Town board interviews three consultants eager to help envision public uses for Digest property

Board interviews Saccardi & Schiff
February 13, 2009
by Christine Yeres

This week the town board interviewed the three consulting firms of the nine who responded to the board’s request for proposals to produce a study of possible public uses of the Reader’s Digest property. The final study by the chosen consultant will supplement the alternatives section of the environmental impact statement being completed by Summit Greenfield, the developers of the property. Eager to conserve resources, the board reminded all three firms that the public participation element of the process, the visioning sessions held at Bell Middle School in November 2006, is over.


They explained that job would be to examine the possibility of purchase by the town of all or some of the former Reader’s Digest property for three main purposes: to preserve the Wallace auditorium, which, as Supervisor Barbara Gerrard stressed, when originally built in the early 1980’s was intended to be used by the community as well as the company; to creat ball field space; and to make a new home for NCCTV.  Second tier interests are recreation department offices, open space with public access and an indoor recreation center, pool and teen center. 

Each of the three competing teams of consultants exhibited keen awareness of the board’s desire to husband resources by using in-house personnel, existing data from the town’s HR&A Associates’ study and the current draft environmental impact statement whenever possible. All three interviewees were cognizant of the environmental features of the site and of the difficulty the developer has encountered so far in the process from residents’ resistance to developer Summit Greenfield’s application for a zoning variance.  Summit Greenfield needs a zoning change to carry out its plan for construction of 278 condominium units and the leasing of office space to an unlimited number of tenants. Under current zoning, they are allowed four commercial tenants and several one-acre single family homes.

Nelson, Pope & Voorhis, Melville, N.Y.

“We work for developers, too,” Charles Voorhis of Nelson, Pope & Voorhis in Melville, NY, stated, “and understand the benefits of a public/private partnership.”  The firm would take the board from a feasibility study to identifying options, then go to the public.  Summit Greenfield’s current “East Village, North Village” design for the site appeared to this team as “having dropped from outer space” onto the property, implying that their own vision for the property would be more appropriate to the site. Voorhis saw no need to remove trees, but favored instead “doing what the site tells us should be done.”  He praised the site for its existing stately structure, the Readers’ Digest main building, as well as its grand entrance and courtyard. All were elements, he said, that should be used to advantage. 

This team imagined a combination of office and residential uses which Voorhis called “the live-work-play concept,” possibly with “daycare, small food-related uses in order to reduce travel on surrounding roadways, but not enough to detract from your downtown businesses.”  His firm, he pledged, would “work with what’s good, modify and improve what’s not.”

Voorhis told board members that the challenge would be to balance, on one hand, the town board’s duty to promote the “highest and best use of the site” from the public perspective and, on the other, the developer’s “highest and best use” of the site from the private perspective of marketability and fiscal solvency. He emphasized his firm’s talent at threading the needle to arrive at a “win-win” situation in which, for example, an increase in housing or commercial density would be offset by public benefits.

Town board member Robin Stout asked whether the firm had much experience in Westchester. The answer was not a great deal, but the firm is currently involved in evaluating Bedford Ponds, a reincarnation of a former proposed project and also projects in Peekskill and Syosset.

Of the universally acknowledged challenges of traffic, community acceptance and economic viability, John Buckley asked which Voorhis thought was the greatest problem? Voorhis promptly answered, “Community acceptance,” although he also considered traffic and economic viability significant issues to address. He viewed the on-grade crossing at the Saw Mill River Parkway and Roaring Brook Road as prohibitively expensive to put underground. He stressed the need to reach some kind of balance between public benefit and “a developer who pays taxes and wants to create an economic return.”

On the subject of adaptive reuse of existing buildings for residential use, Voorhis answered, “People want warm and comfy, not dormitory. And the cost of upgrade can be prohibitive, as compared to asking ‘What if we replace it, without the compromises?’ ”
They proposed to first review all existing studies, produce a good concept plan with a visual presentation, then participate in public meetings “to see whether we’ve been true to the public’s wishes,” explained Voorhis.

Saccardi & Schiff, Valhalla, N.Y.

“Unlike your planning consultants F. P. Clark, we’re more project-oriented,” John Saccardi told the board. “The Reader’s Digest property is a ‘world-class site.’ Mixed use is what a lot of planning is doing nowadays.”  Saccardi envisions a richer mix of uses than are listed in the current draft environmental statement, he explained. And his firm, he stated, would remain aware of the relationships between the various uses. For example, if recreation fields become part of the site they would have a different impact on neighbors than the presence of additional housing. The Saccardi & Schiff team included Jim Lothrop, the architect of the Chappaqua Library’s recently completed renovation that transformed the deeply recessed entry façade into interior library space. 

To the board’s question of what Saccardi & Schiff’s experience has been in mixed use, Saccardi responded, “The Rockland Psychiatric Center Site where the state kept some land and the town bought the balance, keeping 200 to 300 acres as open space.” The as-yet-unbuilt plan includes an active recreation center, swimming pool, indoor facilities.  Some of the parcel will be sold to a project developer who is engaged now in a EIS process for a zoning change to build 575 housing units, some for 55+, some affordable, and also create a golf course as buffer between the housing and the hospital.  The project strikes a balance, Saccardi believes, between the town’s desire for rateables and the developer’s desire for a return on investment. 

Saccardi & Schiff also had a hand in the expansion of the Landmark at Eastview, on the border between Greenburg and Mt. Pleasant, which houses the Madison Square Garden training facility for the New York Knicks, New York Rangers and New York Liberty as well as 350,000 square feet of laboratory research and development space. For another 100 acres of land there is a proposal to construct a senior community with some convenience retail.

Saccardi felt strongly that the six months’ time period the board envisioned for the uses study is too long. “Three to four months is better,” he asserted, and “would allow our study to interface with the EIS during your public hearing process” and perhaps act as a basis for a negotiation between public and private uses. “We’ll miss that opportunity if it’s six months,” he added. 

Saccardi believes that figuring out how to balance a mixed use development was like putting a puzzle of mixed uses together, uses that need to be blended in a compromise between public and private goals.  Also essential to making this type of mixed-use site work is shared parking, uses that require parking at different times, for example, sports in the daytime, performances at night. 

Robin Stout asked whether Saccardi actually planned to consider 100% use of the property, as indicated in his firm’s proposal.
“You need two plans,” Saccardi explained, “one more extreme than the other.”  In the SEQRA hearing process “the two plans flow into one, evolving into a third.”

Robin Stout asked, “If there weren’t the zoning restriction limiting the number of tenants, could this property be fully leased up commercially?” Saccardi responded, “No. The office [rental] market will start suffering even more [than it is now]. This is a special site. I personally think that its future is in mixed use.”

Elise Mottel asked Saccardi what the biggest challenge of the site was.  He answered immediately, “Traffic,” then explained, “Its proximity to many roads is good, but its proximity to the high school and its comings and goings is an issue.”  In developing a plan, “the mixture of uses both on-site and off-site have to work together,” he said.  Wetlands, utilities issues such as sewers, land use, traffic and visual considerations – even more so if lighting for fields were a possibility – are all elements of the puzzle to be considered. Supervisor Barbara Gerrard immediately told Saccardi that the board had no interest in lighted fields at the site.

During this interview, Barbara Gerrard reiterated that the original intent of Reader’s Digest for the Wallace auditorium, slated for demolition under Summit Greenfield’s current plan, had been for both company and community use. “What about having a performance space there?” she asked.  “I haven’t seen the inside,” responded Lothrop, “but it could be a difficult proposition. It was probably designed for the purpose of speaking. For theatre scenery you would need space measuring twice the size of the proscenium opening. And it depends on what kind of market it can sustain.”  Gerrard answered, “Low-key, mainly community and high school performances.” Lothrop responded, “but it might still need significant renovation.”  Among musicians, the acoustics of the Wallace auditorium are not admired.

As for timing, Saccardi & Schiff said they are ready to begin right away.

EDAW, Inc., New York, New York

EDAW began its presentation with a description of the Reader’s Digest property as it is today: homes nestled on the perimeter, vast parking lots hardly visible from roadways on a scale with homes, even though Roaring Brook Road is two-lane. EDAW’s Tim Delorm told the board that his firm would want “to draw from the existing character of the site and community,” which he viewed as “hearkening back to the agricultural roots of the area.” 

In adapting structures to new uses for the Reader’s Digest site, Delorm told the board that new uses would be “discovered as a result of our collaboration,” and mentioned the possibility of a recreation center and even “long span openings to insert [into existing building structures] a basketball court or swimming pool.”

He described the challenge of the Reader’s Digest site as developing reuse “in such a way as to accomplish the town’s and the developer’s needs” as well, recognizing “that you have the high school right there.”  He told the board that “the pond on the east side of the Digest site, near Cowdin Lane, is part of a larger system that we’ll understand how to protect much better by getting out there.”  Aware that the board is eager to avoid duplication of efforts, Delorm assured board members that his firm “assumes availability of the site analysis work already done,” and stated that EDAW would “use the information in an iterative way,” using the DEIS as a baseline against which to assess the alternatives.

Robin Stout asked for an example of EDAW’s work, “What was there, what did you propose and where did it go?” In answer, Delorm described the Tuxedo Reserve in Tuxedo, N.Y. project as “an old estate site with rolling topography, with high-end homes near it.”  EDAW spent time with town staff, soccer, Little League and baseball interests to develop alternative concept plans that include homes that will be “nestled into hills rather than dominate them.”

Delorm told board members that the biggest challenge of the Reader’s Digest site was to fit the desired uses into the space.  The biggest pluses of the site were its landscape and beautiful environment, which require the appropriate amount of development to balance community needs with the developer’s needs, all while fitting in with the character of the town. The single biggest problem, he believes, would be traffic, with access from two major roadways – the Saw Mill River Parkway and Route 117 – and a third entrance on Roaring Brook Road on a curve with no sightlines. His firm’s method, he said, is to move pieces around the site and note how each change affects the whole. 

Board Member Michael Wolfensohn asked the cost of EDAW’s concept designs. “We’re flexible on that,” answered Delorm.  “We can give you quick sketches of ball fields, shared parking, or more, depending on how much detail you need for accurate cost estimates.”  EDAW was prepared to manage significant amounts of community involvement, engaging in design dialogue with the community. But the board indicated that community visioning sessions were completed in November 2006. Public hearings would take place as part of the SEQRA process once the DEIS is completed by the developer.

Board MemberElise Mottel asked, “How would [EDAW] help the board to decide which uses we want?”  Delorm answered that the firm’s approach would begin with a conversation about, for example, whether the board would want recreation uses to be year-round or seasonal and continue along a decision tree, asking what the town can afford and when, what area the uses will take up, then help to distill [the board’s own] survey of the community, look at what other towns have done and produce matrices comparing different aspects of the project.

The board expects to make a decision about which consultant they will hire and announce their choice in a February 24 meeting.

To access a copy of HR&A Associates’ early study of the proposal for the Reader’s Digest property as well as some alternatives, click here.