in person at Town Hall or watching the presentations on their televisions or home computers. At another public meeting, the Town Board heard a presentation from Leslie Lampert, the owner of Café of Love and Ladle of Love in Mt. Kisco, who proposed creating a family-style bistro of healthy, soups, stews and artisanal grab-and-go sandwiches. Gerry Petraglia, the owner of the Station Café and Grill at the Hawthorne train station, also appeared before the Board and made a presentation.
On March 19, 2014, the Town issued another Request for Proposals for leasing the train station depot. Responses to the RFP were due on March 28, 2014. The Town encouraged Via Vanti! to submit a response to the RFP so its proposal could be considered. The new RFP required all asked to respond to the same criteria and lease requirements established by the Town. The Town ultimately received timely RFP responses from Via Vanti!, Leslie and the Chases.
The Train Station Lease Is Awarded To Leslie Lampert
After the Town received the RFP responses, it reviewed the proposed financial terms and other information provided by each applicant. Four Board members favored pursuing lease negotiations with Leslie Lampert. The Board directed Town Counsel to negotiate a draft lease and concession agreement with Leslie’s attorney.
On May 20, 2014, the Town Board adopted a resolution (4-1) approving a lease agreement with Leslie Lampert’s company, Love at 10514, LLC, for leasing the train station depot. The Town also approved a concession agreement with Leslie for providing morning breakfast and coffee service to commuters. Four Board members concluded that Leslie’s food service proposal for the train depot would provide the best overall value to our community, while preserving the interior millwork and details of this important historical landmark.
After the Town awarded the depot lease, Carla led the Board to believe that she would coordinate a smooth transition with Leslie insofar as the operation of the coffee and breakfast concession. Thus, when Carla asked the Town to allow her to operate the coffee/breakfast concession during the month of May 2014, which was beyond the term of her concession agreement with the Town, the Town agreed. Carla assured the Town, through her attorney, that she would vacate the concession space in the depot on May 31, 2014, which would allow Leslie to take over the operation on Monday, June 2, 2014. The Board publicly thanked Carla and the Chases for their interest in leasing the train depot and encouraged them to look for other leasing opportunities within our community.
On Friday, May 30, 2014, Carla and the Chases announced that they had joined together and planned to obtain signatures on a petition calling for a permissive referendum. Carla also advised the Town that she would not vacate the concession stand at the depot, despite her prior representations that she would, and that she would sue the Town if the Town tried to remove her from that space.
The Referendum Process
A permissive referendum is essentially a popular vote that may be taken to approve
or disapprove certain specific governmental actions, including the leasing of public property. To trigger such a vote, a petition calling for the referendum must be signed by at least 5% of the registered voters in the Town of New Castle who voted in last gubernatorial election.
If the Town receives a valid petition for a referendum, the Town will be required to make arrangements to conduct a town-wide vote, similar to what it does for general elections. The Town estimates that the cost of holding the referendum will run approximately $5,000 – $10,000. Under the applicable statutory timeframes, the referendum would likely be held in early September 2014. If the Town’s award of the train depot lease and/or concession agreement is annulled, the Town would likely conduct another RFP process, as its goal of leasing the train station depot has not changed.