City’s sale of Port Morris building sparks protest

Demonstrators voiced their anger in front of the Supreme Court building on the Grand Concourse on Oct. 28, saying the city auctioned a commercial building in Port Morris without local input.

Residents and community groups demonstrate the city's sale of a Port Morris building in front of the Supreme Court building on the Grand Concourse on Oct. 28.
Residents and community groups demonstrate the city’s sale of a Port Morris building in front of the Supreme Court building on the Grand Concourse on Oct. 28.

Demonstrators say the community wasn’t notified

A small group of demonstrators voiced their anger in front of the Supreme Court building on the Grand Concourse on Oct. 28, over the city’s auctioning of a commercial building in Port Morris. The auction, they contended, was poorly publicized in the communities where the Phillip Jones building on Walnut Street, as well as other city properties, were put up for sale.

SoBRO, the Mott Haven based community development group that has long managed the building, said it couldn’t compete due to the auction’s multimillion-dollar starting price, and stands to lose about $300,000 in annual rental revenue from the building – money the organization says supports its community programing.

John Malone, owner of art handling and storage company Transcon, bought the building for $11 million at the auction. His business has operated out of the Phillip Jones building for more than 10 years. Pending the closing of the auction, he said he plans to allow the Uniform Civilian Cap Co. to stay put. That manufacturer has been a tenant for 50 years.

Representatives from housing rights groups Picture the Homeless and the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association joined SoBRO in the protest, arguing that the auction sends a chilling message that city government is overstepping its bounds by selling important properties to the highest bidder without community consent.

Longwood resident Carolyn Waring, a volunteer community organizer for Banana Kelly, was skeptical the city’s actions were taken with residents in mind.

“When they buy it is it going to benefit us?” she said. “This was very underhanded.”

A spokeswoman for the city agency that organized the auction rejected the protesters’ claims that residents and community groups weren’t notified. Cathy Hanson of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services said the auction was announced in newspapers citywide, as well as on social media. In addition, she said, affected property owners, elected officials, and local community boards were told of the auction in advance.

SoBRO took over the building 30 years ago when the city was looking to knock it down, said the group’s director of special projects and strategic initiatives, Michael Brady. The organization entered into a 40-year master lease with the city at the time, that calls on SoBRO to manage the property while paying a percentage of the rent to the city, he added.

“We took a building they were going to demolish and turned it into a job creation center,” said Brady.

As the building aged and the cost of maintaining it piled up, SoBRO opted to apply for a capital grant from the city to make much-needed renovations.

Several weeks ago, and months after submitting its grant application, SoBRO received a tip that the property was going up for auction.

Until the sale closes, SoBRO has the right of first refusal to buy the building, and says it is looking into that possibility. The group’s assistant vice president, Jamila Diaz, echoed the concerns of the protesters who gathered at the courthouse, that the city pushed the auction through with as little publicity as possible.

“How are we going to protect the Bronx that way?” said Diaz.

Brady contended that the city’s actions run counter to the mayor’s assurances he is listening to communities and their concerns.

“De Blasio has proven time and time again that he doesn’t want to deal with the minutia of city government,” said Brady.

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