Jeff Reed

Councilmember Rafael Salamanca

The chair of the City Council’s Land Use Committee said this week that a rezoning slated for his district would be “dead on arrival” if the de Blasio administration did not provide estimates of how many residents and businesses might be displaced.

“My biggest concern has always been the displacement of community,” said Rafael Salamanca, who represents the area covered by the Department of City Planning’s Southern Boulevard Neighborhood study. “But they have yet to give me that information.”

He warned the city that without that information, “the Southern Boulevard [rezoning] will be dead on arrival in City Hall.”

Salamanca made the remarks during a press conference Wednesday with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams on legislation requiring the city to study the racial impact of land-use moves. Salamanca is a co-sponsor of the measure.

The remarks came a day after the administration held the one of the last in a series of workshops for community members to discuss issues they want the Southern Boulevard rezoning to address–or are concerned it will cause. A draft neighborhood plan is expected this fall.

The city typically produces estimates of residential displacement during the environmental review process, which comes after a draft plan has been produced. Advocates have faulted the methodology behind those estimates, saying they understate the risk.

It was unclear whether Salamanca was concerned about a lack of transparency about displacement data or about displacement risk itself–in other words, whether he would consider opposing the rezoning if he receives the displacement data and it points to some unacceptable level of risk.

The Southern Boulevard Neighborhood Study is one of several neighborhood rezoning efforts launched as part of city’s affordable housing program, which aims to use increased residential density to create and/or preserve affordable housing. So far, five neighborhoods (East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue and Inwood) have seen rezonings and at least four more, including Southern Boulevard, are on track to see their own.

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.

The plan to study the Southern Boulevard area for a rezoning emerged 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.

Salamanca said the city has shared a map of vacant private and publicly owned vacant lots with his office. The map identifies over 50 private and public vacant lots across Longwood and Hunts Point.

His office said city officials plan to work with private landowners to develop their vacant lots and, where land is city-owned, go through a Urban Development Action Area Project (UDAAP) process.The City Council must pass and designate the area a UDAAP project, which can get up to a 20-year exemption from real estate taxes on the assessed value of the building.

Tuesday’s workshop in the neighborhood focused on food equity. Residents and stakeholders raised concerns about a lack of healthy food options for healthier at a convenient distance and some wondered if the changes that come with the rezoning could mitigate food disparities in the neighborhood.

The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene partnered with the Department of City Planning on the event, and DOHMH’s Elizabeth Hamby, director of Take Care New York, said this was an important workshop for many Bronx residents who want this neighborhood to continue improving for younger generations. “Our last workshop will be the first time we are going to be discussing violence as a public health issue,” she told the crowd.

Other public health issues are also present. According to a DOHMH assessment of the Longwood and Hunts Point areas, the adult obesity rate is 42 percent–almost double compared to the rest of the city. Twenty percent of Hunts Point and Longwood adults have been diagnosed with diabetes and 38 percent of adults have been told they have hypertension — both are almost twice as high as the the rates for the rest of the city. The area has seen the most child asthma-related emergency room visits in the city, 432 in 2015 (the most recent year available), and suffers the most harmful levels of air pollutants, with fine particulate matter reaching 8.5 micrograms per cubic meter.

In addition to the complex set of health factors in the area, grocery shoppers have to choose from 20 bodegas for every one supermarket in Hunts Point and Longwood.

“Food is expensive and it is expensive to acquire and even worst, they cannot expect any quality here,” said Sheryl Durrant, an urban farmer who works with refugees told her workshop group.

The president of the NYC Coalition for Community Gardens, Ray Figueroa-Reyes, said food was a huge issue and interconnected with other issues. Figueroa-Reyes said if children did not eat well at home then they would come to school and be aggressive because of hunger. Some behavior connected to hunger could lead to suspension, and the child missing out on crucial learning time. He said the cycle needed to stop.

The workshops are part of the city’s community engagement effort to understand housing, parks and open space, traffic, transportation, education, job and training opportunities along with other aspects of the Bronx neighborhood.

But some community groups said the the workshops felt “set-up” and did not address the root of existing conditions in the Bronx. “The idea is to hear what the community is saying and bring changes according to that. But I feel this is separated into [informational] silos and some of the questions can be leading,” said Eliot Liu, a Longwood resident and member of Take Back the Bronx, which opposes a rezoning. Liu says the administration tends to set parameters for the discussion that limit the scope of community input: residents are asked to talk about how they’d like a goal pursued, rather than whether they endorse the goal in the first place.

However, members from Take Back the Bronx said the city was only interested in investing in the area because of a rezoning and not because Bronx residents needed the city’s capital investments to improve their community. The group said despite its input in the workshops they knew the city would go along with the rezoning no matter what the outcome.

“They are gonna ‘Park Slope’ the whole area,” said Shellyne Rodriguez. “We don’t even have the right to refusal here. And that is what we are asking. If this does not work for us, can we say no?”

One person who could say no is Salamanca. All rezonings go through the city’s ULURP process, with advisory opinions by the community board and borough president and binding votes by the planning commission and Council. Not only does Salamanca wield some power as land-use chair, but under Council custom, members tend to vote on rezonings in concert with the member from the district affected by the proposal.

Almost always, members end up voting yes, but they can leverage concessions by threatening a negative vote. Salamanca has many months to decide what are his asks and, possibly, his red lines.