Sadef Ali Kully

City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr. The possible rezoning would fall in his district, and come before his Land Use Committee in the Council.

After more than a year of studying the neighborhood in and around Southern Boulevard in the Bronx, the de Blasio administration has been holding workshops with residents as it shapes the framework for a rezoning expected to be proposed late next year.

The Southern Boulevard Neighborhood Study is one of several neighborhood rezoning studies launched as part of city’s affordable housing program, which aims to use increased residential density to create new affordable housing. Five (East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome and Inwood) have resulted in rezonings.

The study area encompasses the Crotona Park East and Longwood neighborhoods and covers Southern Boulevard between the Cross Bronx Expressway and East 163rd Street including the Bronx River and Crotona Park. According to the Department of City Planning (DCP), the study covers more than 130 blocks and hosts 60,000 residents and 17,000 existing residential units. Most of the residential buildings are one- or two-family homes, multi-family walk-ups and multi-family elevator buildings.

In the 1960s, the area deteriorated after the city, under planner Robert Moses, demolished thousands of tenements to construct the Cross Bronx and the Sheridan Expressways. Between 1970 and 1980, it was also one of the communities worst hit by the Bronx arson crisis when 15,000 housing units were lost to fire in Crotona Park East.

The plan to study the Southern Boulevard area for a rezoning came to fruition after New York State decided to convert the Sheridan Expressway from an underused expressway into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard after decades of advocacy from local groups. The construction of the future boulevard is underway and will cost an estimated $75 million. According to the state’s Department of Transportation, the pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly boulevard will feature new, at-grade signalized crossings, a new two-way bikeway along Edgewater Road and a new pedestrian bridge connecting to Starlight Park and continuous access to the Bronx River Greenway. The project is estimated for completed in 2019. (The renderings for the project can be seen here.)

The workshops come after the DCP revealed results from a community survey which showed that the primary concern, from 973 individual comments since November 2016, expressed by 23 percent of respondents, was streets and transportation. Fourteen percent said it was retail and business; 13 percent, housing; 12 percent, parks and open space; 10 percent, community and diversity; 8 percent each for security and for health, and 7 percent for youth programs, according to the survey.

The first workshop, facilitated by DCP AND HPD, had over two-dozen residents gathered inside the auditorium at Casita Maria on Simpson Street. A diverse group of residents were split into small groups and worked around shared values and community issues such as affordability, lack of connection to the park, safety, lack of opportunity and health inequities. Each group came up with solutions to address their community needs such as internship opportunities for students, open space and quality housing. Other attendees included elected officials City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca Jr. and State Assemblymember Marco Crespo.

“We [wanted to protect] tenants from landlord harassment, provide better service to tenants for housing quality issues and make sure existing affordable housing stays affordable. We did a lot in housing for existing community assets,” said Frances D’Souza, a 75-year-old resident and retired math teacher who has lived in the community for over 40 years, discussing how his group would address some of the community issues. “We focused on root causes—applying affordable housing and making energy-efficient housing with solar energy, bringing supportive housing for those who need it. [For] health inequities, housing played a big role because if people need to grow and thrive—they need a house for this purpose and providing healthy food.”

D’Souza said his group came up with ideas for youth job opportunities such as internships and a path to private and public job opportunities.

“Lastly, we wanted to make sure this was a place where people could age. We have some older residents who need tenant protection, better services. Older people do not want to move so existing housing needs to be improved so that they can stay there and continue to live,” D’Souza said. “Park and public places need to be maintained. Seniors still have a life and they need mobility.”

The running theme for the all groups came down to affordable housing and quality of life, health, senior living and opportunities for the young residents in their community.

Salamanca said being a part of the planning process for the community was an important learning experience and this was an opportunity for the community to look at vacant lands. He shared one vision of his own: “On the block where my office is on Southern Boulevard, there is a big parking lot for NYPD,” he said. “I want to take it from NYPD. I want to create a youth center. My vision is to have a swimming pool there and on top of that build senior housing. That is what I would like to see happen.”

The next public workshop is scheduled to be held on October 20th. After this workshop, a series of topic-focused public meetings will be held during the winter into next year.

According to DCP, the city agency expects to have public meetings about draft strategies and recommendations as soon as next summer.

In its literature about the Southern Boulevard effort, the city says it intends to follow through on several earlier planning initiatives. These include the 197a local master plan that Community Board 3 drafted in 1993 (which focuses on affordable housing and accessible greenway along the Bronx River waterfront), and a Parks Department plan to improve Crotona Park, as well as a city plan for the Sheridan.

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