Plans spur both excitement and fears of gentrification
While city officials and developers alike are bullish on Mott Haven, residents and activists worry that several ambitious development projects to transform the neighborhood risk creating a community of haves and have-nots.
In February, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will invest $200 million in capital funding for development of the local waterfront, to include 4,000 new housing units. Much of that would be set aside for low- and- middle-income renters, as part of the mayor’s signature initiative to add or restore 200,000 units of affordable housing around the city.
But although de Blasio called the Special Harlem Waterfront District a “transformative opportunity” for an area he said is “synonymous with urban decay,” some fear the changes will push out many who live in the neighborhood.
“We have serious problems with the potentiality of creating a tale of two cities within one neighborhood,” said Mott Haven resident Mychal Johnson, who co-founded the grassroots coalition South Bronx Unite. The group has advocated for open space and recreational areas along the industrially-zoned waterfront.
The current proposal by the nonprofit development group, SoBRO, calls for new residential, commercial and public spaces along the Grand Concourse between East 138th and East 149th Streets. New restaurants, retail shops and parks would replace the auto body shops, packaging companies and storage warehouses that currently line the shore, which was rezoned in 2009.
The design phase of the project is slated to start next year, with infrastructure upgrades scheduled for 2018, according to a spokesman for the mayor’s office.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. has touted the project as “a complete metamorphosis of the Harlem River waterfront” that would bring $500 million in new development and 3,500 jobs to the borough.
But advocates argue the new development would be cut off from the neighborhood by the Major Deegan Expressway, and would be self-contained, with its own restaurants and shops. Monxo Lopez, a Mott Haven resident and South Bronx Unite member, said attention should be paid in the proposal “in terms of not having those developments become a barrier to the waterfront,” for longtime residents.
In addition, although advocates agree plans to provide waterfront access through the addition of a greenway are long overdue, the city’s proposed housing component is misguided, some say. Karen Argenti, of the nonprofit Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, said the city should invest in shoring up Mott Haven’s decrepit public housing complexes.
“People are living in dilapidated housing,” said Argenti. “If you build only affordable housing for high-income and mixed-income people, how are you taking care of the people who live there?”
Revitalizing the Concourse is one of several new projects that are in the works. A six-tower, 25-story complex is planned on two neighboring sites on Third Avenue and and Lincoln Avenue. Real estate giants Somerset Partners LLC and the Chetrit Group, developers of Chicago’s Sears Towers, bought the parcels for a combined $58 million. A mile away, Young Woo & Associates will redevelop the closed Bronx General Post Office, which the developer bought for $19 million, on East 149th Street and Grand Concourse. In 2013, a group of developers announced plans for La Central, an expansive $345 million mixed-use, mixed-income development stretching from East 149th Street and Brook Avenue to East 153rd Street.
Community Board 1’s district manager, Cedric Loftin, believes the mayor’s commitment to affordable housing will benefit the district. Moreover, the Concourse proposal would address the need for mixed-income housing so that residents from a wide income range can share access to the same opportunities, he said.
“Any investment by the city to improve the district, including the waterfront, is well-valued,” said Loftin. “It will be something that will be sustainable to the growth of the district as a whole.”
But advocates worry about the ripple effects experienced in other recent rapid growth areas, like Williamsburg and Dumbo. Residents are at risk of being displaced by rising rents and spikes in property costs, said Kellie Terry, executive director of The Point CDC in Hunts Point.
“In communities like ours, where we are renters, we wind up getting pushed out of our communities,” said Terry, who called the waterfront “the last bastion of living wage jobs for the community.” The city should shift its focus to reviving Port Morris’ and Hunts Point’s ports and rail lines, to create environmentally friendly manufacturing jobs, she said.
“The answer is not to just put up luxury housing,” said Terry.
According to Ron Shiffman, co-founder of the Pratt Institute’s Center for Community and Environmental Development, tenants and businesses in low-income neighborhoods undergoing a development boom must be protected from landlords looking to cash in. Shiffman, who once drew up a development plan for the Concourse he said looked far different than the current proposal, said anti-gentrification districts should be established.
Amidst the projected building boom, other ideas for change in the neighborhood continue apace. At a public forum on the Haven Project at the Montessori School on 138th Street on March 31, residents and advocates met with planners to discuss a new connector that would provide pedestrians access to Randall’s Island from 132nd Street, along with other local land use issues.
Jeanine Alfieri, artist and sculptor who said she moved to Port Morris from Chelsea due to that neighborhood’s rising rents, said residents must remain vigilant to ensure Mott Haven can thrive on the area’s assets without being priced out, as has happened in other parts of the city.
“We’re concerned about it but we’re hoping that by putting our feet there and being so involved, that it’s not going to happen,” Alfieri said.
Cesar Yoc, a tenant organizer who lives at Millbrook Houses, worries his fellow NYCHA tenants risk being swept away once the transformation takes effect.
“I tell people, ‘you have to get community members prepared for what’s going to happen in the future,’” Yoc said. “That $8 an hour is not going to help you in the future when this whole neighborhood is going to change.”
Additional reporting by Cole Rosengren.