UPDATED (see below)
Newly installed Iona College President Dr. Joseph E. Nyre will hold a news conference tomorrow at 11:30 AM at City Hall to announce the college will withdraw its 10 story dorm proposal without prejudice.
Nyre reportedly learned shortly after assuming his new post that Iona College is at overcapacity in the existing dorms in the CR district by a significant amount.
"They were violating the very zoning created specifically for them", said attorney Greg Varian who has been a leader in working to craft an alternative to the original plan.
The CR zoning was amended to permit the three existing dorms.
With the beginning of the school year fast approaching and no place to legally house students, a deal has been struck under which the college will withdraw its proposal for a 10-story dormitory at the site of the old Mayflower Elementary School and, in exchange, the New Rochelle City Council will consider increasing the permitted capacity for a two-year period with the possibility the new capacity limits will be made permanent.
Bob McCaffrey President of the Mount Joy Neighborhood Association and a leading opponent of the proposed dorm, is satisfied with the current outcome.
"It looks like an opportunity for everyone going forward." said McCaffrey. "Dr. Nyre has been speaking with the community directly and we anticipate more open communication going forward working with the City and the community."
Varian sees a tremendous opportunity for the college and for the neighborhoods around the college.
"The best solution is one that meets their need and turns it into a benefit for North Avenue," said Varian. "One that benefits them and benefits the City at the same time."
In the meantime, Iona College and the City government will work together with the community to create the housing needed by the college.
UPDATE: The City of New Rochelle just issued a press availability statement, Joint announcement by Iona College and the City of New Rochelle: Officials from the City of New Rochelle and Iona College will make an announcement regarding student housing and College development on Tuesday, August 2 at 11:30 am in the Rotunda at New Rochelle City Hall, 515 North Avenue, New Rochelle, NY. Neighborhood leaders from the area surrounding the Iona campus will also be in attendance.
UPDATE/EDITORIAL COMMENT: In announcing today a three-part plan to address the desire of Iona College to increase the number of students living in student housing, Mayor Bramson mentioned in passing that "the actual population has exceeded the local limit". The plan calls for the City of New Rochelle and Iona College to embark on a Joint Planning Exercise on Student Housing which will take input from the local community. That was the fluff.
The real deal is that in exchange for Iona College voluntarily withdrawing its Mayflower Dorm proposal, Bramson promised to deliver a City Council resolution to increase the local occupancy limit on the existing three dorm block for two years to bring Iona College into compliance with local zoning ordinances and fire department regulations. The Mayor did his best to lightly skip over this quid pro quo by quickly introducing a series of guests - Dr. Nyre, Greg Varian, and representatives of the neighborhood associations around the college. No matter how strenuous an effort the Mayor made to praise Nyre, it could not conceal the fact that Iona College has, in the past, repeatedly, stated that the new Mayflower Dorm is vital to the viability of the school. Now they are "voluntarily" withdrawing their plan? Something is not quite right in this deal.
It was an odd press conference today. The postponement of the construction of a college dorm would not, one might think, generate much interest from the media yet there were television crews, and reporters from print, radio and the web on hand. All the local media outlets were represented.
Despite the self-congratulatory tone of the statements by New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson and Iona College President Dr. Joseph E. Nyre, the deal announced today was made to mask significant violations of New Rochelle Fire Code and Zoning regulations. Much to the Mayor's dismay, during the Q&A with reporters after, I asked the Mayor to expand on the limits on the existing dorms, what those limits are and how much the college had exceeded those limits.
Bramson danced around the answer as best he could, saying that the limit of local zoning was 700 students for the three building block but under the agreement the local zoning would be brought into line with the New York State Dormitory Authority requirements. He did not say what those requirements were. Dr. Nyre stepped in to say that students were not at risk due to the violations of the zoning laws and fire code; that the New York State fire inspectors had inspected the building. I was prepared to press the point on getting the second part to my answer when Ned Rauch of the Journal News picked up the ball and asked Mayor Bramson for the second time how many students were in the three dorms. Bramson revealed that 850 students were in the three dorms or that Iona College was at about 22% overcapacity.
This means that the City of New Rochelle Building Department or Fire Department was either not inspecting the dorms or they were inspecting the dorms but taking no action for what appear to have been repeated violations or they were not provided accurate information by the college. Likewise, for the New York State Fire Inspectors. So, either the City and the State both knew that Iona College was in violation of the fire codes and did nothing or failed to properly inspect the buildings or were misled. As for Iona College, they clearly made a conscious, deliberate effort to violate the zoning and fire code and chose to hide this fact while pursuing the development of a fourth dorm.
It is not, as has been claimed and since reported, that the City of New Rochelle first learned of the violations when Dr. Nyre self-reported, say sources familiar with the matter.
Ned Rauch of the Journal News talked to City Manager Chuck Strome about the violations.
City Manager Charles Strome III said the college would not face any fines for the longstanding violation. He said the city didn't know anything about it until Nyre mentioned it. Asked if the city ought to have been aware of Iona's overcapacity issues, Strome said that with just three inspectors, "I don't have time to do anything proactive like that."
Of course, there might have been more time if former building inspector Tino D'Abruzzo had not been spending his days sitting around the Sound Shore Fishing Club or John Caldararo was preoccupied with his court appearances for drunk driving. A third building inspector, Tom Taylor was fired over a year ago following allegations of sexual harassment.
Officially, this overcapacity issue came out of the permitting process. So, at some point the City (i.e., Mayor Bramson) had Iona College over a barrel at a time when the Democrats are looking to pick up votes in the neighborhoods around Iona College. The Democrats can now claim they blocked Iona College from building the Mayflower dorm before the November election but Iona College can still build the dorm after the election and in the meantime, Mayor Bramson will make legal the illegal overcapacity of the existing three dorms.
Once you understand the true nature of the deal, the reason for the press conference becomes obvious. That the Mayor was so pleased to be holding the press conference more so. His displeasure and getting a question that addressed the fact that Iona College has been significantly at overcapacity also becomes clear.
In point of fact, if you believe that the New Rochelle Fire Department has good reasons for determining acceptable building capacity, students were put at risk; either that or the building capacity requirements of the New Rochelle Fire Department are not really laws but more like "guidelines". That might be news to many restaurants, bars and other public facilities in New Rochelle.
This is not hypothetical. There was a fire at Loftus Hall in March, 2011 when the entire, overcapacity building was evacuated.
Neither the Mayor nor the College President explained why it is safe to temporarily waive capacity limits for three existing dorms, jumping it up to 850 form 700, then, if no deal is reached on a fourth dorm, dropping it back down to 700. Why would fire safety in one building be contingent on deal to develop a parcel of land to build some other building? I would not want to be either of those two if there is another fire like at Loftus Hall and the evacuation does not go well due to crowded conditions in the building not to mention a more serious event. More to the point, the Mayor is making the City of New Rochelle directly liable if there is some incident at the Iona dorms. Is the City being indemnified?
The Mayor has gone so far as to add as an agenda item to the August 9th, 2011 Special Meeting a written statement that the City's zoning codes will not be enforced during the Fall 2011 semester at Iona College:
In order to proceed, it is requested that the City Council order a Public Hearing in September and that the City refrain from enforcing the zoning occupancy restrictions for the fall of 2011 semester while this matter is being considered by City Council.
By doing so, the Mayor has compounded the City of New Rochelle's direct liability if there is an incident in any of these three dorms. This strikes me as highly irresponsible.
Someone in our local government might want to ask whether Mayor Bramson is trading the safety of 850 college students away to pick up some votes in District 3 and District 5?
It sure seems that way.