Town board’s consultants suggest public use benefits of some of Reader’s Digest property

Roaring Brook Road at high school entrance
June 12, 2009
by Christine Yeres

Wednesday night at a special town board work session, the board’s consultants Saccardi & Schiff identified possible public use benefits the town might wrest from the developer of the former Reader’s Digest property in negotiations over zoning changes. Summit Greenfield, the owner of that property, has requested a zoning change that would permit the construction of 278 condos and allow an unlimited number of commercial tenants in its office space, or for some variation of that configuration. 

Public hearings on the developer’s draft environmental impact statement begin Tuesday, June 23, at town hall at 7:00 p.m.

The general features of the consultant’s plans as described in on [date] remain the same. See “Town Board busy digesting both DEIS and its own consultants’ studies,”, May 15, 2009. Plan A calls for one multipurpose playing field directly across from the high school entrance on Roaring Brook Road and land reserved for a recreation complex to be built in the future. Option I of Plan A places the recreation building closer to Roaring Brook Road; Option II of Plan A plants it more deeply into the developer’s property. See photo, below.

Plan B, characterized by Saccardi & Schiff as a more intense use of the property, provides for a recreation complex with recreation department office space and a lighted ball field in the far northern portion of the Reader’s Digest property. However, on Wednesday night Saccardi & Schiff told the board that the terrain at the northern end of the property, and its 40 foot difference in grade make Plan B far more expensive than Plan A

In all four configurations, the consultants envision town uses that require very little construction of additional parking. Ideally, they said, parking would be used at different times of the day for different purposes, and on different days for different purposes. For example, explained the consultants, high school after-school sports would begin before rush hour; rush hour would occur during after-school sports; and after-school sports would conclude after rush hour ended.  Weekend sport activities would use parking that serves as office parking on weekdays.

Southern Plan A at Roaring Brook Road

In both Options I and II of Plan A, some of the houses along Roaring Brook Road owned by Summit Greenfield would be demolished. They would be replaced by a 100 foot long buffer of vegetation between Roaring Brook Road and the start of the recreation complex to screen it from the road.. The woodlands currently behind those houses would be removed, but any wetlands buffer maintained. In Option II, which shows the ball field extending deeper into the Reader’s Digest property, 12 townhouses proposed by the developer would be displaced. 

A traffic light would need to be installed, suggested the consultants, at the intersection of Roaring Brook Road and the high school entrance. The point of entry to the recreation complex and the new playing field would be this intersection, so sidewalks and crosswalks across Roaring Brook Road would need to be installed as well “We recommend access opposite the high school driveway, a traffic signal or roundabout, pedestrian signals for safety for students and sidewalks, too,” said Saccardi & Schiff’s traffic expert.  “Roaring Brook Road would have most of the green time, with actuation [by vehicles] from other directions, or the pedestrian hits a button [to activate a red light].”

Saccardi & Schiff estimated the total cost of Plan A at $9 million. Of that, $8 million is the cost of the recreation complex and the site improvements necessary for it.  The consultants suggested that the remaining $1 million in capital costs might come from the town or from negotiations with Summit Greenfield. Supervisor Barbara Gerrard added, “the developer has offered two of the lots on Roaring Brook Road; we get to choose which two out of three.”

Northern Plan B in far north corner of property

In Plan B as well, land would be set aside for the future construction of a recreation complex, a storage and maintenance building for the town and a lighted baseball field, as well as one multipurpose playing field at the southern site on Roaring Brook Road.  Saccardi & Schiff characterized Plan B as more intense because it would displace the 170 residential units of Summit Greenfield’s North Village and cost far more to construct than Plan A. In particular, the northern end of the property includes a 40-foot change in elevation and would require a $4.4 million retaining wall. The consultants showed the board an option for Plan B with only a lighted playing field and no buildings. But the difficult terrain still made this minimal plan costly.

The consultants estimated that Plan B, in the far northern location, would cost $13 million for the recreation complex and lighted field, $5 million more than Plan A.

Both Plans A and B include a system of pedestrian walkways. Saccardi & Schiff maps of the property show connections to trailways north and south from the Reader’s Digest property, along the sewer line which runs parallel to the MetroNorth train tracks

22,000 square foot recreation complex, but no pool

Town board member Robin Stout noted that the land reserved for a future recreation complex consisted of a 22,000 square foot footprint, and asked what such a building might contain.  Saccardi & Schiff consultants responded that there might be a gym, meeting rooms and “some level of health-related facilities.” To clarify, Stout stated, “so no swimming.” The consultants concurred and explained that a swimming pool would require a much larger space and entail greater expense.

Renting space for New Castle’s recreation department and NCCTV

The consultants calculated that for the town’s recreation department to rent 2300 square feet of office space and 800 square feet of storage space from Summit Greenfield would require a one-time cost of $122,000 and yearly rent at the rate of around $22 per square foot. The cost of relocating NCCTV studios to such refurbished rental space at Reader’s Digest was estimated to be $361,100. Adapting the conventional space at Reader’s Digest to NCCTV uses would require higher ceiling space, they noted, and suggested that breaking through to a floor above might accomplish the purpose. However, they cautioned, that would be complicated.

Parking on the Reader’s Digest property

Consultants told the board that in its DEIS Summit Greenfield is requesting a modification to [the town’s] present parking ratio, so that the developer can provide fewer parking spaces in relation to the office space than is now the town’s standard. They cautioned that although the office rental market may be slow at the moment, “the danger,” said Saccardi & Schiff, “is with medical offices. They have a higher parking ratio than regular offices. You have to be careful about parking for medical uses, and we know that there are some subleases for medical offices right now.” Consultants were referring to Summit Greenfield’s recent lease with Northern Westchester Hospital for 35,000 square feet. 

Financial impact of each plan on the developer and the development

In the consultant’s opinion, Plan A, Option I would have no impact on the developer. Plan A, Option II would have minimal impact, they believe. Although under Plan A, Option I, the recreation complex would displace 12 proposed town houses, which according to the consultants, are “higher revenue-per-square-foot generators” than apartment building condominiums, they believe this option would also have minimal impact

The recreation complex on Roaring Brook Road would have to be very well buffered, Saccardi & Schiff consultants told board members, “which is critical in maintaining the value of the town houses, so you don’t have to pass through [the townhouses] to get to [public uses].” 

In addition to the high cost of building Plan B at the northern end of the property and the impact on the developer of cutting out the 170-unit North Village, the effect of having “two public uses flanking an upscale condo development changes the notion of the residential development [and] “would have an [ill] effect on the marketability of the residences,” Saccardi & Schiff suggested. 

Consultants weigh in on whether to allow more and smaller office tenants

In December 2004, Summit Greenfield purchased the former Reader’s Digest property with zoning that allowed for one large tenant besides Reader’s Digest. In June 2005 the town board granted the developer a zoning change to allow up to four tenants besides Reader’s Digest.  In Summit Greenfield’s most recent application for a zoning change, it seeks to slip that restriction entirely.  It has hit its limit of four tenants, and substantial square footage remains in the current commercial space. Saccardi & Schiff were asked by the town board to examine the question of how many tenants should be allowed and make recommendations. 

After examining the office rental market, Saccardi & Schiff concluded that office tenants in Westchester County on average leased 5800 square feet of space and in Northern Westchester the average was 5100 square feet. “The issue with the building itself is that it’s not really laid out for smaller tenants. Despite that, [a change in zoning to allow more and smaller tenants] would benefit the developer, giving it a better shot at attracting smaller tenants,” the consultants explained. 

John Saccardi told the board that with so much office space already available in Westchester with large windows and better access, it would benefit Summit Greenfield for the town board to “open [the zoning] up so they can get any tenant possible.”  He added, “maybe [Summit Greenfield] should do something itself,” such as create a courtyard, perhaps “bump up to Class A and Class B space. [More windows] would help.” Saccardi said that the developer “would have to weigh how much they can receive in rent.  In this market, a decent Class A or Class B space would bring about $25 a square foot. But we do think it will benefit the developer and the property to allow more and smaller tenants.”

Gates or no gates?

Saccardi & Schiff consultants said they were also asked by the town board to assess whether gates make a difference in marketability. “We talked to brokers and our basic determination is that it doesn’t have an overall impact on this project. In southern Westchester County there seems to be more desire for gated; in northern Westchester, it doesn’t improve marketability.”  In addition, Saccardi told the board, gates increase operating costs to residents. He cited the example of the Cherry Lawn Estates, a development in New Rochelle, where, over the last two years, only 19 of 26 homes sold. He concluded regarding the gates,  “It didn’t help them.”  Cherry Lawn is a development of 26 single family homes of approximately 3500 square feet priced at $2.1 million each, which includes a club house and other amenities. 

In terms of office space, however, said Saccardi, “the DEIS says there is a lease requirement for Reader’s Digest to have gated access for office uses in the existing Reader’s Digest complex, [though] not [for] peripheral.”  When looking at alternatives, Saccardi said, “we assessed how we could fit a gate that would restrict traffic at the point of transition from public use to [commercial use] use, and in each case there is a viable option.” 

Lift age restrictions?

Saccardi & Schiff also consulted brokers to determine what effect the removal of age restrictions would have on Summit Greenfield’s proposed residential development.  One of the Saccardi & Schiff team members told the board that non-age-restricted housing would be in very strong demand because the Chappaqua school district is so desirable.  “Taking off the [age] restriction would increase demand. There are already [child-friendly] amenities [in the proposal] and things for kids because of the affordable units [which are not age-restricted]. Those, plus a recreational facility [such as the town might consider building], would make it very desirable for families.”

Putting the pieces together

Saccardi told town board members that his team would write up a report on the many subjects that will require further discussion and that could lead to negotiations with the developer.  Town board member Michael Wolfensohn asked, “Is our goal to come up with two plans, one plan?”  Gerrard responded, “Eliminate anything we don’t want, and if you find certain pieces essential, indicate that.” Saccardi added, “Our contract states that we would come up with one plan, but that’s not such a good idea. A combination of ideas would be better, and more useful when you sit down with the applicant.” 

Board member Robin Stout asked, “We’re saving a footprint for a recreation facility. Would site improvements have to be done sooner than the building itself? And would we reserve land for the lighted field or multipurpose field and also construct them in the future, piece it together over time?”  Saccardi responded, “The [costs of the] rec field and access to it total $1 million. The big ticket item was the rec complex [at $8 million]. You may want to discuss this [with the developer] as part of a whole package.”  Saccardi then reminded the board that “the applicant wants zoning and sewer district help.” 

To Saccardi’s observation that owners of residential housing do not want to be subjected to traffic between municipal uses on the property, board member Wolfensohn asked, “You mean as opposed to [having them overlook] parking lots or the Saw Mill?”  Board members talked then about insulating the residential portion of the site from the commercial, municipal and recreational. Supervisor Gerrard suggested a cul-de-sac to protect residents from people cutting through the campus toward those destinations. 

How broad was the consultants search for space for municipal uses?

Board member Elise Mottel said, “We’re looking at certain locations. Have you already looked at all other locations [on the property]? Why are we looking at these?”  Saccardi responded, “We narrowed it down. We first looked at a multi-use playing field where the theater is [in the middle of the proposed townhouse residences]. It would have other effects on the overall development.  We’re trying to balance viable office, viable residential and public uses.”  The meeting concluded with Saccardi’s offer to include in his final report the route the consultants took to arrive at the plan they will recommend to the board. 

The town board has mounted the DEIS and related documents on a dedicated website:

and has set up an email address to receive comments from the community at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

To learn more about the proposal for development, visit our ARCHIVES on Reader’s Digest issues; or type “digest” (in quotation marks) into the “SEARCH” box at the top of every page. 

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