protest rezoning Fannie Lou

Sadef Ali Kully

Protesters at last week's meeting about health, violence and a possible rezoning of Southern Boulevard.

The Department of City Planning says it will “continue to work to create a safe space” for discussion about a possible rezoning of Southern Boulevard in the Bronx after city officials ordered a community engagement workshop shut down last Thursday evening when protests erupted.

At the meeting at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School on Jennings Street, members of Take Back the Bronx sporting black “rezoning is violent” t-shirts, entered the workshop seemingly to participate, as they have at the last couple of City Planning events in the area. Instead, they began a protest against the workshop within the first 10 minutes.

One of the group’s leaders, Shelleyne Rodriguez, told other community members attending, “They are giving you candy with poison. Do not legitimize their process.”

It is not the first time Take Back the Bronx has protested against this rezoning and Rodriguez has made it clear that it won’t be the last. The group strongly feels the city’s community engagement process around rezonings tends to set parameters for the discussion that limit the scope of community input, such as how a community would like to reach a goal rather than ask if they want the goal in the first place.

Rodriguez said the rezoning was not this community, “We need three references, a background check and six months of rent to get an apartment. Does that seem right? Who are we kidding here?,” she asked the attendees sitting down. Take Back the Bronx does not trust local elected officials and the de Blasio administration to make the right choices for the South Bronx community. The group wants a complete moratorium on the rezoning until there are city policies in place that can address displacement, and create a more democratic and transparent Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP).

Some attendees did not like the protest and felt the city should have been allowed to conduct their workshop. Others from the community said they understood why the reasons behind the protests.

Retired public school math teacher and resident, Frances D’Souza said he sympathizes with the group but he wants his neighborhood to improve, so he felt participating in the workshops helped.

“I agree with them,” he said of the protesters. “However, they want everything to stay the same and I am not happy with that. If we participate we can be part of the change. And if the changes happen without us, we cannot complain.”

Others such as Mothers on the Move Executive Director Wanda Salaman, a local resident, said she was proud of the protesters. If the rezoning is not good for one group, then it is not good for anyone, she said: “They are right. This rezoning has to listen to the community first. The rezoning needs to slow down and hear out what is important to the people that have live here for decades.”

Another group, the Southern Boulevard Coalition, which is comprised of a dozen community-based organizations, also protested the rezoning but attended the workshop with the intention of participation. The Southern Boulevard Coalition has listed four demands: more transparency during the process, a collective decision making process which allows proposed plans to be rejected or changed, true engagement and benefits for the community.

The protesters’ “rezoning is violent” t-shirts were a reference to the theme of the night: a discussion of violence in the area as a public-health issue.

The Bronx Director of the Take Care New York program at the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Elizabeth Hamby, said she was disappointed that the workshop did not happen because it is crucial to hear the community’s concerns on violence, “We were going to root causes and we were not coming up with the solutions — it was the community.”

DCP Bronx Director Carol Samol said in an email statement to City Limits: “The community deserves a planning process that allows everyone to have a seat at the table and respect one another. Over the last three years, we have heard from people who live, work, study, and worship in the Southern Boulevard area and are committed to its future. Through these many, respectful and constructive conversations, violence emerged as an important public health issue, and DCP and DOH will continue to work to create a safe space to hear and address this and all community concerns.”

Rodriguez said the episode was a demonstration of the community’s distrust in the process. She said having a proverbial seat at the table did not work anymore for Bronx residents. “We have been operating on ‘better than nothing’ for a long time,” she said. “We are having a seat at the able of our own displacement.”

On Thursday night, it was unclear exactly who had ordered the meeting shut down.

According to the Department of Education, Samol approached school safety agents on the scene for assistance at the meeting. Shortly afterwards, a decision was made to adjourn the meeting, taking into account that there was another event taking place in the building at the time.

The DCP meeting was the last community engagement workshop for the season. The city planning agency expecting to schedule more workshops after the summer.

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 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.

If rezoned, Southern Boulevard would be one of the 15 neighborhoods selected to be rezoned to create and preserve affordable housing units as part of the mayor’s plan. So far, East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue and Inwood have been rezoned, and Bay Street on Staten Island is about to be. Possible rezonings of Bushwick and Gowanus are both under consideration.