|The Manhattan Institutes|
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the citys planning, housing, and development
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 schoolnot 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
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 yearsand the only totally nonsubsidized project within memory. Today, River Plaza is 100 percent occupied, boasting, 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 assistanceperhaps 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 strongRiverdale 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 workedturning 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 deteriorating housing in declining neighborhoods. And despite the unique scale of CPC financingalmost $1.4 billion covering 1,290 buildingsit 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 Bronxwith its extraordinary subway system designed for densityshould 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 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 retailbut more slowly than city officials would like.
BUILDING FOR RETAIL
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
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.
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.
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