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A Tale of Two Bronxes: De Blasio Gives Gentrification a Progressive Spin

Aaron Miguel Cantú Apr 10

Starting in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, Jerome Avenue quickly becomes one of the Bronx’s central arteries as it winds five and a half miles to the north. Originally laid out in the 1870s by Leonard Jerome, a Gilded Age financier and stock speculator who wanted to make it easier for horseracing fans to beat a path to his new racetrack, today Jerome Avenue is receiving increased interest from city planners and a new generation of speculators. However, they’re placing their bets not on the horses but on the rezoning of a 73-square-block swath of real estate, which could usher in sweeping changes for the 345,000 largely immigrant and working-class residents who live within a half-mile radius of the area under study.

The Jerome Avenue corridor, as the Department of City Planning (DCP) calls the area it wants to rezone, begins at 167th Street — just south of where the 4 train starts to run overhead on elevated tracks — and continues north to 184th Street, encompassing adjacent side streets. This stretch of Jerome Avenue is lined with auto repair shops on both sides and has a total of more than 500 mostly small businesses that employ almost 4,000 workers, according to the Department of City Planning. Many of the shops have a worn look to them, but within the pockets of neighborhoods surrounding Jerome, you can hear the Spanish-accented sounds of community when subway cars are not rumbling above.

That could soon change, as the de Blasio administration looks to redevelop Jerome Avenue with the stated goals of creating affordable housing for “a range of incomes” as well as stimulating economic development in a community where the median income is barely $25,000 per year. The idea is to build high-density residential buildings with as much as 70-80 percent of units renting at market rate, with the remainder set aside for “affordable housing” based on formulas that generally privilege people making $50,000 to $80,000 per year. The city’s plan, buried in hundreds of pages detailing its vision for the Bronx, is to make over the neighborhood to be more enticing to middle- and upper-middle-class professionals who would utilize the 4 train to reach Grand Central Terminal within half an hour, and lower Manhattan within 45 minutes.

With gentrification and displacement the modus operandi across the five boroughs, there is, not surprisingly, a fair amount of skepticism among area residents about the city’s intentions along Jerome Avenue.

“They [the city] haven’t explained what the project is nor what will happen to us,” said Ramona Uribe, who owns a small business near the corner of 169th and Jerome. “If it’s true that they want to build residential and business buildings for the magnates, for those who can afford it, then it won’t be favorable to us, because we are the poor masses.”

PR Offensive

On March 14, I was one of the first attendees to arrive at a DCP-sponsored open house intended to provide a “casual opportunity for community members to participate, ask questions, and share.” On this Saturday morning, representatives from DCP, standing in crisp business-casual attire alongside giant, orange-accented informational placards, would simultaneously attempt to convince community members of the need for a development plan as well as solicit input on what that plan should look like.

Upon entering the room, I was immediately greeted by a young representative from DCP named Jessica Ortiz, who directed my attention to a giant map of the area targeted for development. She also handed me a couple of red and blue push pins, telling me to place the red dot where I lived, and the blue dot where I worked. When I asked Ortiz why DCP wanted to know these things, she answered vaguely that they wanted to know as much about the neighborhood as possible.

“If you live and work in the study area, we just want to see where you shop and retail,” Ortiz said, suggesting this information would help make a better plan. Most of the other placards repeated this innocuous sentiment, suggesting a completely blank slate on which any Bronx resident could scrawl their ideas for the community and be taken seriously. One sign bore a white-to-orange arrow signifying stages of the development plan: Listen and Learn, Vision, Generate Plan, Public Review, and finally, Implement. Another little arrow let us know we were at the first stage.

But the process isn’t a blank slate, and the work-live pushpins served another reason: To gauge the viability of something called “transit-oriented development,” an integral part of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing vision. TOD is premised on the idea of creating dense networks of “mixed-use, mixed-income centers linked by the region’s extensive commuter rail network,” according to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

By putting mass transit at the center of development, TOD offers residents the prospect of lower transportation costs, more personal convenience and easier access to job centers. However, TOD also has the potential to spur gentrification if land prices rise and enough affordable housing isn’t being built.

Metro-North

Such a scenario is easy to imagine when reading a 2014 DCP report titled “Sustainable Communities in the Bronx: Leveraging Regional Rail for Access, Growth and Opportunity.” It describes a vision of “mixed use” communities along the Metro-North rail line that runs parallel and just to the east of Jerome Avenue.

Starting at the Melrose Avenue station at 162nd Street near Yankee Stadium, the DCP would like to seed high-density residential buildings and corresponding new retail and amenities near other Metro-North stations in the Bronx, including University Heights, Morris Heights, Tremont, Williamsbridge and Fordham as well as at proposed stations for Parkchester/Van Nest and Morris Park.

Central to the vision are new Bronx residents employed in high-paying industries such as finance or high tech who work in smaller regional hubs north and east of New York City, including Poughkeepsie, New York and Stamford, Connecticut. These hoped-for future residents could also just as easily commute into Manhattan’s core via Metro-North’s terminus at Grand Central.

Drawing on classic trickle-down economics, the study envisions that the presence of these high-wage workers in redeveloped Bronx neighborhoods would “generate a large demand for retail products and services, which in turn will generate employment opportunities — be it for doctors, nurses, architects, construction workers, baristas, waiters or retail clerks. This increased demand lifts the average wages of employees across all sectors in the local economy — even for employees without a college education.”

Jerome Avenue’s proximity to the Metro-North lines means that the neighborhoods surrounding it could be folded into DCP’s wider plan to remake the Bronx to the liking of high-earning commuters. Right now, much of the Jerome Avenue corridor is zoned for light industrial or heavy commercial use, and the rest is zoned for medium and high-density residential areas. Under current zoning regulations for the area, it would not be possible to open restaurants, small-scale grocery stores and other boutique shops considered essential to making the area attractive to the hoped-for new residents.

In the Beginning

When the palatial new Yankee Stadium opened for business in the South Bronx in 2009, it had received $1.2 billion in public subsidies and tax abatements from the city, state and federal governments. Just south of the stadium, the giant shopping mall at the site of the old Bronx Terminal Market opened in 2009 with subsidies and tax abatements totaling $140 million.

Meanwhile, the faded storefronts of Jerome Avenue appear much as they have for decades. Several years ago, Bronx Community Board 4 — whose members are appointed by the borough president — asked the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg to rezone an area around Jerome Avenue to encourage new development. Bloomberg turned them down, but de Blasio has thrown his support behind the project.

However, as with any development plan that comes with the administration’s backing, there is a caveat: new affordable housing will come to a neighborhood only if areas previously not designated for retail can be rezoned to accommodate new types of businesses. If communities do not consent to this, the city will not provide any capital for development or protections from market-driven displacement.

Historically, streets below overhead train frames such as Jerome Avenue have been impenetrable to gentrification, says Sam Stein, an urban theorist and instructor at John Jay College. However, he noted that DCP’s fixation with Jerome Avenue — which it studied months before engaging the community about proposed changes — echoes its activity in Queens. There, the city is hoping to entice capital to the area near Roosevelt Avenue, which sits underneath the elevated 7 train, and East New York, near the 2-3 line above Broadway.

“Opportunities to gentrify have been exhausted,” Stein said. “They’re looking at places left behind.”

DCP’s Bronx director, Carol Samol, insists that city planners will not steamroll the community as routinely occurred during Bloomberg-era rezonings. She points to the new influence DCP has over the city’s capital budget to coordinate public investments in schools, parks and streets in order to address the burden new development puts on existing resources. DCP, she says, is open to input from local elected officials.

“We’re taking an active role by talking to City Council members about how to make the developments,” Samol told The Indypendent.

Nonetheless, developers are still the prime movers in de Blasio’s plan to build 80,000 units of “affordable housing” citywide in 10 years. The city, state and federal governments will disperse $8 billion, mostly in tax breaks, over the next decade to spur the new construction while private-sector real estate developers are supposed to put up another $32 billion toward making the mayor’s “affordable housing” plan a reality. But as everyone knows, big real estate is only going to act if it can make a decent chunk of change, which means it will have an outsized influence on how projects like Jerome Avenue unfold.

In a taste of what may lie ahead, the Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision (BCCV) reports that the owners of buildings that house small businesses are doubling rents and extending leases for one year instead of the usual 10, when they are willing to extend them at all. Increased land prices are also giving residential landlords incentive to drive out rent-stabilized tenants. There are 7,000 rent-stabilized apartments in the area directly under study for rezoning and a staggering 64,000 rent-stabilized apartments in the larger impact area.

“This thing is like a tornado that will pick up everything,” said Carmen Vega-Rivera of the Community Action for Safe Apartments (CASA) to Tenant/Inquilino. “If we don’t do this right we will lose more housing than we can build.”

Community Opposition

Local concerns came to the fore on March 5, when more then 250 area residents braved a howling snowstorm to pack the Latino Pastoral Action Center on West 170th Street. There, they chanted “Whose Bronx? Our Bronx!” as a group of construction workers banged on drums and plastic buckets. The meeting was convened by BCCV, which consists of social justice groups, community development centers, unions and clergy. Elected officials, including Public Advocate Letitia James, City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson and Rep. José Serrano, were on hand. The sentiment of the crowd was mostly clearly expressed in several banners and signs that read “Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us.”

“Nothing can take place without community participation,” emphasized Denise Felipe of New York Communities for Change. She called for more schools and senior facilities, to loud applause.

For Susanna Blankley, CASA’s director of housing organizing, the problem with DCP’s plan boils down to a lack genuine interest in receiving and making use of community input. To her, the orange placards and the few dozen people streaming through an open house are mostly for show.

“At the end of the day, it’s about what plan gets put forward,” Blankley said.

After DCP certifies its plan, it goes into Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a byzantine bureaucratic process that takes roughly seven months. It includes a public hearing and a non-binding vote from the community board, a public hearing and a vote by the borough president, a public hearing and a vote by the City Planning Commission (which works closely with DCP) and a public hearing and vote by the City Council, where the representatives from a local neighborhood can try to rally support but often find themselves under enormous pressure from the mayor’s office and the Council speaker to fall in line.

The growing opposition to the Jerome Avenue rezoning may already be having an impact on the DCP’s timetable, says Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs at Hunter College.

“I’m not sure how quickly they plan to proceed with Jerome Avenue since they are catching a lot of opposition now,” he told The Indypendent. “They may try to co-opt or wear them out with more meetings.”

For Blankley and other community activists, more meetings with city officials will not be enough.

“We want change, but we want change without displacement,” she said. “The city doesn’t know how to do that. Show me a neighborhood where there’s positive change and progress that hasn’t resulted in displacement.”


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