Advocates mourn loss of promised parkland

Activist Chauncy Young points to a map at Mill Pond Park that shows that the city once intended to expand the park rather than develop on it. Photo: Annie Nova

Community Board 4 weighs city’s plan to build housing on waterfront site near Melrose

South Bronx residents and environmental advocates say the city is breaking a promise it made to them years ago to create parkland with public access on a five-acre site along the Harlem River waterfront, but now says it will build housing on the site instead.

At a public hearing at the Bronx Museum of the Arts on Apr. 25, officials from the city’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC) asked Community Board 4 to grant a preliminary thumbs-up in the lengthy land use review process, ULURP, saying they want to build up to 1,045 units of mixed-income housing on the vacant lot at the southern edge of Mill Pond Park north from 149th Street. In addition, commercial and entertainment facilities would be built and jobs and some open space added, the officials said.

The parks department owns the lot but plans to transfer it to the EDC to facilitate development. The community board’s vote on the plan is advisory only and is just the first step in a long process. Their vote, which will take place at Board 4’s May meeting, will be followed by votes by the borough president, the City Planning Commission, the City Council and the mayor.

More than a decade ago, public outcry was ferocious when the city gave developers South Bronx land that included more than 20 acres of parkland that were destroyed to build the new Yankee Stadium and surrounding parking lots. The city capitulated to residents’ demands for compensation, agreeing to create new parks, including Mill Pond Park, which was to extend north-south along the Harlem River at Melrose’s western edge.

But although the city opened the park in 2009, it never fulfilled its initial promise to expand it for canoeing and other river recreation. City officials argue that there was no money to finish the project.

But few attendees at the April 25 meeting saw eye-to-eye with the city’s present plan to build housing there. Speaker after speaker stepped to the mic to instead stress concerns about the fate of the waterfront, the wetlands, and lost recreational opportunities for residents.

“New buildings are blooming all over the Bronx, but I don’t see new parks blooming,” said Killian Jordan, 70, who lives on the Grand Concourse.

A member of the grassroots Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, I.C. Levenberg-Engel, urged Board 4 to vote down the city’s proposal on the grounds it amounted to another handover of land designated for public use to developers for private gain.

“You members of Community Board 4 are here to decide on an issue with extensive influence on the Bronx’s future,” he read aloud from a prepared speech.

Activists handed out copies of a 2006 map that showed the city’s original plans for the park, with the parcel demarcated “Future Park Expansion” past the park’s southern end in a segment called Pier 5.

“The city said there was no money to extend Mill Pond Park through Pier 5, but that when the money became available, that’s what would happen,” said Anita Antonetty, a Bronx Council for Environmental Quality member.

After the meeting, an Economic Development Corp. official contended that the city is not going back on its word or violating any agreements.

“We did dig through a lot of legal documentation before we even started,” said the EDC’s vice president Kate Van Tassel after the meeting. “There is a lot of history about Yankee Stadium, about the tradeoffs for parkland. If this site had been included in that tradeoff, then we couldn’t do this. But we looked, and it wasn’t.”

Van Tassel added that the two or three acres of open space that may be included in the initial development plans is probably more recreational space than residents would otherwise ever get on the abandoned parcel. Although the agency sympathizes with Bronxites’ need for parkland, she said, its mission is to consider the bigger picture. Nowadays, she said, the urgent need for housing for New Yorkers trumps all other needs.

“In this administration, affordable housing is that bigger picture,” she said.

On a rainy April morning, longtime open-space advocate and Highbridge resident Chauncy Young  walked around the periphery of the empty lot and said it was frustrating to watch another instance of the city taking recreational space away from the South Bronx. He pointed to a parks department sign posted on a fence around the lot, with a sign on it that reads “Mill Pond Park.”

“These signs went up all around when they were building Mill Pond Park,” Young said. “This is a resource.”

“We need more activities for our children,” he continued, recalling that the city’s original proposal included a kayak launch, a skate park and a recreational facility. He added that any “open space” the city includes in the plan will fall well short of the recreational opportunities a park would provide.

The director of a prominent nonprofit organization dedicated to land preservation agreed, saying he was skeptical the public will reap significant benefits from any deal for public space struck between the city and developers. Andrew Stone, New York City Director of The Trust for Public Land, said that any developer who is eventually granted permission to build on the site is unlikely to provide more than an obligatory token of public access.

“Yeah, sure, there will have to be some open space provided, but it can be a fairly narrow strip,” said Stone. “And without room for activities.”

The story previously referred to the location in question as being on the vacant lot at the northern edge of Mill Pond Park north from 155th Street. It has been corrected to say that the lot is at the southern edge of the park north from 149th Street.