How to preserve existing community assets and affordability, tackle root causes of long-standing health and economic inequities and ensure the Bronx is thriving for families to grow and senior living—while leaving their neighborhood culture undisturbed—were the goals dozens of community members expressed on Saturday as they attended the latest Department of City Planning workshop ahead of the possible rezoning of the Southern Boulevard area.
“Right now, this is not affordable,” said Carlos Rosario, who has lived in the area his whole life and a construction worker. “Because prices are going up every year. If you are the sole income in your home, then this is expensive.”
Early in his term, Mayor de Blasio announced that up to 15 neighborhoods would be rezoned to increase density and with it the possibility for creating new affordable housing. Five rezonings have passed—East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue and Inwood—and one, in Flushing, was withdrawn.
Proposed rezonings in Bushwick and Gowanus in Brooklyn and Bay Street on Staten Island are expected to move into public review next year, and there has been discussion of possible rezonings in Long Island City and central Chinatown. Southern Boulevard was the 12th and last neighborhood named for a study; it is not known if the de Blasio administration intends to target other neighborhoods.
According to the Department of City Planning (DCP), there will be additional community outreach opportunities in the Southern Boulevard area during the winter that will go further on topics around housing, land use, parks and open space, among others.
After those workshops, there are plans for an open house in the spring focused on shaping draft strategies with outreach opportunities throughout the process for community input that will eventually shape the plan. Tentatively, DCP is aiming to release draft strategies in the second quarter of 2019. It is too early to say whether and when a formal rezoning proposal would enter the environmental review process or land-use review procedure.
The Southern Boulevard 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 workshop, facilitated by DCP and the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and sponsored by state Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, was held at Fannie Lou Hamer High School in the South Bronx separated workshop attendees into large groups. Each group represented a section of the study area. Attendees had to look at the maps and decide what programs and investments the area needed and where would they be applied on the section of the study area. As each group discussed their ideas and community needs, an urban planner listened while sketching on the map.
Activists from The Bronx Is Not For Sale, who oppose the study because it is likely to lead to a rezoning that they feel will displace low-income people, staffed a table outside of the workshop offering coffee. Activists said they did not trust the city and had already seen the damage done to other rezoned neighborhoods such as Inwood and Jerome Avenue.
Inside the event, some residents were wary of the possible rezoning driving up rent costs and driving out small businesses while others wanted to make sure they gave their input so their communities do not lose out on opportunities such as creating green space or fixing a dangerous intersection.
Rosario said he had recently had a baby girl and he also has a five-year old daughter. He has been looking for a two-bedroom apartment. But it’s not easy. “I make between $90,000 to $100,000 a year. That means after taxes I can’t pay more than my current rent of $1,400 a month in a one bedroom apartment. That will kill me.”
Rosario said he knew single men or women who were making less than $50,000 and wondered how they would survive, “People say that the city is doing a racist thing by changing our neighborhoods, but that’s not it. It’s not a color thing. It’s a wealth thing.”
In another group, the focus was on the center of the map and residents zeroed in on housing issues. DCP Deputy Director Shawn Brede said the last time the study area had seen a residential rezoning was in 1961 with the exception of Charlotte Gardens which was developed in the 1980s and has remained a R1 district (single-family detached homes set on large lots on green, low-density blocks). Outside of light industrial, manufacturing and commercial districts, most of the study area is zoned R7, which mostly is made up of medium-density apartment homes.
Bronx Community Board 3 member Carmen Rodriguez said that housing was a huge issue for her and her neighbors. She told the group last week she had seen a van stop by with several men who were handing out flyers that said “We Buy Houses for Cash.”
For Rodriguez, the second most intense concern is economic opportunities for youth within the borough: “Kids are not working in our neighborhoods. You are spending part of the wage on travelling to other boroughs.”
Others, like 71-year old retired Math teacher Francis D’Souza, realized after the event just how immediate housing concerns are for some of his neighbors.
“This was a good workshop. It started off a little negative because people had a fixed position. I knew that housing was a issue on a global scale but I didn’t realize until now was that how [my neighbors] were worried about losing their homes today,” he said. “I know I am going to die in my house and I cannot see myself living anywhere else.”
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