A Bronx-born architect who fell in love with the lower Hudson Valley is helping restore empty Peekskill properties, one building at a time.
As it turned out, architect Marco Mandra fell in love twice when he headed here from the Bronx. First, he met his future wife Nicole, who managed the Orangetheory gym where he worked out. They just welcomed their son Nico to their Peekskill family.
Nicole also introduced Marco to the Peekskill area, and he knew he found his home.
“The landscape, the trees, the Hudson River,” Mandra says. “I grew up in the Bronx where there are hardly any trees. It’s beautiful and quaint and cozy, and I saw there’s a lot of potential here in Peekskill and a lot of growth happening.”
After earning his degree in architecture at Florida Atlantic University, Mandra got jobs as an architect at Florida and Westchester firms. He learned a lot but also determined that sitting at a desk working for someone else wasn’t for him.
“To be honest, I hated it,” he says. You’re pigeon-holed into doing the same thing. I hear it from a lot of young architects – they get stuck doing just one thing over and over.
“For some people, that’s fine. But you need the chance to grow to your potential. I wasn’t getting the full picture of what it takes to get a building built.”
The drive to strike out on his own led to evening, lunchtime and weekend freelance work while employed, picking up small jobs and making contacts.
Then, three years ago he hung up his shingle and created Mandra Workshop with an office at The Hat Factory business park in Peekskill.
Mandra met Joe Thompson, a prominent Peekskill architect who handles many local projects. That connection opened doors.
“He gave me encouragement to fully go out on my own,” Mandra says. “Joe was so overwhelmed with work that he tossed me some things and through the projects I got from him I built relationships with those clients and contractors and that snowballed. I knew I had to leave my job.”
Now Mandra has built a good mix of residential and commercial work into his portfolio. He’s collaborating with another designer on a 6,500-square-foot, multimillion dollar home in Croton-on-Hudson. Another job involved the task of designing and winning planning board approval in Peekskill for a 30% expansion of an existing home.
He’s also designing and shepherding two commercial projects through the approvals process in Peekskill. Mandra was brought in by the Wilson Narvaez family (of C-Town/La Placita in downtown Peekskill), to convert what had been a bakery into a grocery store on Washington Street, Cosmo’s Fresh Market. The building was recently approved for construction and the new plan calls for a complete new rebuild rather than a renovation.
Mandra’s fierce devotion to his clients was on display most recently in winning approval from Peekskill’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board for his design of a four-story building at the site of the old Center Diner on Bank Street.
Although zoning allows four stories, some members of the board argued that the project would be “out of character” and that they could override the zoning rules and lower the height of the proposed building.
With dogged determination, Mandra researched photos from Peekskill’s past, circulated a petition in support of the project, and kept coming back to the board at three different meetings over five months. (His wife Nicole serves on the board, leaving the body without a quorum for his project on two occasions, when she recused herself from the discussions.)
Mandra got what he wanted, dropping the ceiling heights slightly but keeping the four stories his client needs to make the project work.
“My way of compromising was offering ceilings of 8-foot-6-inches instead of 9-foot ceilings,” Mandra says. “I think they were being closed minded a little bit. They need to think more about the future of the city — there’s a lot of growth happening here in Peekskill.”
Jim Roberts is a freelance business reporter based in Peekskill.