City’s Mill Pond Park housing plan is on to borough prez

Protesters

Community Board 4 votes ‘yes’ to housing on Pier 5

Bronx Community Board 4 last week narrowly voted to approve the city’s plan to build housing on a disputed 5-acre parcel known as Pier 5, adjacent to Mill Pond Park. South Bronx residents and advocates who fervently oppose the plan, however, say the board’s vote does not reflect the will of the community. They vow to keep pushing the city to scuttle the housing plan and extend the park instead, noting that the Bloomberg administration promised residents it would turn the city-owned parcel into a riverfront park as part of the Yankee Stadium deal a decade ago.

In the first phase of the proposal’s Uniform Land Use Review Process (ULURP) at a May 22 meeting at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Board 4 members voted 19-12 for the housing proposal. However, they added stipulations calling for better transportation and more schools to ease a potential influx of thousands of new renters at the East 149th Street site, to contend with constant traffic and overcrowded classrooms . In addition, they called for the 153rd Street bridge to be rebuilt. 

Some two dozen opponents stood at the back of the room, holding up signs to persuade the board to vote the proposal down, to no avail.

In urging the board to vote “yes”, the New York City Economic Development Corp.‘s Assistant Vice President for Resiliency, Elijah Hutchinson, said the EDC understands the community’s needs after meetings it organized with the board and local groups. (Editor’s note: Representatives from EDC and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s office insisted this reporter/editor leave a March 29 meeting with community groups at Hostos Community College to discuss the city’s plans to develop the Lower Concourse and Mill Pond Park, on the grounds the presence of press would be “inappropriate.”)

“What you’re doing today is voting for a plan that has multiple objectives,” said Hutchinson. The EDC “heard a lot about the need for community space,” jobs, schools and housing that residents can afford, he said. “We want to maximize affordability,” at “one of the few sites where we can do affordable housing.”

The board was skeptical. A member of its Housing and Land Use committee, Jackson Strong, said that “this land was indeed pledged as parkland.” The part of of Mill Pond that is already a park, he said, “is (already) very heavily utilized.”

Strong, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Carmen Arroyo in a 2016 Assembly race, said that the city “may see this parcel as low-hanging fruit,” but that instead of “doling out massive subsidies to developers,” it should use taxpayer money to build schools and hospitals. He called the Yankee Stadium deal 11 years ago, “a national symbol of horrific public policy.”

Other board members similarly complained about the shortage of schools and health care, but the EDC’s Hutchinson tried to reassure them that “We’re interested in continuing to have those conversations.”

EDC’s Assistant Vice President Kate Van Tassel urged the board to decide quickly, to abide by Mayor de Blasio’s call to build and restore 200,000 affordable apartments.

“We’re legally allowed to move forward with this rezoning,” she said, calling the plan “a great opportunity to get the open space” the South Bronx needs. Under EDC’s proposal, a 2.5 acre part of the parcel would remain open space, though activists say that would fall far short of a new riverfront park.

Board 4’s parks committee chair, John Howard Algarin, said the EDC was “forcing this vote down our throat. It begins to smell like the new money is coming in here.” Still, he said, “I’d like to see that parcel developed.”

Some advocates said that Community Board 4’s vote on the park is tainted. Geoffrey Croft, president of the NYC Parks Advocates group, said that when then-Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión dismissed all Board 4 members who had opposed the city’s plan to knock down the old Yankee Stadium in 2006 and build a new one, he silenced local opposition to city government’s will.

“This community board does not have the institutional knowledge to know what went on during the Yankee debacle,” said Croft after the meeting.

Constructing apartments on the Mill Pond Park parcel, Croft added, is ill-advised. “Water gushes out from the Major Deegan when it rains. It’s not a good site for housing.” There are “lots of alternative sites,” where the city could build instead, he said, calling the decision to build on flood-prone, prospective parkland, “poor planning and laziness.”

Mychal Johnson, co-founder of the South Bronx Unite grassroots environmental organization, said that he frequently takes biking groups to Mill Pond Park in summer, when t”the park is so crowded you don’t have two square feet to get inside.”

Some have suggested the city should instead take over parking lots that were built for the new stadium, and whose city-subsidized owners have since defaulted, to build housing on that land. When a Board 4 member pointed that out, the EDC’s Hutchinson responded that “We understand that is frustrating,” but “the parking lots are tied up in a lot of legal messes.”

Ed Figueroa, president of grassroots group South Bronx Community Congress, was disappointed by the vote.

“We see no change in how the city sees this part of the Bronx,” said Figueroa. “The heavy hand of the political system moved these people to vote for it. The Yankees can come to any of these meetings—-BOOM, they get what they want.”

“We’re not against new housing, but if you’re going to bring in new housing, it should be for the people who live here,” he added.

Ana Melendez of housing advocacy group Nos Quedamos agreed that the initial idea to build for renters with income ranges between 30 and 130 percent of the Area Median Income leaves most local residents out.

“Here, people live on fixed incomes,” said Melendez. Renters would have to earn a minimum of $23,000 annually to be eligible, whereas many of those Nos Quedamos serves earn as little as $10,000 per year. “If it were housing that meets the needs of the community, it would make sense.”

Before the meeting ended—-and long after the EDC representatives had left—-longtime Highbridge resident Rev. Jim Fairbanks and former chief of staff to Councilwoman Helen Foster, asked the board to “do its homework.” At a press conference Fairbanks said he attended 12 years ago, the former CEO of realty group Related Companies, Steven Ross, agreed to pay millions to create parkland on the Mill Pond site as part of the Yankee Stadium deal, from which his company had benefited.

“So my question is—why wasn’t this done, after all these years?” said Fairbanks. “How can we talk about another ULURP?”

Next up, the city’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC) will present the plan to Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. at the BP’s office at 851 Grand Concourse on Thursday, June 1 at 11 a.m.