Plan calls for transforming industrial area

City planners hope apartment houses and a hotel will replace some of the businesses along the Harlem River waterfront.

Where auto shops and empty factories now predominate, apartments and a hotel would rise

By Maria Clark
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The lower section of the Grand Concourse is almost entirely dedicated to the auto industry. The road is lined with busy auto repair shops, a gas station, a newly revamped car wash and a car dealership.

Apartment houses and a hotel may replace these businesses, if a rezoning proposal for the area passes. But although opposition has been muted, it has critics among policy-makers and planners who say the city should preserve manufacturing jobs.

When the plan was first proposed, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, said that the zoning could jeopardize more than 230 jobs in the four-block area between E. 144th street and E. 138th street on the Grand Concourse.

Amy Anderson, the Project Associate for Sustainable Initiatives at the New York Industrial Retention Network, testified at the April 1 New York City Planning Commission hearing and reiterated Carrion’s concern.

“Manufacturing business located in such areas face increasing real estate pressures associated with nearby real estate development, resulting in displaced companies and jobs. Now is not the time to be displacing businesses and risking job losses,” she said.

Business owners have chosen to focus on their work, rather than worry about city plans that may or may not threaten their future on the Concourse.

“I have heard rumors that the city is planning to relocate us. Whatever happens, happens,” said Epifanio Aybar, the owner of Bonanza Auto Repair Shop near 140th street on the Grand Concourse.

His small shop has remained afloat despite rising rent. He says his secret for success is two-fold. His recycled tires sell rapidly and he knows how to get female customers to trust his mechanics with their cars.

“Women feel comfortable leaving their cars here, because we explain the different parts of the car and show them where the problem is,” he said.

Aybar’s lease expires in 2016, at which point construction or no construction, he plans on retiring.

The zoning proposal encompasses a 30-block area that surrounds the lower end of the Grand Concourse below 149th street. The plan would change some of the streets where only manufacturing is now permitted to a residential area.

Today 57 percent of the four to 12-story loft buildings and waterfront lots are vacant, according to the Planning and Development unit of the Bronx Borough President’s office. Even during the day, the streets along the lower Grand Concourse are nearly empty. Trash lines the gutters and the only sounds come from passing trains and the high-power hoses used to clean out garbage trucks at a nearby Department of Sanitation facility.

“It’s quite dead at night. After 7 you can scream and no one will hear you,” said Jose Orta , 40, the warehouse manager at Baya Movers Company near 144th street on Canal Place. Unlike Epifanio Aybar’s business on the other side of the Metro North railyard, which splits Mott Haven, Baya Movers Company is not jeopardized by the zoning plan.

Orta welcomes the idea of residents moving into the area, saying it will mean better access to food. With only two delis in the area and a diner, he says, the neighborhood will need more eateries.

Despite the empty streets, in recent years the neighborhood has seen a dramatic decrease in crime. In 1995, the 40th Precinct on 138th street, which covers all of Community District 1, reported a total of 1,116 robberies. That number dropped to 541 last year. Break-ins, however, remain a concern for local workers.

Igor Gladkov, the president of Astra Town Car Corporation, had to install video cameras and alarms around his car dealership near E. 140th street on the Grand Concourse. Two homeless men broke into the small offices on the car lot in January 2008, used the microwave to heat up food and took off with a supply of pens.

Pilfering is the least of Gladkov’s worries. The proposal threatens his business.

Gladkov, however, says he isn’t too concerned. His lease ends in seven years and in that time he suspects there won’t be much construction in the area.

His office rattled as two trains passed by in the rail yard below the dealership. He had to shout to be heard. “If they build a hotel on this strip, the guests will check out after one day and never come back. No way anyone can get any sleep around here with the trains.”

However, if a hotel developer does take over his car lot, Gladkov says he’ll deal with the situation the best he can.

He said, “Moving the business will be hard on us and our customers. But if we have to move, then we move.”