By: Jennifer Korn
This election day, Clarkstown residents will vote on whether to lift a restrictive covenant that prevents the Palisades Center from utilizing a 240,000 square-foot section on the fourth floor, which has sat vacant since the mall first opened in 1998. For 22 years Pyramid Management Group, the center’s owners, have been barred from utilizing the space as it violates their initial agreement with the Clarkstown planning board, which was reached in 1996. Pyramid had agreed to cap the structure’s gross leasable space to 1.854 million square feet in exchange for the sale and discontinuation of three roads owned by the town. However, when construction was completed, it was soon discovered that the mall had been overbuilt, and Clarkstown has since refused to allow Pyramid to open any stores in the fourth-floor corridor.
For years, Pyramid has fought to override the covenant so that the vacant section could be leased out and in July of 2020 the Clarkstown Board unanimously agreed to put the issue to a vote.
In a recent statement released by Pyramid Management Group, the mall owner explained that:
“The Town Board has unanimously voted to place the referendum on the ballot this November and, in doing so, has recognized the important economic benefits for the Town and its residents that will result from voters approving the referendum and enabling the improvement of Palisades Center. As the owners of Palisades Center, we desire to enhance Palisades Center and respond to the evolving nature of brick and mortar retail and the additional challenges caused by COVID-19.”
The upcoming referendum is the latest in a long history of attempts to open the fourth floor for development. In 2002 a referendum similar to 2020’s proposal was presented to the voters who soundly decided against allowing further expansion. In 2016 EklecCo NewCo, the LLC that owns the Palisades Center, in partnership with Pyramid, filed a federal lawsuit against the town board claiming that the covenant was unfair and violated the company’s constitutional rights. The suit was dismissed.
Local leaders who support the referendum include County Executive Ed Day, town councilman Donald Franchino, town councilman, Michael Graziano, Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann, State Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski and Senator David Carlucci.
Franchino shared a letter to Clarkstown community leaders seeking their support in passing the referendum.
“The removal of the covenant will allow Pyramid to repurpose, redevelop and reinvent their asset and continue to be a viable entity into the future” said Franchino. “The Palisades Mall is the number one taxpayer in Clarkstown, the number one employer and the number one tourist attraction in the Hudson Valley.”
Franchino also expressed his concern that Clarkstown residents may suffer cuts in state aid if the referendum is not passed. “The impact to the taxpayers will be catastrophic,” he said.
Not everyone in the town government shares Franchino’s concerns.
“The town sends out this mailer, and it’s very misleading. It says ‘the mall generates 22 million dollars in sales tax,’” said Nicole Doliner, former President of Rockland Civic Association. “The county only shares one-quarter of one percent with all the towns and villages.”
Doliner, who is the financial analyst for the Rockland County Legislature said that in 2019, Clarkstown received around $5 million in sales tax revenue from all Rockland businesses. “It’s not five million dollars from the mall,” said Doliner.
Former members of the Rockland Civic Association, a grass-roots organization initially formed to stop the mall from being built, have reconciled to advocate against the new referendum. Doliner, Shirley Lasker, former president, and Karl Coplan, an environmental lawyer, sent out a letter to the Journal News and shared it on social media.
The Rockland Civic Association also spearheaded the campaign to reject the referendum that appeared on the ballot in 2002.
“In that particular vote in Clarkstown, we beat the mall 2:1 in every single election district,” said Doliner. “Even back then, we knew it was not sustainable. We knew that they were not going to be good neighbors.”
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Palisades Center struggled to make mortgage payments, and several mall developers expressed interest in buying the mall. Pyramid avoided being foreclosed by J.P. Morgan.
Although the Palisades Center has also struggled in recent years since losing major retail stores, including JCPenny, Lord and Taylor, and Bed Bath and Beyond, the mall donated space to at least 61 not-for-profits and held over 400 events last year. Franchino stated his confidence in the continuation of this partnership.
Ultimately, Clarkstown voters will decide whether to allow the mall to use all of its space and potentially make alterations.