Mott Haven residents denounce plan for Deegan

Traffic on the Major Deegan Expressway backs up at Exterior Street. DOT engineers want to change that, but residents say their plan clashes with plans for the Harlem River waterfront.Photo by Stephanie Rabins

Longer highway ramps could scuttle city’s plan for the waterfront

Plans to rehabilitate the Major Deegan Expressway would destroy Mott Haven’s hopes for a brighter future, residents and public officials told a hearing on Nov. 9 to consider the state Department of Transportation’s proposal.

Community voices rang out in opposition to the plan to lengthen exit ramps, saying the new ramps would torpedo the city’s ambitious plan to build housing, parks, office buildings and a hotel on the waterfront, completed last summer when the City Council and the Mayor signed off on rezoning the Lower Grand Concourse.

In an hour of spirited discussion after state officials presented the proposal, every speaker denounced the plan.

“Blocking waterfront access would create a domino effect” that would “severely hamper, if not outright preclude” development on the affected plots of waterfront property, said Carol Samol, head of the Bronx office of the Department of City Planning.

She said the DOT had rejected alternative plans and charged that they had focused so narrowly on traffic issues that they had failed to consider the “public good.”

According to Syed Rahman, an engineer who presented the DOT plan, the short exit ramps cause extensive back-ups on the elevated highway. He said revamping the ramps from 138th Street to 149th Street northbound and from the Macombs Dam Bridge to 138th Street southbound would relieve traffic jams.

In addition, he said, a longer exit ramp would keep cars exiting onto Exterior Street from backing up traffic on the Deegan.

Arline Parks, chair of the land use committee of Community Board 1, noted that the planning department had worked diligently with her committee to come to an agreed-upon rezoning plan through “countless meetings.” In contrast, the DOT had emerged only recently, presenting a completed plan to the board.

“All our work will be lost if the DOT moves forward with the plan,” said Alice Simmons, a member of Community Board 1.

Speakers after speaker evoked the neighborhood’s history, recalling how Robert Moses slashed through whole sections of the Bronx to make room for expressways like the Deegan, which Moses began building in 1950 and completed in 1956.

Members of the audience were also incensed to learn that the state planned to use its power of eminent domain to buy out and eliminate businesses in the path of the new ramps.

Other speakers cited Mott Haven’s high asthma rates, and expressed concern that a rehabilitated highway would attract still more traffic, increasing air pollution.

In an interview, the DOT’s director of public affairs, Adam Levine, insisted that the community’s concerns were being taken seriously. While repairs to crumbling cement and support beams are essential, he said, the department wouldn’t go ahead with its plan to lengthen the exit ramps if it faced strong opposition.

“We won’t do it if we hear from the community and elected officials” that the expansion isn’t wanted, he said. “We’ll take the money elsewhere.”