Jobs May Need to Move to Create New Bronx Neighborhood

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The city promises a 'holistic' approach to rezoning a corridor along Jerome Avenue.

Adi Talwar

The city promises a ‘holistic’ approach to rezoning a corridor along Jerome Avenue.

A 73-block commercial stretch spanning Jerome Avenue in the Bronx may get a facelift from the city as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Housing New York Plan to create or preserve 200,000 affordable units in 10 years.

The newly christened “Cromwell-Jerome” could transition to residential zoning following a Department of City Planning study. Currently, the Jerome Avenue corridor is predominantly zoned for industrial and low-scale commercial use and includes an abundance of parking facilities and auto-related businesses. After the rezoning of Willets Point in Queens, the area remains one of the city’s last existing auto service districts.

Some community members hope the new administration’s ground-up strategy will attract new socioeconomic development and thus, revitalize the area. There are worries, though, about the businesses and workers that might be displaced by the change.

City promises a ‘holistic’ approach

Given the low vacancy rates in the Bronx and the citywide rent crisis, the study will investigate development opportunities in addition to housing needs as part of a “holistic” approach, said Paul Phillips from the Department of City Planning at a recent Community Board 5 meeting.

“We have to not only look at changing zoning and land use but also look at the other things that make a neighborhood complete,” says Phillips, adding issues such as schools, transportation and pedestrian safety will also be reviewed.

Encompassing Jerome Avenue from East 184th Street in the north to McClellan Street/East 167th Street in the south, the area is “transit rich,” according to Phillips, as it runs adjacent to the Cross Bronx Expressway and provides easy access to the elevated 4 train, B/D lines and Metro North.

The initial Cromwell-Jerome Planning Group met on Sept. 30, uniting community stakeholders, city planning officials and local elected representatives.

Such a vision for the community is exciting, even in its infancy, says Xavier Rodriguez, who was “pleasantly pleased” with the meeting’s turnout and brainstorming session.

Community Board 5 has wanted such development since 2003, says Rodriguez, district manager for the area.

Where will the jobs go?

But rezoning might be controversial.

“There are still people that are working there,” says Rodriguez, adding that the community needs to address businesses’ needs and dilemmas such as, “Are these the kind of jobs we need to protect?”

Miguel Jimenez was surprised to hear about the proposed rezoning along Jerome Avenue. But he compared the news to the redevelopment of similar industrial areas in Queens, where existing businesses have been pushed out.

“I know they did it at Shea Stadium.” says Jimenez, referring to the Willets Point project. “They took everybody out.”

Jimenez works at El Mundo Auto Repair Corp. along Jerome Avenue at 177th Street and lives a few blocks away on Popham Avenue. He wanted a change from driving taxis and joined his cousin, Manuel, at the garage in 2011.

There’s a lot of competition among auto-repair shops on the corridor, but it’s good for business, according to Jimenez. Outsiders from Westchester and New Jersey recognize the district for its service—and better pricing.

Some businesses “think the street belong to them,” says Jimenez. Vehicles are often double-parked on the street or even across pedestrian sidewalks, posing a problem for law enforcement and residents.

But even though he works on Jerome Avenue, he understands families wanting a change.

His two children, 8 and 13, spend weekends with him, and the family opts to leave the neighborhood for activities in Harlem, such as the movies. Rezoning would better serve families and safety, says Jimenez, but re-locating the industrial shops would also affect other local businesses that depend on the workers.

“That’s why there’s going to be a confrontation. You take the businesses away, a lot of these restaurants they sell food, they sell stuff because a lot of people work around here,” he says.

Plus, there’s an issue of re-location.

“We gotta go somewhere else. It’s like starting all the way from the beginning,” says Jimenez. “I don’t know if there would be any other place to go.”

The G word

Some auto shops will likely remain, but the goal is to create a balance between housing and new economic development, says José Rodriguez, district manager of Community Board 4.

“What we currently have is not working,” says Rodriguez. “We have an opportunity to create a ‘new neighborhood.’ It’s really not gentrification. I’m talking about individuals like myself to have an opportunity to live in the neighborhood.”

To attract middle-income dwellers, Cromwell-Jerome needs more recreational areas for youth, “mom and pop” shops and young entrepreneurial start-ups such as bakeries, says Rodriguez.

“I’d like to see a business atmosphere where one can feel comfortable bringing their family to a sit-down restaurant,” Rodriguez added. “Not the Kennedy Fried Chicken, not the McDonalds, not a liquor store on every corner. I want to see a real nice neighborhood with folks walking up and down, without having to move because there are 50 cars on the sidewalk.”

The Department of City Planning intends to take a look at infrastructure and open spaces, which Rodriguez says could be “spruced up.”

“The D line is quite scary and quite dark, and I’d like to see the Grand Concourse beautified,” he says.

In addition, Jennie Jerome Playground, which has close proximity to a dangerous intersection, could benefit residents if the city addressed traffic regulation and the addition of kiddie amenities, such as sprinklers.

Some see potential

“I always said that there could be more done with this neighborhood—to blow it up,” says David Modesto, 22, who still lives in the apartment he grew up in.

He also works in the Cromwell-Jerome area, though most of his friends didn’t come back to the Bronx after graduation due to a lack of job opportunities.

When they do visit, there aren’t places to go out so they head to the Lower East Side.

Across generational lines, there’s a similar want.

“I don’t do nothing in the Bronx. I just live here,” says Kathryn Speller, who’s in her eighties and travels to Harlem with girlfriends for fun.

“If they’re going to build tall buildings,” she says, “I’d like to see better forms of eateries that cater and welcomes people of all nationalities.

“I’d like to see some more shops and boutiques,” Speller added, as there used to be stores along the 176th street mall.

Concerns about process

But on one request, she’s adamant.

“Step by step, the community should be involved,” says Speller, who once served as the assistant district manager of CB 5. “Sometimes when you can get the involvement of the community, politicians will pay attention.”

The Department of City Planning is working with the Cromwell-Jerome Planning Group to facilitate community outreach, which will include visioning sessions, surveys, small group discussions, and focus groups, says Carol Samol, the Bronx director of the Department of City Planning.

“We’ve purposely had a very broad discussion about all the things we know will go into the plan,” says Samol.

Draft recommendations from the Cromwell-Jerome neighborhood study should be completed in six to nine months, according to the department. The city’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) would follow, at which time zoning and land use plans would be publicly reviewed and considered by the city council.

“We’re at the start of the process,” Samol adds. “We would encourage folks to get involved.”

The Department of City Planning has scheduled a public walking tour of the area on October 25th. More details, including meet up locations, can be found on their website.