Developer plans office-park housing

-April 25, 2013

Westchester County’s largest private owner of top-tier office buildings has signaled his part in changing the vacancy-plagued Platinum Mile with plans for a large-scale residential development on a corporate campus in White Plains.

Robert P. Weisz, chairman and CEO of RPW Group Inc., told an audience at a recent real estate forum presented by the Business Journal’s parent company, Westfair Communications Inc., that he plans to build 300 units of housing on the 74-acre site of 1133 Westchester Ave., an approximately 620,000-square-foot multitenant office building that formerly was solely occupied by IBM.

ITT Corp. has its global headquarters there and the county’s largest law firm, Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker L.L.P., will relocate its Westchester office from the Gannett Office Park across Interstate 287 in Harrison to the 49-year-old Weisz building this year.

RPW Group bought the office property in 2006 from IBM for a reported $76 million. Weisz’s plans to develop a 150-room extended stay hotel at the front of the property, announced in 2007, stalled in the subsequent recession and have not been revived.

Weisz said his residential development is in early planning and it would be “premature” to talk in detail about it. No plans have been submitted to the city of White Plains, he said.

Still the prominent developer’s announcement pointed to the growing momentum for adaptive reuse of the county’s underoccupied office parks among both municipal officials and real estate professionals. As at 1133 Westchester, the reuse proposals include residential construction designed to attract both young professionals who cannot afford to buy homes in Westchester’s pricey housing market – a demographic and membership focus of both leading business advocacy groups, The Business Council of Westchester and the Westchester County Association (WCA). The new mixed-use developments also would serve older downsizing residents who increasingly choose to stay in the county after retirement, Weisz said.

The city of White Plains last year revised its campus office zoning to allow residential and retail uses in planned office park developments. The town of Harrison is considering similar changes to its comprehensive zoning plan.

“We’re frankly not inventing anything,” Weisz said of his housing proposal, which would be the first such venture for a commercial landlord who for more than three decades has focused on acquiring and redeveloping office, retail and warehouse space. “We’re following the trend. …People want to live where they work and play.”

Others on the panel of real estate and government experts agreed that housing is the biggest problem facing Westchester County. “What we need to address is housing,” particularly affordable housing for office park workers, Weisz said.

White Plains Mayor Thomas M. Roach saw a ready market for new housing in White Plains among young employees.

“The next generation is not putting up with an hour in the car to get to work,” he said. “The young people don’t want to drive because it interferes with their ability to text.”

Roach predicted a residential flight from the exurbs to suburban cities such as White Plains. “That’s what I’m going for, full tenancy in White Plains, and then all you guys will do much better,” he told a real estate industry audience. “Since I’ve been mayor, we’ve been pushing very hard to make (White Plains) a cool place,” attracting young adults

“Young professionals are demanding places to live” in the county, said Marissa Brett, WCA executive director for economic development. They want office park residences that also have retail and entertainment amenities, she said.

“The reality is you have to have that lively 24/7 excitement,” said George T. Constantin, president and CEO of Heritage Realty Services L.L.C.

Constantin, whose company owns the soon-to-be-renamed Gannett Office Park in Harrison, said the rise in vacancies on the Platinum Mile “presents the opportunity to bring in change and modernize. The reality is, office buildings have to change over time; we need to modernize them and need to be competent on a global scale.”

Weisz said the “tremendous vacancies” in the county’s office parks are “mainly a result of buildings being old. We have one of the oldest inventories in office buildings.”

“Westchester County is still going through a transition period,” said Stephen M. Banker, executive managing director at Newmark Grubb Knight Frank in Greenwich, Conn., “a transition period that was caused by IBM’s mass exodus from the market. It’s going to take time.”

Weisz said he thinks the county’s current glut of office space will be reduced by “the combination of new owners addressing these issues and municipalities addressing the zoning issues.”

With the work-live-play concept being adapted here, “I think we’re going to see a very different landscape in the next five to 10 years,” he said.