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

The Bronx is Up

Julia Vitullo-Martin, October 2005

With its handsome housing stock, lavish parkland covering one-fourth of its land, trains and subways plunging deep into the borough, and a dozen universities and colleges, the Bronx was built for density, upward mobility, and hope. It even has a neighborhood named Mount Hope, right above the equally aspirational Mount Eden. As a borough of hills and valleys and cliffs, it has many neighborhoods named for heights: Fordham Heights, University Heights, Morris, Kingsbridge. In the documentary, Arguing the World, sociologist Irving Howe talks about the joy of his family’s moving up, in the 1930s, to the beautiful, clean Bronx from the decaying, sordid, downtown Lower East Side. The Bronx was once immigrant Paradise.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Yet no borough plunged as steeply or fatefully as the Bronx after World War II. In the nadir of the 1970s, arson and abandonment swept through the South Bronx, its three community districts fell 57% in population between 1970 and 1980.

The many causes of devastation have been well analyzed and discussed: punitive taxation, destructive welfare policies, planner's blight, drugs, crime, mandatory busing of school children, rent regulation, Co-op City, the Cross Bronx Expressway, waste transfer stations, and many more. Hip French kids started using the phrase "C'est le Bronx" to mean anything really dangerous and far out.

Now, at last, the Bronx is reclaiming its heritage as the borough of working-class upward mobility. Its population has been growing, increasing by 10.7% to 1.33 million people between 1990 and 2000, and edging up another 2.5% since the 2000 census, according to the Department of City Planning. It has some 470,000 jobs, up roughly 50,000 from 1990. The issuance of building permits jumped to 4,924 in 2004, up from 2,935 in 2003, as increasing numbers of two-paycheck working households moved in.

Billions of taxpayer dollars were spent bringing the Bronx back from ruin. But the Bronx comeback is still a work in progress, rather than an accomplished fact, as several statistics show. By some measures, it is ranked the poorest county in the country. Its unemployment rate of 7% is the highest in the city. Only 62% of its residents are high school graduates, as opposed to 79% citywide. Nearly 53% of its households have a language other than English spoken at home, versus 28% for the city. Its homeownership rate is 19.6%, versus 53% citywide.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)


Rehabilitation is good. When the Koch administration proposed its Ten-Year Plan in 1986, critics pointed out that it encompassed a huge, nearly incomprehensible range of programs. Koch seemed willing to try pretty much any and everything. But the core of his strategy was government-financed rehabilitation of formerly abandoned property. Rehabilitation, even gut rehab, was clearly the right way to go—allowing the city to spend $65,000 per unit rather than the $135,000 and up then required for new construction.

Rehabilitation was right then and it's right now. The unfortunate truth is that new construction is still generally too expensive for the market in the Bronx. Developer Peter Magistro, principal of BronxPro Management, says, "Market rates in the South Bronx do not support new construction. You need to get $2,000 a unit to build new, and that's just too high for the Bronx."

The Beechwood Organization is testing the new construction market by building a 13-story rental building on the Harlem River, opposite Highbridge Park. It intends to charge rents up to $1,350 a unit—a little high by Bronx standards, but kept below conventional new construction by subsidized financing from the Housing Development Corporation.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Rezoning is often crucial. In 1997 the Giuliani administration rezoned Port Morris, a small section of deteriorating old warehouses lying between the Bruckner Expressway and the East River, to allow conversion of former industrial space into residential, commercial, and community facility uses. The Department of City Planning says that 302 residential units were created between 2000 and the end of 2004. In August, the Bloomberg administration rezoned another 11 blocks to encourage redevelopment of empty, privately owned buildings.

Nearly one-third of the lots in the area are vacant or seriously underutilized, indicating pretty clearly that the former zoning was unproductive. Perhaps more than any other borough, the Bronx needs a careful, almost surgical, implementation of Bloomberg's announced "tightening of the boundaries" in moribund industrial areas.

Because the historic pattern of development in the Bronx was mixed use—with factories often lining one side of the street and houses the other—rezoning industrial areas to permit mixed use on the edges is imperative. Otherwise, vacant, poorly maintained industrial property will continue to spread blight through the neighborhood.

Density helps bring back retail and commercial strips. While the ranch-style, single-family-home development of Charlotte Gardens in the South Bronx has become the favored presidential visitation site, it is not now and never has been the right model for most of the Bronx. The Charlotte Gardens home owners are content with their property, but they have no nearby retail. With its magnificent public transportation—midtown is a 15-minute train ride away—the Bronx should continue its apartment house tradition, which will in turn allow retail to flourish. The densest neighborhoods today—Mount Hope, Morris Heights, Fordham Heights—are interwoven with flourishing retail.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Move property off the public rolls back to the private sector. The first Koch administration undertook what may have been the largest tax foreclosure of private property in the history of American cities. The third Koch administration initiated a series of techniques and programs to move most of that property back to private owners—a disposition just finished up by the Bloomberg administration. But Bloomberg also did something revolutionary: He directed the Department of Housing Preservation & Development to look all underused, undermaintained government property, whether owned by the city itself, independent authorities, or the feds—NYCHA, HHC, School Construction, HUD. If a government agency didn’t need or wasn’t fully using a property, Bloomberg wanted it moved to the private sector.

HPD started in the Bronx with New York City Housing Authority properties. This makes sense because NYCHA had itself been given scattered-site tax-foreclosed properties that it had great trouble managing. HPD worked with NYCHA to move them into the hands of good developers who took over as owner-managers, renovated the buildings and rented them to carefully selected tenants.

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión, himself a professional planner, has announced a series of rezonings for derelict waterfront areas. These rezonings will almost surely move forward. Mayor Bloomberg supports them. And the original planning was done by Democratic mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer back in the 1990s, when he was himself Bronx Borough President.

October 2005
Department of City Planning: Bronx Projects, Studies, Proposals
Bronx Borough President's Waterfront Plan
Housing Development Corporation
U.S. Census: Bronx County
Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation
Bronx Historical Society
NY1 Bronx
Bronx Zoning Map Index
Port Morris/Bruckner Boulevard Rezoning
Sustainable South Bronx
Bronx Neighborhood Histories
Bronx District 14 (Kingsbridge Heights, Mt. Hope, University Heights) Community Profile
Bronx District 15 (Bathgate, Belmont, East Tremont, Fordham) Community Profile
Bronx District 16 (Concourse, Highbridge, Melrose, Morris Heights, Morrisania, Longwood) Community Profile
Bronx District 17 (Hunts Point, Longwood, Mott Haven, Soundview)
Beechwood Homes
Community Preservation Corporation
MBD Community Housing Corporation
How did a restless & challenging architectural mind end up doing subsidized housing in the Bronx?
City Council races: Protecting the northeast Bronx from overdevelopment
New York Comes Back: Mayor Ed Koch and the City
2005 Comptroller's Report on the Financial Condition of New York State
Inside the Budget: City Faces New Community Development Block Grant Cuts
Your Tax Dollars at Work: How NYC Subsidizes Slumlords
New York's Employment Picture Improving
Cool (er) Roofs
East River Access from the Lower East Side
Separate and Unequal
“This building was so bad in 1998, in such terrible condition, filthy and drug-infested, that my brother said, 'It doesn't need a renovation. It needs an exorcism.' But we're in business for the long term, and things have worked out. You have to look at a project over 30 years. Will it work? Is it sustainable? We’re developers and managers, and we take care of our property. That means we keep our buildings ship-shape. I'm a former marine.”
Peter Magistro,
President, BronxPro Management,
talking about 2001 University Avenue
“The Bronx is coming back, but it's not really at the same point as the other boroughs. It doesn't have the same development infrastructure. Who's the David Walentas of the Bronx? He's not there yet. You can't get a market report in the Bronx. What's property selling for? What did it sell for last year and the year before? The borough president is setting up a chamber of commerce, but the Bronx doesn't yet have an establishment to represent business interests. The infrastructure hasn't caught up to the demographic changes. Just the same, we're very hot on the Bronx as a market. The big potential going forward is that non-CBD (Central Business Districts) locations like Fordham Road and Kingsbridge in the Bronx, Flushing and Jamaica in Queens, are going to start to happen.”
Paul Travis,
Principal, Kingsbridge Development Partners