Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Norwood News, on the streets and online now.
|Construction has begun at 3600 Webster Ave. on a four-building
affordable housing complex. (Photo by Jeanmarie Evelly)
By JEANMARIE EVELLY
Change is coming to Webster Avenue.
The gritty, industrial stretch that runs through the neighborhoods of Norwood and Bedford Park was rezoned by the City Council this past March, with a plan designed to encourage more retail stores and residential housing in an area now largely composed of parking lots and auto body shops.
Though not necessarily a direct result of the city’s change—zoning plans are more like gentle hands that shape a neighborhood, and depending on market conditions, it can take years before any real changes are seen—new projects already underway or in the pipeline along Webster are a portent for what the street could look like down the road.
Two developers are eyeing the avenue as the site of separate affordable housing complexes. One is already underway, in a lot technically located in Community Board 12, along the south end of Woodlawn Cemetery and just north of Gun Hill Road. Jackson Development Group is constructing over 400 new apartments in four buildings, calling the massive development “Webster Commons,” and advertising the rentals for low and moderate-income tenants.
The project, subsidized by a number of city and state affordable housing programs as well as $839,000 in capital funding from Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., has drawn criticism from some community members.
“As the first projects on [a rezoned] Webster Avenue, I believe it’s a poor decision to put in so-called affordable, low-income housing,” said Andrew Laiosa, a member of Community Board 7 who openly describes himself as “anti-development.”
He voted against both Webster Commons and another affordable housing complex planned for Webster Avenue, just north of 204th Street. That project, pitched to the community board several months ago by housing development groups Azimuth and Sebco, would be on a much smaller scale – 60 apartment units, a portion of which would be set aside for formerly homeless families and a first floor that would be leased to a for-profit daycare company.
Laoisa said he would rather see a developer with private money come to Webster Avenue, rather than government-subsidized projects aimed to house low-income tenants, which he said “sets a bad precedent.”
“What we need to do is have a diversity of incomes in the Bronx,” he said. “We can’t just become a dumping ground for all poor people in New York City.”
The rezoning adopted for Webster Avenue this spring intentionally creates incentives for affordable housing, and a City Planning spokesperson compared it to a similar plan approved years ago in Morrisania—a South Bronx neighborhood that’s subsequently been transformed by a building boom over the last decade, where brand new, low-income housing complexes have sprung up like dandelions.
The city and the Bloomberg administration heralds this growth as “revitalizing” to communities; the Mayor has even set a goal of creating or preserving at least 165,000 units of affordable housing by 2014, part of his New Housing Marketplace Plan.
But some critics say policies like this don’t address fundamental housing problems, like skyrocketing city rents, and instead create an incentive for building and overdevelopment that doesn’t consider the bigger picture.
“It just doesn’t make sense to build that big in the Bronx,” said Kristin Hart, a Kingsbridge Heights resident who heads a local neighborhood association and is adamantly opposed to Jackson Development Group’s plan. “In my opinion, they’re building a giant city.”
She fears the massive complex might remain largely vacant, or eventually fall into foreclosure.
“Most people in the Bronx are not going to be able to afford or qualify for these apartments, so what are they trying to accomplish?” she said. “The developers honestly don’t care if it succeeds or if it fails. They just want to build.”
But Eli Weiss, Jackson’s finance director, said other projects in the Bronx that are similar to Webster Commons, like one on Decatur Avenue and another on St. Ann’s Terrace, have gotten “fantastic” responses from renters and have near-zero vacancy rates.
“The demand is really there,” he said. Rents at Webster Commons would start at around $859 a month for a studio apartment, he said.
Richard Gorman, who chairs Community Board 12 where the project is located, said he supports the plan and doesn’t understand where the opposition is coming from.
“It was something we welcomed. That’s an area of the district that’s empty, vacant land,” he said, adding that the location was plagued for years by people illegally dumping their garbage.
“They’re doing a complete redevelopment of Webster Avenue,” Gorman said, referring to the goals of the recent rezoning. “The best way to get shoppers [there] is to have people living nearby.”