Thursday, March 18, 2010

Develop Davids Island? That Idea Is Being Floated Again? Seriously?

Now that the federal government has spent $26 million in taxpayer money to clean up Davids Island, the mayor of New Rochelle wants to develop it. Here's an excerpt from Mayor Noam Bramson's State of the City address last week:

Before concluding this discussion of development and planning strategy, I’d like to mention just one more site.

It is mere feet from the New York City border, yet a world away in its character. It is unique, and valuable in ways that defy standard measure. It is a nearly eighty-acre blank canvas that has stirred passion and debate for more than fifty years.

It is Davids Island.

Now, lest we forget, history tells us that Davids Island is a tough nut to crack. The myriad visions inspired by it are often incompatible – with each other, and with the hard realities of economics, politics, and environmental concern. One person’s dream of taxproducing high rises, is another person’s nightmare of sewage and traffic. For every advocate of a public park, there is a skeptic who asks: where is the funding or the demand to make it real.

In almost every prior instance, the City has reacted to a proposal from outside, based on someone’s else’s interests, instead of first shaping a plan based on ours.

And because the conflicts it generates have proven so intense and distracting, when Davids Island is on the front burner, it has a way of knocking everything else off the stove.

This history has, until now, made me hesitant to open a fresh debate about the island’s future.

But the time is right at last.

First, through the great work of Congresswoman Nita Lowey and the Army Corps of Engineers, we have benefited from a federal investment of $26 million dollars, resolving many of the surface environmental conditions that would otherwise pose serious impediments to progress.

Second, to be honest, the slow economy reduces the time pressures associated with our various other initiatives, and allows us to devote to Davids Island the necessary effort and attention.

Third, new design sensibilities and technologies give us options that did not previously exist, possibly resolving tensions between economic and environmental goals.

And fourth, the opportunity costs are low, which is another way of saying: what have we got to lose.

So I suggest that the City do what, on Davids Island, it has never done before. I suggest that we devise our own conceptual plan, not in response to a sales pitch from any specific builder, but as a basis for issuing our own request for proposals, aimed at achieving our own vision.

Tonight, I am asking the City’s development and planning staff, led by our new Commissioner Michael Freimuth, to establish a process for soliciting community, regional, and stakeholder input, establishing development criteria, and then selecting an appropriate development partner or partners.

And while it would be entirely premature to settle, or even raise, every question right now, I offer the following general principles as starting points:

Number one, our plan should include meaningful public access to ensure that the beauty of Davids Island can be experienced by all of our citizens.

Number two, our plan should fit within the dimensional envelope of the City’s Draft Local Waterfront Revitalization standards, which place clear restrictions on height and density, set open space minimums, and establish a preference for water-borne access.

And number three, perhaps most important, our plan should feature sustainable design of worldclass quality. We should insist on a product of global demonstration value, that befits the Island’s unique status and potential – visionary architecture, cutting-edge operation, and innovative approaches to energy use, waste reduction, resource consumption and conservation.

Let’s rule out right away run-of-the-mill, standard-brand construction that could be sited anywhere, anytime. And let’s find partners, reaching out to the very best in the field, who are just as interested in making a statement as in making a dollar.

The perpetual struggle at Davids Island has for too long pitted builders against environmentalists, local economic goals against regional planning models. A project based on and inspired by the concept of sustainability can at long last bring these objectives together.

There are no guarantees, and this road may prove as fraught with hurdles as those tried before, but let us resolve tonight to put aside our preconceptions and past positions, and with fresh eyes and fresh hopes, take the first steps together.
If we succeed, then people throughout the world who are interested in sustainable design and living will say to each other: to see the shape of the future, you must come to New Rochelle.



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