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Exploring The Bronx Waterfront As Redevelopment Looms

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of a focus on changing neighborhoods, Kensinger visits the South Bronx.

[This industrial section of the Harlem River waterfront in the Bronx, cut off by an active train line, was recently proposed for redevelopment. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

On February 20, 2014, Bronx borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. announced a $500 million development proposal for a small section of the Harlem River waterfront. His plan called for new residential towers and a waterfront esplanade to replace a dusty half-mile stretch of businesses between between 138th and 149th streets. The plan immediately sparked the interest of New York's media, with articles analyzing what this would mean for the South Bronx. UPDATE: Diaz yesterday unveiled a more in-depth report describing his vision. Read more, and see renderings, here. Near the waterfront in question, local business owners, however, were largely unaware of the proposal. "I hadn't heard of it," said Benjy, a salesman at Bronx Auto on 138th Street. "So, are we gonna get knocked down?"

A closer look at the proposed development site raises many questions about the idea of building a new residential community on the Harlem River. Isolated between an active freight train line and the Major Deegan Expressway, this 10-block stretch of commercial businesses is a gritty, hard-to-access swath of parking lots, storage warehouses, homeless camps and dead-end streets. Syringes, mattresses, abandoned cars, rusted bicycles and other debris line the sidewalks, while empty lots and collapsing buildings dot the landscape of the surrounding neighborhood. Meanwhile, the Harlem River itself has been described as "a cesspool of industrial and human waste flushed into the river from nearby roads, sewers, and industrial work sites after every storm."

Despite this, for many years neighborhood residents have sought access to the larger 1.5-mile section of Harlem River waterfront that includes this proposed development. Unlike the Manhattan shoreline of the river, the Bronx side has very few access points. To the south, the riverbank is closed off by a train yard and a waste management company handling demolition debris and putrescible waste. To the north, the expressway and a Metro North train yard block the shore. On the section in between, which includes Diaz's 10-block vision, the Harlem River is almost completely cut off by the Oak Point Link, a 1.9-mile train line built above the water. A walk along this shoreline reveals only three access points to the river. Creating new homes in the midst of this polluted industrial area may be a cause for concern, but any increase in access to the river could only be an improvement for the nearby neighborhood.

The southernmost access point to the Harlem River in the Bronx is at the end of Lincoln Avenue, at a small landing next to the Harlem River Intermodal Yard.

Canoeists sometimes launch their boats here, after crossing over the train tracks and scrambling past a collapsing bulkhead. "We sneak in there and it's all bushes and trash and stuff," one canoeist told the Mott Haven Herald in 2012.

Much of the waterfront landscape here is dominated by empty lots and storage warehouses. Finding any access to the Harlem River is difficult.

The freight train tracks of the Oak Point Link have effectively cut the neighborhood off from the Harlem River, although CSX operates only a few trains on the line each day.

At the Park Avenue extension, a second waterfront access site exists, also on the wrong side of the tracks. This unofficial public space has been used as a swimming hole by neighborhood kids.

To the north, in the proposed redevelopment area, public access to the waterfront becomes scarce. Pedestrians here must walk through swirling dust clouds underneath the Major Deegan Expressway, with storage warehouses looming overhead.

The trash-lined street underneath the expressway faces a series of parking lots and businesses that the city dreams of replacing with new towers. The area was rezoned in 2009 to allow for residential development.

Developing this area could mean an additional 1.1 million square feet of housing, as well as commercial and community space, according to the Times.

Much of this area is currently used by Verizon, Con Edison, and Atlantic Express Bus Charters to store fleets of vehicles. There is currently no way to access the waterfront in this 10-block stretch, other than climbing a fence.

A large section of this proposed redevelopment area is now used by New York Recycling, a 24-hour-a-day business that recycles construction debris. Their manager told the Times that he was unaware of the development plans.

Behind the recycling center, a narrow strip of land has been taken over by graffiti artists and homeless camps. The plan for this area includes a waterfront esplanade, next to the train tracks.

Syringes, toys and empty bottles fill the dead end street underneath the 145th Street Bridge. Homeless camps are set up beneath the train tracks here, behind a chain link fence and near the water's edge.

Just a block inland from this proposed redevelopment zone, on the other side of the Major Deegan, sits a neighborhood dotted with empty lots, abandoned construction sites, and decaying warehouses for sale.

The city has not invested in developing this neighborhood. This landmarked building, located along the Grand Concourse just three blocks from the water, was recently slated for demolition after being neglected by its landlord, the Department of Citywide Services.

Immediately to the north of the proposed waterfront project, the city owns a large abandoned field that had been used as a parking lot. It is currently a flooded, dirt-filled lot.

The empty lot was once a train yard for the Bronx Terminal Market. All that remains of the freight yard is one last gantry.

Just north of the former train yard, Mill Pond Park provides one of the only public access points where visitors can directly enter the Harlem River. The park was opened in 2009 as part of the Yankee Stadium Redevelopment Project.

Mill Pond Park includes a beach, jogging path, and indoor tennis center. It is the South Bronx's only waterfront park along this section of the Harlem River. Just north of the park, the waterfront is cut off again, this time by a Metro North train yard.
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Fans, Detractors Split Over Proposed SoBro Waterfront Park [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]