The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Saving Sherman Creek

Julia Vitullo-Martin, January 2006

What's the best use for a 150-acre peninsula in Northern Manhattan bordered on one side by the thriving, teeming neighborhood of Inwood and on two sides by the Harlem River? In an ideal world, the answer would be mixed-use development of housing, retail, and commercial coupled with waterfront access.

But the land in question, called Sherman Creek and the subject of a Jan. 31 breakfast panel at the Harvard Club sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, is a desolate, low-rise jumble of Con Ed substations, garages, subway yards, parking lots, auto repair shops, markets, and a lonely school. Just moving Con Ed would be a stupendous task. Decking over the subway yards would be almost as difficult. Those two impediments are huge, but the government parking lots and garages run by the Departments of Transportation and Sanitation offer pretty serious problems as well. The two agencies have to park their trucks somewhere, and no other Manhattan or Bronx neighborhood is likely to welcome them if they're pushed out of Sherman Creek.

Nonetheless, visionary Inwood and Washington Heights residents have worked for decades to produce plans and proposals for rezoning the area to permit residential and commercial development—and to rid it of at least some of the noxious uses. The executive director of the Department of City Planning, Richard Barth, says the administration is sympathetic and has set up an inter-agency task force to talk about the many obstacles to implementation. "There's probably a consensus now that Sherman Creek is an area ripe both for regulatory change and for redevelopment. But we still have to be able to provide city services for New York's growing population, and Con Ed has to worry about energy. Con Ed is a major landholder, and whatever the plan, it must work for us, the community, and for Con Ed," Barth cautions. Economist Regina Armstrong notes that along with other industrial areas, Sherman Creek has been losing employment, even as housing demand and property values in Inwood have surged.

WHAT SHERMAN CREEK COULD BECOME

If you cross the 207th Street Bridge (known locally as the Broadway Bridge), you come to an area that 10 years ago was the mirror image of Sherman Creek. Today the most successful shopping center in the Bronx stands on 9 ˝ acres that once held auto parts stores, chop shops, an abandoned warehouse owned by Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and a chicken stand.

From 1999 to 2002, developer Paul Travis, managing partner of Kingsbridge Associates (formerly of Washington Square Partners), acquired six privately owned parcels, originally for Home Depot, which pulled out of the deal when a new CEO came in. "Even though we were halfway through assembling the lots and were out to the bank for millions of dollars, this was a very lucky thing for us because it made us really look at the area," Travis recalls "There's an artificial division between Manhattan and the Bronx on the maps and in the minds of outsiders, but not in the minds of locals, who just walk back and forth across the bridge, and think of it all as one area. We saw the explosive population growth, and also the growth in income, and realized we should do something very different from what we planned."

Travis ended up building a shopping center as a venture with Target Stores that included a Marshall's and a Starbucks. "People thought we were insane," he says, "but that Starbucks is now the 7th highest grossing in the United States." A zip code study undertaken by Target showed they were getting enormous pull from North and South of the shopping center, but very little from the West Bronx, which is immediately to the East. This was the opposite of what they had anticipated. Their main market turned out to be higher-income Manhattan households whose pent-up demand had gone unrecognized.

The site that now supports 1100 jobs had only 55 when Washington Square Partners began—a startling example of low-grade industrial converting to high-grade commercial. Travis believes this commercial success could extend to Sherman Creek, particularly if joined with residential development. The first problem, however, is that current zoning restricts commercial development to two stories—despite strong commercial demand in the area. (Retail and commercial ground-floor space is fully rented.)

WHAT THE COMMUNITY WANTS

Talking about what a community wants is tricky, of course, since neighborhoods are diverse. But architect Warren Antonio James, who conducted a study and developed an area plan for the Audubon Partnership, says the number one issue has been and will continue to be housing. He would like to see R7 zoning (mid-rise housing) extended to the water's edge, eliminating low-rise R3. At the same time he opposes high-rise housing, noting that many Latinos tend to equate it with undesirable low-income housing—and that Latinos, particularly Dominicans, constitute a majority in Inwood. Across and down the Harlem River stand the 40-story River Towers, the tallest in the Bronx and objectionable to many residents of Inwood as overly domineering of the waterfront as well as too dense. James envisions Sherman Creek as "affordable," meaning that the rents of moderate-income households would be subsidized to let them live there.

There's the crux, says Travis. How will you pay for the subsidies on the affordable units unless you have a majority of market-rate units with good enough views to command high rents? (He believes the finest view in all of New York is from the top of the Target store, which has a clear sight all the way to the Statue of Liberty.) Economist Regina Armstrong, who authored a study of the area for the Manhattan Institute, believes Sherman Creek could take density of up to 7,500 people but that its planning should be done in conjunction with the redevelopment of Fordham Landing, directly across the river in the Bronx. Like Sherman Creek, Fordham Landing has low-grade industrial uses, primarily housing flatbed containers relocated from Highbridge Yards. (Sadly, Fordham Landing is a field of broken dreams, having once been the site of a middle-income housing initiative that never materialized.)

The most workable proposal, Travis argues, would be 50-30-20 housing, meaning 50% market, 30% moderate-income, and 20% low-income. He doesn't believe Sherman Creek could sustain 100% market, on the one hand, nor would the project be able to pay for more than 50% affordable units. While some area residents have called for housing that his "100% affordable," Travis notes that Inwood has many 2nd generation households that are doing very well financially, and for whom very little housing exists. "They want to stay in the neighborhood," he says, "but they want larger, better units than rent-stabilized housing offers. A lot of locals are doing very well and have more income than ever before."

WHAT’S NEXT

The ball is in the city's court, but whether it gets played quickly depends on community pressure. Only city officials are really able to negotiate with Con Ed, the elephant in Sherman Creek, or even with other city officials at the Departments of Transportation or Sanitation. The Bloomberg administration has been immensely successful in tackling rezoning in the city’s southern regions. Now it should turn its eyes northward.

All Sherman Creek illustrations courtesy of Kingsbridge Associates.

 


January 2006
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“Unlike the debate we had with rezoning the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfront, Sherman Creek is an area ripe for redevelopment. There seems to be consensus in the community that we need to provide more housing.”
Richard Barth,
Executive Director,
Department of City Planning
 
“If there ever was an argument for dense housing, it's here with these river views and access to the subway.”
Paul Travis,
Managing Partner, Kingsbridge Associates
 
“The city is booming, and we need to meet that growth. We own the property, and we need to assure reliability. We know that we need to build facilities.”
Chris Olert,
Spokesman, Con Edison
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