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The Bronx is Up

Julia Vitullo-Martin, February 2009

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

With the appointment of Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión as the director of the new White House Office on Urban Policy, the Bronx is back in the national news. It's been a long, hard journey for the borough since the 1977 World Series game broadcast from Yankee Stadium, when ABC's Howard Cosell told 60 million viewers, "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning." The five-alarm fire was actually annihilating an abandoned public school—not the tenement misidentified by Cosell. But the dreadful symbolism was apt, since so much of the Bronx's housing stock had indeed been destroyed over the previous few years.

THE COMEBACK BOROUGH
Since those dark times the Bronx has in many ways come back—not to its glory days of the early 20th century, when much of its fine housing stock was built for middle-class families, but to a different Bronx of striving, hard-working households, often immigrants and the children of immigrants. It's still poor, with a median household income of $34,156, according to the Department of City Planning. Indeed, in 2005 the Bronx was once again named (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) the nation's poorest urban county with over a million people. Over 51 percent of its 1.385 million residents are Latino—mostly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans—making the Bronx the only borough with a Latino majority. Only 3.4 percent of Bronx residents are Asian, the lowest percentage of any borough. Its median age is 32.4, making the Bronx the youngest borough. Only 21.4 percent of its 469,446 housing units are owner-occupied.

Carrión, who readily calls himself "pro-development," fully understands the importance of having a pro-business strategy to deliver jobs for his struggling constituents. It hasn't been easy. For years, most of what had been called "private" development in the Bronx carried some kind of government subsidy, whether direct in the form of housing vouchers or indirect in the form of tax abatements and below-market financing. Indeed, in August 2004, when Kingsbridge Associates opened its River Plaza shopping center on 225th Street, one of its partners, Paul Travis, noted that it was the first major private development in the Bronx in 20 years—and the only totally nonsubsidized project within memory. Today, River Plaza is 100 percent occupied, boasting, (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) among other stores, a very busy Starbucks. It had been the first to open in the Bronx, which now has three. (Starbucks had initially refused to consider the Bronx, saying it's not our market, recalls Travis. Carrión wrote CEO Howard Schultz a letter, convincing him to give it a try.)

Despite River Plaza's success, most development tends to need government assistance—perhaps not surprising, given that the decline of the Bronx was in many ways due to government policies. The construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, as recounted by Robert Caro in The Power Broker, displaced 60,000 residents. The opening of the state-financed Co-op City in 1972 helped empty out whole neighborhoods. Property taxes were so high even as property values plummeted that many owners simply walked away. Crime was violent and pervasive. The abandonment of its Bronx campus by New York University in 1974 left a huge and prominent site empty. The looting of commercial Burnside Avenue during the blackout of 1977 plunged the Bronx further into chaos. By the end of the 1970s, when 120,000 fires burned annually, the South Bronx had lost nearly 40 percent of its housing stock.

Some neighborhoods beyond the South Bronx stayed strong—Riverdale and Pelham to the north, Norwood to the west. Resilient neighborhoods were often anchored by supportive nonprofit institutions, such as the Bronx Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Fordham University, and Montefiore Hospital. Montefiore, for example, established the Mosholu Preservation Corporation to provide building owners with technical assistance and mortgages in order to ward off the devastation that was marching northward toward Fordham Road.

City officials, meanwhile, were grappling with the then-new problem of taking over 100,000 residential units whose owners had stopped paying property taxes. They tried many approaches with what they called in rem housing, after the legal shorthand for vesting title in the city, until they hit upon the only one that worked—turning blocks of properties over to private developers, some for-profit, many not-for-profit. Out of this core has come the renaissance of the South Bronx. The first patently successful approach came from the Community Preservation Corporation, founded in 1974 by the city's leading commercial banks (later joined by major savings banks) to finance, restore, and rebuild (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) deteriorating housing in declining neighborhoods. And despite the unique scale of CPC financing—almost $1.4 billion covering 1,290 buildings—it never suffered a single default.

Another route, more quixotic, is the famous Charlotte Street development of single-family ranch houses, financed by the federal government after President Jimmy Carter stood in the rubble and promised to rebuild the South Bronx. The "little houses on the prairie" were symbolically important at the time. But no one seriously thought that the Bronx—with its extraordinary subway system designed for density—should be rebuilt with ranch houses. A better solution can be seen not far away in the 35-block area of Melrose Commons.

A sort of living tutorial of city housing policy, Melrose Commons blends early, overly cautious, stripped-down townhouses with more recent elegant designs by Magnusson Architects. "We've raised the design bar," says Ted Weinstein, the Bronx director for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The Magnusson-designed houses no longer have that old subsidized look, making them more attractive to slightly higher-income buyers. "Our object is to get population back into the neighborhood," says Weinstein. "But we're also pushing to get (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) 100 percent AMI [Average Median Income] whenever possible, not just 80 percent." Because the townhouses are constructed to be for two or three families, the purchasing household can finance most or all of the payments by renting out one or two units. The result is a lively, repopulated neighborhood that is in turn attracting some new retail—but more slowly than city officials would like.

BUILDING FOR RETAIL
"The U.S. as a whole is over-stored," says Travis. "But the Bronx is not. In 1970 it had a population of 1.47 million and pretty good retail. In 1980, that population had fallen to 1.1, which had a serious impact on stores. Now it's close to the peak again—but retail isn't. The Bronx is severely underserved." Travis regards the Bronx as so underserved that he supports the immense suburban-style shopping mall, Gateway Center at Bronx Terminal Market, being built by Related Retail across the river from his shopping center. With signed leases for 750,000 square feet from stores like Target, Home Depot, and Marshall's, Gateway will dwarf River Plaza's 230,000 square feet when it opens in the fall. "We’re (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) sub-regional," says Travis. "They'll be regional, serving the boroughs and the suburbs. I give Bloomberg and Carrión a lot of credit for getting the deal done."

It was a complex and controversial deal derived from the need to get rid of a disastrously performing landlord who had been awarded a 99-year-lease on the last day of Mayor John Lindsay's administration. The landlord then permitted the market to deteriorate abysmally over the decades, losing most of his tenants and warring with every mayoral administration until Bloomberg negotiated a way out.

REZONING FOR GROWTH
Critics say the administration not only gave Related a sweet deal, but virtually guaranteed a rezoning not available to other private developers. Rezoning is a touchy subject in the Bronx, where so much land lies fallow even as adjacent residential neighborhoods teem with residents. On the Lower Concourse, (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) for example, the 30-block former manufacturing area between the Major Deegan and East 149th Street, from Morris Avenue to the Harlem River, has a 22 percent vacancy rate. Some businesses continue to thrive, but many buildings are vacant. A few self-storage warehouses sprinkle the waterfront and auto shops dominate some of the streets. City Planning hopes that its Lower Concourse Rezoning, to allow residential and mixed uses, will create a neighborhood of lofts, stores, parks, hotels, and housing in what is now almost a wasteland, only a few blocks away from the glorious Grand Concourse. As Bronx director of planning Carol Sampol says, "You can't build the South Bronx back up again on car shops, waste facilities, and transfer stations." Yet under current zoning, those are the main economic uses.

As Bronx neighborhoods start to revivify, new residents pressure the city government to regulate businesses not meant, in a perfect world, to be too close to housing. These days Bloomberg economic development officials spend part of their time negotiating with residents over the truck and rail traffic transporting produce, meat, and fish to and from the 329-acre Hunts Point Market, New York's primary food distribution facility that generates over $3 billion in sales annually.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Before people and businesses started moving back to the Bronx, the Hunts Point businesses functioned in peace. Now they have politically active neighbors, and will soon have more. But that is far superior to the abandonment and desolation of the 1970s.

WHAT’S NEXT
As director of the White House Office on Urban Policy, Carrión will report directly to the president, which gives the office substantial status. On the other hand, he will have no operating authority, which means no troops or resources to deploy. Meanwhile, voters will select his temporary replacement as borough president in a nonpartisan special election in mid-April. The two leading candidates are Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. (D-Soundview) and City Council Majority Leader Joel Rivera (D-East Tremont). A September primary election will determine who gets the Democratic nomination—and therefore the job.

 

February 2009
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