March 14, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
Port Chester, NY – It felt more like mid – July than late March in the well filled Knights of Columbus Hall on Westchester Avenue in Port Chester Thursday night. Yet cool heads prevailed as five of the eight candidates for the position of Village Trustee answered questions, and explained their positions on issues concerning the proposed Starwood Capital’s development plan at the United Hospital site.
The forum was hosted by the Sustainable Port Chester Alliance (SPCA) who have been calling for a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) as a condition for any payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) granted to the developer by the Village.
The participants in the forum were: Gregory Adams (D), Dan Brakewood (D), Alex Chavarria (Ind), Frank Ferrara (R), and Louis Marino (D). The three candidates not present were: Gene Ceccarelli (R), Bart Didden (R) and Alex Payan (PCF). Mr. Payan did, however, send a written statement citing a previous engagement for his inability to attend. In his statement, he reassured the public of his commitment to the success of the village, and reminded them that he has been a resident of Port Chester since 1984. He stated his agreement with the Alliance’s slogan to “Tax Starwood not Port Chester.” His statement also expressed full support for the CBA which he thought should include 20% affordable housing, a local hire clause and a community center.
The forum was moderated by Ms. Joan Grangenois-Thomas, a Port Chester resident and activist who has been an integral part of the Alliance since its inception. First, she stated that the Alliance wants the project to go forward, but “with the most possible benefit to the community.” Then, in her role as moderator, she laid out the format for the evening. There would be short opening statements, questions from the Alliance for all the candidates to answer, questions from the audience and closing statements. It was asked that candidates not cross talk or make personal attacks. Candidates willingly complied, and were saintly in comparison to what many of us have viewed in some of the national presidential debates recently.
During opening statements, Mr. Marino, who proudly represented himself not only as a long time resident, but also long time CSEA union member, holding up his own sign that carried the Alliance slogan stated that “what you see is what you get,” indicating his outlook would be the same the day after election as the day before. Mr. Ferrara, defined sustainable as “smart development” that “protects our schools” and has “benefit for all.” Mr. Chavarria expressed his desire to be “the voice of the people.” Mr. Blakewood whose wife sits on the local Board of Education, and whose two children attend Port Chester schools, wants to promote sustainable growth, and declared himself “in
alignment with the mission statement of the PCSA.” Finally, Mr. Adams also announced his support for the CBA citing specifically the need for more affordable housing, fair wages and the importance of having well trained tradespeople perform the work.
When the candidates were asked if indeed a PILOT should be granted, Mr. Adams stood alone in his denial of the plan, claiming it would be to burdensome for the school system. Brakewood thought commercial rather than residential building should be incentivized. Chavarria and Marino underscored the need for fairness and Ferrara “did not see a problem with it,” but wanted to see it kept as small as possible. On the topic of workforce housing, the candidates also had different perspectives with Adams saying all demolished units should be replaced and a new formula be instituted to calculate what is truly affordable housing in the village. Brakewood would like to see emphasis placed on rehab of existing structures. Chavarria agreed that all residents should be rehoused, while Marino went as far as to say he would fight for the retention of those units. Ferrara stood alone in his belief that such action would only add to overcrowding.
Regarding the issue of “local hire” provisions, Adams was a firm “yes” adding that local youth should be recruited into apprenticeships thereby providing long term craft training as opposed to short term jobs. Brakewood thought the term local should be broadly enough interpreted to include the greater NYC metropolitan area. This would avoid out of staters coming in to do the work while at the same time avail several unions, ( a word that he did not shy away from) the opportunity to supply segments of the workforce, because in his experience, union trades usually adhere to “the highest possible standards.” Chavarria cast a yes vote calling for “balance.” Marino was unequivocal in “100% support” of such a provision. Ferrara, on the other hand, stated an unemployment rate for Port Chester that was far below the national average and maintained that we already have “enough regulations in place.”
The discussions continued in much the same vein with candidates putting forth their views on a wide spectrum of topics including the effect of development on small businesses, the need for parking, better lighting, and better use of green space and waterfront property. In the closing statements all the candidates affirmed that they would do their best to insure that the village would not (in Mr. Adams’s words) “get the shaft.” Mr.Brakewood stated that any reluctance to stand up to developers would result in residents “being led around by the nose,” while Mr. Ferrara sought a somewhat softer approach with Starwood suggesting negotiations might be smoother if the Alliance showed more respect to the developer. One again, Mr. Marino saw his job to make sure that Starwood understands that it “needs to do the right thing.”
Regardless of the results of the upcoming election on March 15th, one thing remains clear. The PCSA has already been enormously successful in its results. It has mobilized an entire community. It has united the clergy, social justice organizations, educators and trade unionists under one banner. It has continued to successfully reach out to the unaffiliated residents and draw them in to the discussion. It has put not only a wealthy developer from Connecticut on notice, but local politicians as well. Despite what different approaches those politicos may have, they have been made aware that they will be held accountable for their actions – and rest assured they will. Whatever eventually comes to pass in Port Chester, the Sustainable Port Chester Alliance have provided us all with a valuable lesson in Civics.
(to view a video recording of the March 10th forum go to http://portchesteralliance.org/)