The MTA will add four new Metro North stations to the East Bronx as part of its Penn Station Access Initiative. The Department of City Planning is researching the best ways to develop the surrounding neighborhoods, and garnering public feedback.
Amidst excitement for new local transit options, Bronx residents voiced concerns about parking, street safety and gentrification at two recent Department of City Planning Bronx Metro-North workshops.
As part of its Penn Station Access initiative, the MTA plans on creating four new, fully accessible Metro-North stations in Hunts Point, Parkchester/Van Nest, Morris Park and Co-Op City, all Bronx neighborhoods where public transit is limited and commute times to Midtown Manhattan, Westchester and Connecticut’s Fairfield County—areas to be served by the future train stops—can be lengthy. The whole project is expected to cost roughly $1.58 billion and be completed by 2025.
The city is using the new railway stations as catalysts for other plans to develop the surrounding communities. This could include adding new mixed-income housing, creating safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists, establishing more park space, championing new and old businesses, setting up a job pipeline and showcasing local art.
Since summer 2018, a number of city agencies and the MTA have been holding workshops and informational sessions to get feedback on how best to develop communities around the new Metro-North stations.
There are no final plans yet for what that development might specifically entail. Right now, DCP has only ideas: In Parkchester, these include new bus stops and bike lanes along East Tremont Avenue, improved lighting and wayfinding at the Bronxdale underpass and new housing and retail centers near the station.
A recent virtual workshop for the Parkchester/Van Nest station on East Tremont Avenue drew about 65 attendees last week, many of whom said they were excited about the prospect of a new station. Many were residents of the Parkchester North and South Condos, which are operated by Parkchester Preservation Management.
Jorge Hurtado, a Community Board 9 member from Soundview, said before the pandemic, his commute into Manhattan was a slog. “I’m working from home now, but reminiscing from when I had to take a bus to the train was dreadful,” he said.
Michael Kaess, another nearby resident, felt having the project revolve around new transit hubs is a great way to establish more housing in the area. He also prefers to ride his bike around the neighborhood and appreciates the city possibly adding more bike lanes as part of the project.
Monique Houston, who also attended the workshop, said her heart was initally pounding when she saw a graphic of a new housing development in the place of the Parkchester Management parking garage she uses, which is right across the street from the proposed terminal. But Fernando Ortiz-Baez with DCP said those graphics were just renderings of potential development to help spark conversation, and that no plans are set in stone. It still worried some attendees.
Also at the meeting was Pinnacle Group CEO Joel Wiener, who gained criticism over the past 20 years for buying up thousands of cheap apartment units across the city, renovating the buildings and passing the costs on to tenants. When tenants couldn’t keep up with the rising rents, they were served eviction notices. “I don’t want to call it gentrification. I want to call it meeting community needs,” Weiner said in a 2006 interview with the New York Times.
At the Bronx Metro-North workshop, Weiner said he owns the former Parkchester Crossing property down the street from the proposed railway station. Though empty now, the 1.62-acre lot used to house multiple businesses such as a salon, a Chinese restaurant and a martial arts studio. According to city property records, Wiener owns the vacant land through another firm called ZP Realty LLC.
He said he’s already been in talks with DCP on how best to develop the site. “I think we came out with a very interesting solution, and I think this will be a great asset to Parkchester and I’m excited about it,” he said about the plans for his property.
According to state Department of Environmental Conservation records, the lot was labeled a brownfield site and may have been contaminated by two laundromats, a bowling alley with an unregistered fuel storage tank and a gas station with multiple underground storage tanks. In 2020, the DEC certified cleanup requirements at the site were successfully met.
Sharon Pandolfo Pérez, who runs the Parkchester Project Instagram account, was not enthusiastic about the new train station and potential development it might spur. “The number one thing I’ve been receiving [from residents] is about gentrification and fear of rents going up and the parking,” she said, saying parking in the neighborhood is already difficult.
She says she would also like to see the city include street safety improvements along Westchester Avenue, which isn’t in the direct vicinity of the new Metro-North station but does connect with East Tremont Avenue, which the DCP identified as an area that needs street safety development. Pérez thinks it would be a missed opportunity to not extend those same improvements to Westchester Avenue.“That one street is a major concern because it’s the main artery toward the south of Parkchester, and it bridges the Union Port area, so it should be thought of.”
Pérez say she and her neighbors are mainly worried the new station will draw wealthier residents and cause a spike in rents for an area where people can’t afford one. The median household income for Bronx Community Board 9 is $36,000, and nearly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Almost half of residents are rent burdened, meaning they pay more than 35 percent of their income on housing. Many of her Parkchester neighbors are already experiencing issues like tenant harassment, Pérez said.
“A lot of what you would consider old school tactics by landlords to come and chase you out is actually coming into play for a lot of these people,” she said. Some are worried new development associated with the future train station could exacerbate such problems.
“When you look at the people who are currently here and the people they’re hoping to bring in, there’s a fear of the Tale of Two Cities,” Pérez said.
Preserving the existing housing stock while increasing it is one of the DCP’s objectives outlined in its report on the Parkchester/Van Nest area. The city has said it will implement mandatory inclusionary housing so that new developments must include a portion of permanently affordable units. DCP says it also plans to build partnerships with local housing advocacy organizations and host resource fairs where residents can learn about tenant rights and legal services.
“We’re planning with Bronxites to find solutions to pressing concerns, especially around affordable housing. One of our main objectives is to preserve existing housing and find opportunities for new housing at a range of incomes, and we’re committed to working with the community to advance these goals,” DCP Deputy Press Secretary Joe Marvilli said in an emailed statement. “It’s by creating new homes, including affordable homes, that we help New Yorkers stay put–while also bringing much-needed investments, including improved public transit, to them.”
Some are also pushing for the MTA lower fares for Bronx residents and other city riders who use Metro-North to travel within the five boroughs, citing the steep cost of the transit agency’s commuter rail service compared to its subways and buses. A current off-peak ride from the Morris Heights station in the Bronx to Grand Central Terminal, for example, costs $7.25 on Metro-North compared to a $2.75 subway ride. Bronx residents who live near that station previously told City Limits that the expense kept them from using it for their regular commutes, despite it being a quicker and closer option for many.
The DCP held a similar workshop Wednesday for the proposed Morris Park MetroNorth terminal. Only about 30 people attended. Among them was Rick Chandler, who works in strategic development for the Montefiore Health System. He said the new train stations will be a great way to connect hospitals, research facilities and medical schools up and down the Metro-North line.
“Knowing that there’s an incredible amount of research happening at the Alexandria Center, Columbia Presbyterian and Mount Sinai and others—our scientists do interact with those folks,” he said. “There’s the expectation that the physical ability to just be within minutes of transportation, that it’s going to facilitate the possibility of more people moving between facilities or at least collaborating in research.”
Morris Park resident Augustin Delgado said his job is in Stamford, Connecticut. “I drive there, but for the most part, I’m working from home,” he said. “In any event, the ability to utilize public transportation for that is definitely a great option.”
Matt Caulfield said he hopes any commercial development around the new station is focused on mom and pop shops rather than corporate stores and outlets.
“My concern is that when I look around the Bronx and developments that are coming through at this scale all at once, it’s a lot of big-box, fast food, attractive businesses that are mostly transitory workers, and it doesn’t really foster a sense of community when you go in there,” he said.
No future dates are set, but DCP is expected to have more workshops and conversations with community members in regard to development around the new stations. The MTA published its environmental assessment for the four proposed Bronx terminals in May, and is accepting public comment on the plan until Saturday.