The White Plains Common Council will not veto a recommendation to declare the former Good Counsel campus on North Broadway a local historic landmark. That decision could add another hurdle to a major redevelopment proposed for the site last year.
A development team led by Manhattan real estate firm George Comfort & Sons Inc. has proposed a project that would add a mix of student housing, apartments and an assisted living facility to the historic campus.
For 125 years, the 52 N. Broadway property was used by a teaching order of Roman Catholic nuns, Sisters of the Divine Compassion. But the teaching order closed two schools in 2014 and sold the 16-acre property in November 2015 for $16.3 million to WP Development NB LLC, a group of investors led by George Comfort & Sons. In 2016, WP Development applied to the city for a zoning amendment necessary for its residential redevelopment.The Common Council advanced the review of those redevelopment efforts at its regular monthly meeting May 7 when it accepted the developer’s draft environmental impact statement as complete and scheduled a public hearing next month for the environmental review and zoning amendment.
But the Common Council also elected not to reject a recommendation from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to designate the property a landmark. That means the project’s review will also be subject to the historic commission.
“This does not mean there can’t be any development on the site, they will just have to go through the Historic Preservation Commission to get approvals,” said Councilman Justin Brasch at the hearing, who joined the majority in voting against a resolution to veto the landmark status.
He said the designation “seems like a sensible approach to how we should balance preserving important pieces of property like this and allowing for the proper development of sections that may or may not be appropriate for that.”
WP Development’s original plans called for 400 rental housing units in two, 10-story buildings. A separate facility would have 70 units of graduate-student housing for the neighboring Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University. Also included was a 90-unit assisted living facility with a care unit for residents with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
The project would preserve two historic buildings on the property — the Sisters of the Divine Compassion chapel and the Mapleton House, now used as an administrative office. Sisters of the Divine Compassion have a 50-year lease on the chapel. The Mapleton House would be moved to the north side of the chapel to make way for the assisted living facility. About 3 acres of greenspace on the site that abuts North Broadway would also be preserved — and open to the public.
Geoff Thompson, a spokesman for the project, said in an interview following the Common Council meeting that the developer has offered an alternative to those plans. Submitted through WP Development’s draft environmental impact statement, the alternative plan preserves part of an additional historical building and scales down the size and units for the apartments buildings, student housing and assisted living.
WP Development’s proposal had drawn criticism from the site’s neighbors, including the Stewart/Ross Neighborhood Association. Neighbors have said the project would bring unreasonable traffic, damage air quality and cause disruptions through its construction.
In its draft environmental impact statement submitted to the city last month, WP Development included an alternative development proposal that it said responds to concerns heard earlier in the review process.
The alternative plan reduces the number of apartment units in the multifamily buildings from 400 to 370. It also reduces the maximum height of the buildings by 30 feet. The residential portion would include a three-story townhouse section and residential building segments that ascend from four to 10 stories at the maximum before grading back down to six stories on the campus’ east end.
The assisted living facility is reduced from 90 to 82 units in a narrower, four-story building with a smaller footprint. The student housing is reduced from 70 to 40 suites and moved to the northeastern corner of the site.
The alternative proposal also preserves the westernmost wing of the historic convent building, along with maintaining the preservation of the chapel and relocated Mapleton House.
Thompson said the alternative plan is the developer’s preferred option.
“We have listened carefully to public input, the historic commission’s input and a lot of people have expressed concerns and ideas,” Thompson said. “This alternative plan is the result of us processing all the comments and adapting the proposal to address issues that have been raised.”
The Common Council will hold a public hearing on the proposal’s draft environmental impact statement, as well as the zoning amendment proposal, at its June 4 regular meeting.
In its report recommending local landmark status for the property, the commission said the complex has architectural significance as an example of a late 19th century religious and educational campus.
The two co-founders of the Sisters of the Divine Compassion — Mother Mary Veronica Starr and Father Thomas Preston — are buried in a crypt below the site’s chapel.
The commission noted the site’s history dates back to before Good Counsel was built. Using topographical maps of the Battle of White Plains, the commission concluded that George Washington stationed troops on the site in the 1776 battle against British and Hessian forces.
The property was added to both the state and national Register of Historic Places in 1997.
After the commission voted unanimously to bestow local landmark status on the site, the city’s Common Council had 45 days to either veto the decision or let it stand. The resolution to reject the landmark status considered on May 7 came from Councilman John Kirkpatrick and Council President John M. Martin.
Martin said the commission should reconsider its inclusion of the entire property into the designation. Kirkpatrick argued that the city could open itself up to a legal challenge if it accepts the landmark status without first completing an environmental review of the project proposal.
But the rest of the council supported the landmark designation, including Mayor Thomas Roach. The mayor said he respects the independence of the commission and saw no reason to overturn its decision.
Thompson said WP Development has cooperated with the commission since the start of the project and will continue to do so.