A humble landmark of the northeast Bronx stood for years on the corner of Paulding Avenue and 217th Street. It was a single-family house with a large lawn and long paved walkway leading up to the front door. Although unassuming, it was symbolic of the stable, middle-class character of the surrounding neighborhood. The house was demolished about a year ago, and now a small apartment building has taken its place. Once equipped with all the extra trimmings a homebuyer wishes for – front and back yard, side-street parking, schools within walking distance – that house and open space are gone, and occupancy of that very same lot will triple.
Scenarios like this one have become a constant for residents of Eastchester, Williamsbridge, Baychester, Wakefield and Woodlawn, who are watching their neighborhoods change before their eyes. Just south of the Westchester County line, these areas are sprouting new residences so fast that the breathing space between one home and the next, which locals long took for granted, is already becoming a memory. Citywide, the number of building permits issued for new privately owned residential units increased by 67.5 percent from 2000 to 2004, and the Bronx accounted for nearly 20 percent of those permits, despite containing only 16.5 percent of the city’s population.
Now residents of Community Board 12 are putting concerns about increased demand for public services, schools, open space and affordable housing at the forefront of quality-of-life discussions.
“You have people who had sunlight and now have no sunlight, who had open space and now have no space,” said Carmen Rosa, district manager of CB 12. Rosa is calling for closer scrutiny of building plans before permits are issued by the city’s Department of Buildings. She also recommends quick action to save the existing land left in her district. In 2000, only 6 percent of the district’s land was vacant, not including park land.
Of all the development taking place throughout the city, the Bronx has the space for additional buildings, so it’s a hotspot for developers, said CB12 Land Use Committee Chairman Joe Williams. “Houses go up just as quick and just as fast as you turn around,” he said. Developers build there because they can.
“Everyone is trying to build on every piece of property there is,” Williams said. In fact, the number of requests for new home addresses across the whole borough rose by 97 percent from 2002 to 2005, according to Deputy Borough President Earl Brown. Brown cited the figure last month during a town hall meeting at Richard Green Middle School in the Williamsbridge section of CB 12. The meeting was headlined: “Are We Overbuilding in the Northeast Bronx? What is our Plan for the Future?” and drew dozens of concerned residents. It was sponsored by City Councilmember Larry Seabrook, who represents the neighborhoods of CB 12.
The number of housing units issued building permits increased by 35 percent between 2000 and 2003, according to the Department of City Planning. And the Department of Buildings’ Buildings Information System shows an estimated 170 building permits were issued in CB 12 in 2006 alone.
CB 12 finds itself in the midst of the tug-of-war that is meeting the city’s housing needs while maintaining the character of neighborhoods. The rules of the game are written in the city’s zoning code, but residents are angry because they feel the game is played unfairly. New buildings in this traditionally working-class section of the Bronx often don’t fit the character of surrounding structures, even though building plans may conform to zoning regulations. For example, on 217th Street between Bronxwood and Barnes Avenues, a five-story, 14-unit apartment building was recently built between a detached single-family home and an attached two-family home. The older adjoining homes’ side windows are blocked by the cement side walls of the new building. Add to that the abundance of parking in the past, compared to the insufficiency in the present, and oldtimers feel put out.
“There’s a lot of development taking place that people don’t understand,” said Williams, a 30-year veteran of the community board land use committee. Many residents don’t know that although buildings may not look like they belong, they are still “as-of-right,” meaning in line with zoning regulations for that district – like erecting a three-family house where a one-family home stood. The problem is “what to do with those [developers] who don’t have additional parking and build up too high,” he said. Building permits are issued, but it is no secret that some developers take advantage of the situation and deviate from building plans.
The northeast Bronx is an attractive location for developers “because people want three-family homes” and want to live in the area, according to Joe, an employee (who wouldn’t provide his last name) at 5 Star Development, one of the major developers building in the northeast Bronx.
Several areas have been rezoned recently or are working toward rezonings to get better control over new development. A year ago, the Olinville section was rezoned to address development that was out of scale with its low-rise, low-density character, parking availability and service capacity. In February, the Woodlawn section was rezoned to promote more construction of single and two-family detached homes. And an environmental review of the Wakefield section has been completed as a preliminary step to rezoning request and approval.
But locals still are frustrated. “I think [residents] are not educated to the law and see all this happening and just can’t believe this can happen,” Williams said. Predominantly African-American and Caribbean-American homeowners, residents also are seeing the neighborhood change as more Latinos and renters move in.
And they’re worried about affordability. The cost of purchasing the new three-family homes are often covered by renting them out. Rosa, the district manager, gave the example of someone selling his home for a decent price without having to repair it. A developer then tears that down, builds a three-family home and sells the units for about $600,000 each. “The current situation is not affordable housing for your average young couple starting out,” Rosa said. She said the new homeowner is forced to rent because he can’t afford to pay his mortgage at that rate. “People buy, sell and rent for various reasons, but the fact is it does impact the community at large,” Rosa said.
Ruby Moore, president of the East 222nd Street Block Association in Baychester, said she wonders what her neighborhood will look like in five or 10 years. When her husband bought their home in the mid-1950s, no one thought the Bronx would be experiencing the housing boom it is now.
Moore said the “overdevelopment” in her community is a problem because more residents means more schools are needed. No northeast Bronx public schools are currently over capacity or causing students to attend schools outside of the school district, said Department of Education spokesperson Andrew Jacob. However, the majority of northeast Bronx public schools were at 90 percent capacity or greater during the 2004-2005 school year, according to the 2004-2005 DOE annual school report card.
Two new schools in the northeast Bronx are in the planning and design phase: an intermediate school at 3710 Barnes Avenue and a primary/intermediate school at Steenwich Avenue and Reeds Mill Lane. Five other public schools are planned for the area. After all, the Bronx’s population is expected to reach 1.46 million in 2030 – a 9.8 percent increase over its 2000 population of 1.33 million, according to the Department of City Planning.