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As Investors Tout 'Renaissance,' Trustees Warily Eye Plans for Former Hospital

Port Chester officials will review an environmental impact statement on the proposed plaza, residential and retail space on the former United Hospital grounds.

Where overgrown grass and bushes now choke the abandoned United Hospital, a deep-pocketed investment firm envisions tree-lined walkways, a plaza, and apartments with views of the Sound.

On Monday, Starwood Capital's planners and architects were all unreserved optimism, employing words like "renaissance," "resurgence" and "world class" to describe the mixed living and shopping spaces they want to build on the former hospital grounds.

With glitzy projects in New York, Los Angeles and Miami, the capital firm's real estate arm would "give those who are coming a message that the village is on the move," Bruno Gioffre, a Starwood attorney, told the village board.

"It will afford it, if you will, something like a rinascita, which is a word I like to use," he said, invoking an Italian term for renaissance while a woman who earlier called him an elitist glowered at him from the front row.

Like that woman, who gave Gioffre and his Starwood colleagues an earful before the meeting began, some of Port Chester's trustees did not seem enthusiastic about the project.

Responses ranged from annoyed to wary, tepid and cautiously optimistic when trustees had their say after watching Starwood representatives click through a series of glossy artist renderings on a projector. When they finally spoke, the trustees said they've been down the same path with other large developers, and a decision would only come after careful consideration of potential benefits to the village.

Starwood's proposal includes plans for more than 750 residential units in addition to storefronts and offices. Trustees said they're worried about traffic, the possibility of more kids in an already-crowded school district, and the possibility that any increase in tax revenue won't cover the costs to the village. But the proposal is moving forward -- Monday's appearance by Starwood officials came three days after the investment firm submitted a draft of its environmental impact statement, which includes proposed zoning changes to allow for the mixed residential and commercial plans at the former hospital site.

The next step: trustees will review the environmental impact statement and set a date for a public hearing, where residents can weigh in. Public feedback will be recorded, and Starwood is required to address individual concerns in writing.

Sizing up the stack of papers before him, Conservative John Branca waved off further discussion until board members could read the Starwood paperwork.

"I think we killed 18 trees with these books here," Branca said. "I will have a ton of questions to ask."

Echoing several of his colleagues on the board, Bart Didden said he didn't want the village to shoulder the financial burden of hiring traffic engineers and other experts. New York state law puts developers on the hook for paying experts and consultants, but the funds are held in an escrow account.

That means the village would pay those costs before eventual reimbursement. Didden said G&S Investors, the developer of the waterfront complex, didn't honor agreements to keep the balance at a maximum of $25,000, and Port Chester had to tie up a sizable amount of money paying consultancy fees in the meantime. The village can't afford a similar scenario this time around, he said.

"This village was over $800,000 in the red at one point," Didden said. "This board is not going to tolerate that type of inadequate oversight ever again."

Although some elected officials, like Mayor Dennis Pilla, seemed willing to entertain Starwood's plans, others said they don't like what they see.

Starwood representatives touted the location of the former hospital complex as an upside, branding the proposed development as "The Gateway" because of its proximity to the village border and exit ramps for I-95 and 287.

Republican Joseph Kenner said he doesn't see it that way. With a main road entrance directly across from the entrance to the Kohl's shopping plaza, the development would compound the already "horrendous" rush-hour traffic on that stretch of Boston Post Road, Kenner said.

More than 1,500 people would live in the new development, according to estimates, and it's unclear how many of them would be school-age children. Kenner was among several trustees who said the district can't handle more kids.

"One additional child in the school system is too many," he said.

Since 2005, when Starwood Capital purchased the former hospital property for $28 million, citizens and community groups have floated other options, like affordable housing or a senior complex. The public will get its chance to weigh in on the plans again when the village sets a date for a public hearing.

"It just seems like this is a done deal, but I would like to see more alternatives," Kenner said. "There have got to be some other ideas we can generate here."

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