BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Orangetown officials and residents gave a rousing welcome to JP Morgan Chase Tuesday evening as America’s largest bank unveiled its plans to locate a huge electronic data center in a multi-million dollar facility in Orangeburg.
The data storage facility, which could cost over $100 million and bring untold tax revenues to both Orangetown and the Pearl River School District, would be constructed by Chase on a 61-acre site it wants to purchase from Orangetown at the former Rockland Psychiatric Center campus off Orangeburg Road, about two blocks west of the Town Hall.
The land is flat and easily accessible to local and major highways, and contains about 40 of the 80-year-old former RPC hospital structures, which have been abandoned for nearly two decades. Orangetown bought the 348-acre campus and buildings over a decade ago and has been trying to re-develop the site ever since.
The town has kept several parcels of the former sprawling hospital to use as town parks and recreational facilities, including Veterans Memorial Park and the nine-hole Broadacres Golf Course, which lies adjacent to the site Chase wants to buy.
Chase officials told the Town Board at a public meeting Tuesday that the bank is ready to take on the costs of lead and asbestos abatement and demolition of the 50 existing buildings, a process that is highly regulated by town and state agencies and a prerequisite for redevelopment. Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart said the town will require Chase to remove all the buildings, even though the bank is initially planning to build only part of the 60-acre site.
They will then construct the new data center on that raw land, starting with two buildings of about 150,000-200,000 square feet. The building will be about 50 feet in height but only a single level inside, resembling a huge empty box, and will contain towers of electronic equipment to store all of the bank’s financial records. If it is successful, Chase will build a companion structure a year or two later about the same size next door. Total square feet of both buildings will be about 250,000 square feet according to engineer Rob Foley who is designing the facility.
He and attorney Brian Quinn, Chase’s outside counsel, said the facility would employ about 70 engineers and technicians who would work round-the-clock shifts of 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year, with an average of 20 to 30 on duty at any given point.
Because the facility requires so few workers, it will only require a small parking lot of about 94 spaces for employees and guests, and there will be virtually no visible traffic in or out of the facility at any time, and no truck traffic at all once construction is complete.
The buildings will be screened from view of surrounding roads and neighborhoods by a buffer zone of between 100 and 250 feet, which will be heavily planted in trees and shrubs making the facility almost invisible.
Boundaries of the site are Convent Road to the north, Oak Street to the south, First Avenue to the east and Third Avenue to the west. It will stretch from Convent Road to the Nathan Klein Institute and from Broadacres Golf Course to the former RPC fire and police headquarters.
The land is currently zoned R-80, meaning it can only be used to construct single-family homes on two acre lots.
The town is planning to change zoning on the parcel to a new data center-focused “office park” zone. To speed the process up, the board voted unanimously Tuesday to schedule a public hearing for Tuesday, March 14 at 8 p.m. on the zone change, and depending on the outcome of the public hearing, to actually vote on the change at their next meeting, March 21.
The Town Board will act as the lead agency in the application process, and will determine what reports are required under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).
In the meantime, Chase needs to bring detailed site plans to the town planning board for review and approval.
If approved, Chase said they plan on starting exploratory work and actual demolition of the existing 50 buildings in the summer or fall, followed immediately by construction of the first data center within a year. Before that comes to pass Chase and the town will negotiate a sales price for the 61-acre site. Both sides have already indicated the eventual price will be substantially less than its assessed valuation because of the $40 million remediation cost the firm must bear just to end up with vacant land upon which they can then build.
To assist both sides in the price negotiations, the board also Tuesday voted to hire the assessment firm of Valuation Plus, for a fee of $5,500, to let both sides know what a fair value for the 61 acres should be.
Chase officials have also said they intend to seek PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) agreements with Orangetown, the school district, Rockland County and other taxing entities to reduce their initial tax burdens for the first several years, following which they would pay their full assessed tax bills.
Quinn told the board Chase would hire local contractors to demolish the existing buildings and to construct the new data center, giving a massive employment jolt to the local economy. Expert firms would be hired for the remediation of lead, asbestos, PCBs and other toxins, and construction of the center would begin almost immediately upon the land’s becoming vacant.
Foley said there would be a perimeter fence around the entire 61-acre site, with a main entrance off Third Avenue opposite the old fire and police headquarters. First Avenue will be closed to the general public and will have a locked secondary entrance gate that can be opened on an as-needed basis.
Construction of the first building will be on about 40 acres of the site toward the north end, Foley explained, while the second phase will be on the adjacent 20 acres to the south.
Quinn, a New City attorney who has lived in Pearl River the past 30 years, said Chase may use part of the office portion of the data center as a conference center and training center for their employees nation-wide, who would arrive and leave daily, which is why they desire parking for 94 cars with only 20 to 30 working on any shift.
These visitors, along with the highly paid staff, should become an economic boon for the area surrounding the facility, Quinn said, because they will patronize local hotels, restaurants and businesses, and many may desire to move to the Orangetown area as a result.
Bill Dietz, managing director of JP Morgan Chase, thanked town officials for welcoming the firm to Orangetown, and said the firm intended to be a good neighbor to their host community.
He said the company had searched far and wide across the country to find just the right location for its new data center, which will store electronic financial data from the firm’s worldwide banking network.
All three men said selling points for the RPC site were Orangetown’s enthusiastic cooperation in finding the land, the fact that three other large data centers are already located less than a mile away (Bloomberg LLP, Verizon and 1547), and the availability of ample electricity from O & R and data transmission lines from multiple utilities.
One new element surfaced Tuesday that could have thrown a wrench into the plans, but Chase officials quickly dismissed it as trivial to their overall goal.
One of the buildings to be demolished is a 1932-era single-story stucco structure at the northeast corner of the site that housed the original Rockland Children’s Psychiatric Center. Later home to a day care center, it has been abandoned for about a decade but contains several WPA murals painted on its interior walls under the federal government’s Works Progress Administration program during the great depression.
Not considered national landmarks, the murals are nonetheless considered worthy of protection by preservationists.
When made aware of the murals’ existence, all three Chase representatives Tuesday said they would look into the matter and were certain they could come up with an alternative that would satisfy the bank, Orangetown and local and national preservationists.
At its height, Rockland State Hospital occupied over 1,000 acres of land in Orangetown, including housing for 10,000 patients and another 10,000 staff, forming a virtual city-within-a-town of about 20,000 people. Constructed in the early 1930s, the campus stretched from Convent Road to the New Jersey border, and included hundreds of acres of fruit, vegetable, poultry, pig, sheep and cattle farms. This made the campus largely self-sufficient, producing all of their own food, milk and bakery needs at virtually no cost since free patient labor was used instead of hired help.
By the 1950s much of this was determined to be slave labor and forbidden. The farms and shops were closed, and much of the land was sold to developers who constructed hundreds of acres of housing and office and warehouse structures on the land between Orangeburg Road and the New Jersey border.
Orangetown began buying some of the surplus land starting in the 1960s, including their largest recreational facility, the Veterans Memorial Park. A decade ago the town made its largest purchase, 348 acres of the “core” of the old campus, containing more than 50 steel and concrete structures built in the 1930s and long ago vacated as the campus consolidated into the ten-story “high rise” buildings at the eastern edge of the site.
The town has developed a couple of parcels for athletic fields and has sold a few to non-profit sports leagues, but remains saddled with the bulk of its aging and deteriorating purchase.
Remediating the lead, asbestos, PCB-laden buildings and land has been the town’s biggest problem, with no one willing to foot the bill. Several prospective buyers have tried to “cherry-pick” the land over the past decade and take the fallow acres for development purposes, but few have expressed an interest in buying the inner “core” portion with the contaminated buildings and soil.
Orangetown officials held Chase close to their vest during private negotiations over the past month or two, hoping the offer was for real and that the bank wouldn’t back out when they learned what their liability could be. So far, it appears to be what both sides Tuesday called a “win-win-win” situation for the town, its residents and Chase.
Orangetown will get rid of the most undesirable portion of the RPC campus, the contamination will be removed, a valuable tax ratable asset will replace the abandoned structures, employment will improve and taxes paid by Chase will relieve already stressed property owners in both Orangetown and the Pearl River School District.
“There is no downside to this” Councilman Thomas Diviny and Supervisor Andy Stewart agreed, a Republican and a Democrat who have often been at odds on town policy questions.
For their part, the Chase officials present at that same meeting thanked the board for being so cooperative in moving the proposal forward and for being so welcoming at having Chase as a new corporate neighbor.
CHASE SITE PLAN for their 61-acre proposed data center at the former Rockland Psychiatric Center campus in Orangeburg. Convent Road is at the top, First Street and the Broadacres Golf Club to the right and Third Street and the former fire/police headquarters to the left.