City plans a new neighborhood in Mott Haven

On the southern end of the Grand Concourse, barbed wire, car dealerships and auto parts suppliers line the road, surrounded by industrial buildings that have seen busier days. The Mott Haven waterfront is dotted with ministorage buildings, rows of school buses and piles of trash.

But this may change.

The city has a plan that could bring new life – and new investment – to the lower Concourse and Harlem River waterfront.

An artist's rendering of the development the city imagines along the Bronx Harlem River waterfront
On the southern end of the Grand Concourse, barbed wire, car dealerships and auto parts suppliers line the road, surrounded by industrial buildings that have seen busier days.  The Mott Haven waterfront is dotted with ministorage buildings, rows of school buses and piles of trash.

But this may change.

The city has a plan that could bring new life – and new investment – to the lower Concourse and Harlem River waterfront.  The Department of City Planning has envisioned a new future for this 30-block area.

In the next few years the neighborhood’s first large supermarket may replace factories. The stately apartment buildings that line the Grand Concourse to the north could be mirrored in the south.

And the Harlem River Waterfront could be transformed within a decade to a Battery Park City of the North, with towering apartment buildings as high as 40 stories overlooking a waterfront promenade laced with open-air cafes and patches of green.

The government is not going to build any of this itself.  But, through a process called rezoning, it can change the rules that govern how people who own property in the area develop and use their land.

“We want to create a place where people can live, work, shop and play,” said Carol Samol, head of the city planning department’s Bronx office.

Current zoning rules keep buildings small in this area–just blocks away from Mott Haven’s towering housing projects–and prohibit their use as homes.  By changing these rules, the city hopes to encourage property owners either to convert vacant manufacturing lofts to housing, sell their land to developers or build something new themselves.

Community Board 1 unanimously approved the plan at its February meeting, though some board members voiced misgivings.

Board member Mychal Johnson said he’s worried that rising rents could eventually drive out the area’s long-time residents. The proposed new rules would encourage developers to build affordable housing in the district along with higher-rent housing.  But Johnson is concerned that that might not be enough, because the definition of “affordable” is pegged to the average income of people living in New York City as well as Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties.

“Sometimes that doesn’t help people here,” Johnson said, “because this community is on the lower end.”

Based on the most recent income calculations, a family earning as much as $55,000 would be eligible for a subsidized two-bedroom apartment, and the rent could be as high as $1,237.

“Of course we don’t want our sky blocked with skyscrapers,” Johnson said. “One of the reasons I love the Bronx is that we’re not boxed in.” But he voted to support the plan because he thinks community will benefit from a better mix of incomes.

The warehouses and parking lots of the Harlem River waterfront may be replaced within a decade by modern development
The warehouses and parking lots of the Harlem River waterfront may be replaced within a decade by modern development

Commercial investment would also bring needed jobs, he believes, along with real estate tax payments that might help improve local schools.  In addition, he hopes that economic incentives will pressure local polluters like the waste transfer station in the Oak Point Yards to clean up their acts.

Other concerns arise because more apartment buildings would mean more riders on the subway, more cars on the road, more kids in the classrooms and more patients in the hospital.  In its environmental study of the project, the city planning department estimated the plan could bring over 10,000 new residents within 10 years.

Board member Alice Simmons said development should be an ongoing dialogue. “We’re talking about a 10-year goal,” she said.  “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Community Board 1 Chairman George Rodriguez said residents had reason to worry about such a big change, and acknowledged that he himself is worried about protecting local small businesses.  But rezoning is an important part of revitalizing the South Bronx, he said, and worries should not be an excuse to do nothing.

“You might open a Pandora’s box, but then, you might not,” Rodriguez said.

The small conference room at the community board office was overflowing with people on the evening of the vote.  The planning department showed PowerPoint slides with maps, photos of buildings in the areas that would be rezoned and renderings of potential new development.

Board members and members of the audience expressed their concerns during a question and answer period.

One board member said that Mott Haven needs a state-of-the-art public library.

Pamela Smith, the president of the Mitchel Houses tenants’ association, worried that increased traffic and taller buildings would create and trap air pollution in an area where asthma is already epidemic.
Two representatives of the community group Nos Quedamos asked about churches in the plan, and how the plan would address the influence of Sin City, a strip club on Park Avenue.

Samol said the new zoning rules would not prevent the construction of churches or libraries. She also said that car technology is becoming cleaner, and developers would plant street trees to help clean the air.

Business that are currently operating will not be forced to move, she said, but once the area has a residential zoning new adult establishments will not be allowed.

The City Planning Commission is currently reviewing the proposal.  The City Council is expected to vote on the plan sometime this summer.

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