Thursday night’s hearing on the Jerome Avenue rezoning started off quietly, but by 7:30 pm, about 200 people had packed the Bronx Community College auditorium and even more were streaming through the lobby, filling the hall with the orange T-shirts of Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) and the yellow T-shirts of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NBCCC), tacking paper banners to the pillars that proclaimed demands like “Good Jobs!” and “Real Community Engagement!” while chanting “Whose Bronx? Our Bronx!”
As part of the mayor’s affordable housing plan, the Department of City Planning (DCP) is seeking to rezone a 73-block stretch of Jerome Avenue to promote residential and commercial development. The rezoning is expected to result in an additional 3,250 new apartments for 9,520 residents, an increase of over 300,000 square feet of retail, grocery, office and restaurant space, and a decrease of about 300,000 square feet of auto, warehouse and garage space, though the city has also created four areas where the zoning will remain the same to protect existing auto businesses. The city’s broader plan also includes measures to improve employment opportunities, provide housing units for a variety of income levels, and support small businesses, among other measures.
In response to the city’s interest in the area, a wide coalition of housing, labor, and faith-based organizations formed the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision last year to put forth their own list of demands, and last spring they successfully pushed the administration for more discussion and to delay its release of the draft scope of work, a document that outlines the details of the rezoning proposal and describes how the city will analyze the project’s potential impacts in a forthcoming Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). That draft scope of work, finally released earlier this month, was the subject of Thursday’s hearing.
While DCP’s Michael Parkinson urged the audience to focus on zoning and environmental review—meaning other parts of the plan, like labor agreements, could be left for future discussions—the swelling crowd had other ideas about what ought to be discussed.
Members of the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision said they would declare “no” to the city’s plan unless the city guaranteed local hiring, the availability of state-approved apprenticeship programs, deep affordability through the adoption of new subsidy term sheets developed by the coalition, and better protections for the auto industry.
Members also repeatedly called for three anti-displacement measures: the establishment of an HPD task force focused on tracking displacement in rent stabilized buildings, the passage of City Council Intro. 214 to establish a right to counsel for all tenants in housing court, and provisions requiring landlords to obtain “certificates of no harassment” if they attempt to alter a building.
Members further demanded that the city’s EIS go beyond its usual purview to include studies of the cumulative effects of multiple recent and concurrent Bronx rezonings, of how the rezoning could effect cost of living and the destruction of social networks, and of the rezoning’s potential to exacerbate tenant harassment and incentivize demolitions.
Of course, the ultimate verdict on the plan is in the hands of Councilmember Vanessa Gibson, because the Council—which has the ultimate say on any rezoning—by custom follows the wishes of the member representing the area being rezoned.
In her testimony on Thursday, Gibson reminded the audience that “saying no” does not create affordable housing or better schools. Yet she also submitted a long list of requests, including that the city reach deeper levels of affordability by investing housing subsidy in the neighborhood, adopt new anti-displacement measures, address the existing overcrowding in schools, and make community health a priority, among other measures.
“This area is ripe for development but you know it can be ripe for us as long as we remain at the table,” she said.
Not everyone at the hearing demanded more housing for the lowest incomes or the preservation of the auto industry. At least two property owners expressed disappointment that the city had excluded their lots from an upzoning (one was greeted by a resounding boo). Homeowners called for more attention to quality of life issues, including parking availability and the impact of construction on the neighborhood. Most members of Community Board 4 and 5 asked for housing that targeted middle-income families and the elimination of all the auto zones to further neighborhood health and economic vitality.
“While we recognize the critical role these businesses play in supporting families … we are of the opinion that the strategy to preserve four select areas of these businesses to remain and expand does not support the board’s long-term vision to improve the quality of life in existing neighborhoods,” said Kathleen Saunders, chair of Community Board 4, adding that she hoped the city would instead devise a robust transition plan to ensure auto-workers can successfully relocate their firms elsewhere.
Board members and coalition members alike called for escalators and elevators for the 4 train aboveground subway line and measures to protect the area’s many rent-stabilized tenants.
Public comments on the draft scope can be filed until 5 p.m. on October 10 by writing to Environmental Assessment and Review Division, New York City Department of City Planning, 120 Broadway, 31st Floor, New York, New York 10271-3100, Robert Dobruskin, Director RDOBRUS@planning.nyc.gov. Once the EIS is released, the city can begin the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, the seven-month process through which a land use change becomes law.
City Limits’ coverage of housing and development is supported by the New York Community Trust and the Charles H. Revson Foundation.