NEW ROCHELLE - Many people in this city want a downtown that's as vibrant as the one here in the 1950s, and some Main Street property owners are making sure it looks the part.
With help from the New Rochelle Business Improvement District, five businesses invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in their buildings, restoring each to its historic look.
The BID, as it is commonly known, hired an architect and oversaw the restoration as part of its Model Block Restoration Program that targeted sites in a one-block area, said Ralph DiBart, the BID's executive director. That created "a critical mass of improved buildings" from Division Street to Centre Avenue, DiBart said.
Property owners paid about 50 percent of the cost and received significant help from the Empire State Development Corporation and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; the city also kicked in for signage and awnings, DiBart said.
The program is being recognized tonight at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan by the Preservation League of New York State; the BID's receiving an Excellence in Historic Preservation Award.
This program is one that could be followed elsewhere in the state, said Jay DiLorenzo, president of the league, who also lauded the program's collaborative approach.
"This can show other communities the importance in investing in historic buildings in your downtown."
The new look is proof that New Rochelle is looking to its future, said Robert Kahn, owner of Diamond Glass at 555 Main St., which has been in the downtown for 35 years.
While he acknowledges other challenges remain, including parking and attracting more retail,"it's been a total plus for the community," Kahn said. "It brought back a good feel to the downtown."
Kahn's restoration cost $250,000 and included converting two floors that had been vacant for decades into rental loft space.
"You don't want a museum. You want a building that's lived in," DiBart said. "New Rochelle is fortunate it has an inventory of historic buildings."
The high rises - Trump, Avalon and Davenport Lofts - are an obvious reminder that the downtown New Rochelle is far different than it was when Bloomingdale's, Macy's and Arnold Constable were mainstays. This preservation work, however, complements the new buildings, said Mayor Noam Bramson.
"That is an essential counterpoint to the new construction," Bramson said. "There's a harmonic relationship between the old city and the new city."
That future is attracting new business owners and opportunities, some BID members said.
Candice Denslow and Dom Cioffoletti started Consign It On Main two years ago but quickly learned they needed more space for their high-end antiques and furnishings. Rather than rent, they purchased 5,000 square feet at 543 Main St. (the old Lillian Vernon building), which is surrounded by the restored buildings.
Within five years, Denslow believes, downtown New Rochelle will resemble Greenwich, Conn., or Bronxville, she said.
"A lot of business owners are taking a personal interest in what the streets are looking like," Denslow said. "We have faith it's going to succeed."
Reach Gerald McKinstry at email@example.com or 914-696-8285.