Rafael Salamanca

Adi Talwar

Council Land Use Committee Chairman Rafael Salamanca. His district has secured a lot of the kinds of infrastructure investments that come with a rezoning, without yet having to decide if it wants one.

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Outside City Hall on a cold December day, Bronx Councilmember Rafael Salamanca joined a December 4 rally to support legislation to require a racial impact study in the city’s  assessment of each land-use action’s impact. At the rally, Salamanca told the crowd that if this legislation did not pass the City Council, he would reject any proposed rezoning which could come from the city’s Southern Boulevard study. 

“I made it very clear to City Planning: If you cannot get this racial impact study done, this rezoning on Southern Boulevard is dead on arrival,” said Salamanca during the rally. 

It’s not the first time Salamanca, the City Council Land Use Committee Chair, has threatened to stop the rezoning process. His Bronx district, which is facing a dwindling supply of affordable housing, just completed a city study which could lead to a rezoning in and around the Southern Boulevard area. Meanwhile a city- and market-led development boom prevails in the South Bronx, in and near his territory.

At the onset of the study, Salamanca said his biggest concern was the possibility of development that displaces residents and small businesses, and he has pressed to know how the city would mitigate those concerns.

“I’m torn. I believe in responsible development. The last almost four years, I feel that our community has done more than his fair share with the amount of developments that we’ve approved but my concern is as we continue to look for individual projects, I want to ensure that my residents and my communities have access to these units and we’re not displacing families,” said Salamanca In a recent  interview with City Limits. “[However] it’s not every day that you get the city to come and do a study of your neighborhood and give you information on how to improve your community. And I want to take advantage of the information that they have.” 

Salamanca also says he wants an opportunity to expand the study to include NYCHA housing in his district and to downzone in some mid-blocks to prevent displacement, “They want to upzone on Southern Boulevard to larger buildings and we don’t have anything past 8 or 10 stories. I want to protect the character of this neighborhood.”  

According to a Department of City Planning spokesperson, DCP is working with other agencies on a planning framework that will assess and summarize the community engagement process from the last few years.

“We’ve heard from community members throughout what has already been a three-year long study process, to identify potential strategies for further collaborative planning conversations,” DCP’s Joe Marvilli wrote in an email statement to City Limits. “With the community, we will continue to work on developing a plan that’s more than just zoning, one that serves the neighborhoods of Southern Boulevard today, addresses long-standing challenges, and guides future investment that supports the preservation and creation of affordable housing and equity for all. “

“This planning framework may or may not lead to a city-initiated rezoning,” Marvilli added.

Local leverage

Under the Bloomberg administration, the South Bronx came into focus for development projects, from large-scale residential projects along the waterfront to renovations of the Hunts Points Greenway project aimed at creating pedestrian pathways and mitigating traffic. 

Almost five years ago, the de Blasio administration announced its housing plan to preserve and create 200,000 affordable housing units across the city through, among other tools, neighborhood rezonings. The goal has since expanded to 300,000 units. So far, East New York, Downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, Jerome Avenue, Bay Street and Inwood have been rezoned. Currently, Bushwick and Gowanus are face pending proposals.. Southern Boulevard is at an earlier stage of the process. While de Blasio initially said as many as 15 neighborhoods might be rezoned during his administration, no other proposals are known to be in the pipeline (although other types of rezonings, like the possible NoHo/SoHo rezoning, are under consideration).

That means Southern Boulevard could be the last neighborhood rezoning under de Blasio. It could also be the one with the most interesting politics.

Last October, Salamanca introduced legislation which would require developers to have 15 percent of housing units set aside for any new housing development projects instead of the five to 10 percent set aside under the Mandatory Inclusionary Housing program. Under a deal announced this week between the City Council and the de Blasio administration, the bill is due for a vote next week.

Salamanca has not waited for the bill to pass. He has in the past 18 months secured approval for eight development project deals including the 15 percent set aside. According to city records and Salamanca’s office, the eight projects are:

a seven-story mixed-use building at 784 Courtlandt Avenue in Melrose with three units for the homeless

• a nine-story mixed-use building at 740 Brook Avenue in Melrose with nine units for the homeless

• an 11-story residential building at 656 East 176th Street in East Tremont with 24 units for the homeless

• a five-story, 24-unit residential building at 451 East 159th Street in Melrose with six units for the homeless

• a four-story mixed-use building at 599 Courtlandt Avenue in Melrose with one unit for the homeless

• a large mixed-use building with 126 apartments at 111 Willow Avenue in Port Morris with 20 units for the homeless

• a 100 percent affordable housing development on 975 Tiffany Street in Longwood with 24 units for the homeless

• a ten-story, 100 percent affordable mixed-use building at 1490 Southern Boulevard in Crotona Park East with 34 units for the homeless.

Over his tenure, Salamanca says there have been more than 5,000 units of affordable housing created and another 2000 preserved in his district. “When we’re talking about a housing boom and the need for affordable housing, we’re doing what we need to do in the South Bronx,” he contends.

Salamanca’s office also points to a list of park projects — a new pedestrian bridge at Starlight Park, a $5 million dollar reconstruction project at Garrison Playground — and major infrastructure projects underway in the district. Salamanca says a $46 million dollar city project managed by the Department of Design and Construction includes more than 39,300 feet of sewer and water main upgrades for several streets in the area. Several street redesigns are underway. Meanwhile, the state’s transformation of the Sheridan Expressway from an underused expressway into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard (at an estimated price of $75 million) just wrapped up. A Bloomberg-era plan for a greenway along Food Center Drive came to fruition in 2016. And the area will get better service from Metro-North under a plan to build four new stations in the Bronx.

The point is that the normal dynamics of a neighborhood rezoning might not apply in Southern Boulevard. Normally, Councilmembers who express skepticism about the potential ill effects of new density agree to accept it in exchange for getting long overdue infrastructure improvements — including, occasionally, projects the city has already agreed to do — as well as affordable housing.

In the Southern Boulevard area, however, a lot of desired improvements are already underway. A lot of housing has already been built. City Hall’s leverage is lessened, 

Salamanca knows that his district still has unmet needs. But he believes he is in a position to weigh them carefully against the downsides of development. “There’s always a need, right? I’m not saying that there are no needs but what can be offered to my community’s that would not put [them] at risk of displacement.” 

Other voices

Salamanca is not the only one assessing the neighborhood’s needs, and advocating for them.

The DCP study is taking a deep look at 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.

DCP has been engaged in community workshops as part of the process for the Southern Boulevard study. 

As the planning process began, a Southern Boulevard Coalition was formed, made up of community and labor organizations and local residents including the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco), Local 79, Mothers on the Move, Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, Laundromat Project, Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Nos Quedamos, and The Point CDC. 

Some members of the Coalition along with local residents have attended and engaged in DCP workshops and also held their own community meetings to discuss what is important for their neighborhoods.

“We have been holding regular workshops on the [Southern Boulevard study] with community groups, tenant associations and residents,” said Gregory Jost, Director of Organizing for Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association. “We know what we want for our community and these workshops are a way to understand what is best for us.”

Jost said community workshop attendees are learning about the city’s land use policies, what types of zoning currently exists in the study area and discuss neighborhood issues ranging from better public transportation to housing affordability so they could demand a better community plan. 

The coalition is not totally opposed to the study and the possible rezoning process but has made demands that ask for a more community-led plan that places “local experience and knowledge at its core,” building on the existing framework while supporting equitable development and ownership. They want the community plan to include an independent assessment of direct and indirect displacement, workforce and economic development, protections and support for minority-owned small businesses, affordable housing reflective of the neighborhood’s income levels, investment in projects such as community land trusts, protections for industrial, auto and manufacturing spaces and the preservation of cultural spaces. 

Beyond the Coalition, other residents and community group view a possible rezoning with deep distrust. Members from Take Back the Bronx, whose members derailed the last DCP workshop in June, say they have been waiting to see what move elected officials and the city make for the future of Southern Boulevard. The group says they feel strongly that the city’s community engagement process around rezonings tends to set parameters for the discussion that limit the scope of community input. The discussion is about how a community would like to reach a goal rather than evaluating whether they want the goal in the first place.

Salamanca has been the target of some of their protests, too. “And I hear them loud and clear. We know what can lead to speculation and I share the concerns about outsiders coming in and moving into our communities and rents skyrocketing and families who have called the South Bronx their home for generations being displaced because they cannot afford this [neighborhood] anymore,” he said.