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New South Bronx waterfront development has residents asking who it's for

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Part of a decades-long trend, this recent example of riverfront real estate growth leaves local residents worried about a tide of new arrivals

NY Daily News via Getty Images

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Despite being located at the confluence of New York’s East and Harlem rivers, the South Bronx has long been a working-class, waterfront community frustratingly removed from the water. While many residents have worked at the warehouses and commercial facilities that line the shore, a lack of public parks and access points in neighborhoods such as Mott Haven, Port Morris, and Hunts Point, as well as a ring of highways that encircle the borough, have cut off residents from the river (the borough’s sole public beach, Orchard, sits on the opposite end of the Bronx).

Longtime resident Ed Garcia Conde, founder of the blog Welcome2TheBronx, recalls that for decades, he’d have to take a long, meandering trip down into Manhattan to find the nearest beach, crossing the river just to get to an accessible waterfront, despite having the shoreline sit just blocks away from his home.

But as the South Bronx booms with an influx of development dollars and new projects, the waterfront appears poised to get a makeover. A series of investments, including New York City’s $194 million plan for placemaking, updated infrastructure, and the creation of a South Bronx esplanade, will add a string of parks to the underfunded borough. The new developments have Conde worried: Are new proposals already signaling the end of an affordable South Bronx? Are affordability and waterfront development incompatible?

“Who is it for?” he says. “That’s the real question. It’s definitely not for the people who live here now. We’ve been pushing for waterfront access for decades. Why are we getting it now? It’s because of the new people who are coming.”

To Conde, the South Bronx boom is the latest example of an underserved, underfunded waterfront becoming ground zero for gentrification, with parks and public spaces helping pave the way (like Brooklyn Bridge Park and DUMBO). More and more developers are pushing into the area—a recently announced project near the Third Avenue Bridge, by the Chetrit Group and Somerset Partners, includes plans to bring 1,300 market-rate apartments to waterfront sites purchased in 2015. Neighborhoods such as Hunts Point and Mott Haven, part of the poorest congressional district in the nation, which Mayor Bill de Blasio once called “synonymous with urban decay,” have seen some of the sharpest rent increases in the city over the last year. The New York Times even named the area one of its hottest travel destinations of the year.

Conde sees development that favors the developers, with waterfront amenities and views of Manhattan enticing residents and leading to displacement for the immigrant families who have called this affordable, multicultural neighborhood home for decades. The new towers, to him, are the equivalent of the High Line: initially a sign of renewed city interest in the neighborhoods that later proved to be the catalyst for sweeping change.

“I’m not against market-rate housing,” Conde says. “But it should be done in a responsible way. Development in itself isn’t bad. But these towers are literally the nail in our coffin.”

The new South Bronx developments come at a time when cities worldwide are revisiting the potential of their waterfronts. This week in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has pushed ambitious redevelopment along the city’s rivers, and mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, who seeks to redefine the areas along the River Seine, co-hosted a worldwide mayor’s forum on urban waterfront development, bringing together planners and politicians to discuss strategies for turning disused, de-industrialized waterfronts into economic development tools.

According to Sam Tabory, a researcher with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the group producing the event, many cities across the globe are grappling with the best ways to find new uses for traditional waterfronts. The shifts being outlined aren’t new; economic and social changes, including midcentury migration to suburbia, as well as consolidation in shipping, transportation, and fishing since the ’50s and ’60s, have altered the face and function of urban waterfronts for decades. But as redevelopment continues, mayors and planners are struggling with ways to keep existing communities afloat and working ports working—maintaining authenticity without swooping in with a redevelopment plan that’s too much in favor of new businesses.

Other cities across the country have also been wrestling with how to transform their waterfronts with redevelopment plans that help the entire community. Tampa Bay’s largely industrialized waterfront has become a center for new residential developments, and Dallas has just completed a series of bridges over the Trinity River, as well as new parks, that link downtown with areas of the city that have traditionally been disconnected. Tabory has his eye on Detroit, which just approved a master plan for riverfront development that favors small businesses, neighborhood feedback, and the addition of new parks and beaches, as opposed to more high-end condos.

“One of the big conversations is about addressing those tensions, and not leading to extreme gentrification,” Tabory says. “Nobody has a blueprint yet.”

According to Jack Wiggin, director of the Urban Harbors Institute, the traditional working waterfronts used to be linked to the cities by housing and commercial districts. There was a connection between the port, the working class, and the city that’s broken down. It’s not just changing economic circumstances—a consolidated shipping industry, a decline in domestic shipbuilding and fishing—or pure displacement. It’s real estate pressure.

Many property owners of commercial or industrial property at ports that still operate could see more money selling out to developers. In San Diego last fall, tuna fishermen ultimately lost their battle to hold onto a commercial fishing marina in light of the massive, $1.2 billion, multi-use Seaport development, a “destination waterfront.”

“If left to their own devices, I’m sure all working urban waterfronts would disappear,” he says.

American cities have been pushing new waterfront developments for decades. In the ’90s, San Francisco’s reinvention of its Embarcadero and Ferry Building, as well as Baltimore’s development bonanza in the Inner Harbor, became nationwide models. Development in the South Bronx, and similar areas across the country, show that some of the last bastions of blue-collar jobs are succumbing to the profit potential of high-end housing.

Getting the balance right—protecting local jobs while ushering in new development—is difficult, says Wiggin.

According to Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a think tank about New York policy, waterfront development in the Bronx could bring more people and amenities and make a positive difference in an area that has traditionally been underserved and underfunded.

“As a city, we’ve made remarkable progress in opening up waterfronts in the last few years,” says Bowles. “From the west side of Manhattan to Governor’s Island to the Brooklyn waterfront, each project has been wildly successful. Much of the Bronx waterfront has untapped potential.”

New York highways and bridges from 1963
A file photo from 1963 shows New York infrastructure, including highways that cut off part of the Bronx waterfront. In Manhattan (left) the East River Drive Extension along the waterfront south of the bridge, and the Harlem River Drive, to the north. In the Bronx (top right) the Major Deegan Expressway running northwest from the Triborough's Bronx bridgehead, and the Bruckner Expressway running northeast. In Queens (bottom) Astoria Park, with giant swimming pool. Randall's and Ward's Islands (center).
Getty/New York Daily News Archive

Many community observers, activists, and organizers have been asking for more development and public parks, but are wary of gentrification and new housing driving up rent. When local developer Keith Rubenstein, part of the South Bronx waterfront tower proposal, put up (and quickly removed) signs christening part of Mott Haven the “Piano District,” after its role as a turn-of-the-century center of instrument manufacturing, it seemed like a clear play to bourgeois Brooklyn sensibilities (Rubenstein has also backed numerous new businesses, such as a coffee shop and a food hall, that seem tailored to new renters and tenants).

Maria Torres, director of The Point, a local community organization, says “it’s only a matter of time” before people “discover” Port Morris and the surrounding neighborhoods. Clean waterfronts and new apartments, as well as a new train station that puts the South Bronx one stop from Penn Station, suggest the neighborhood will soon be viewed in a different way. She just hopes the influx of new money and residents comes with new support for existing businesses.

Conde says that despite previous plans for economic development, rarely do the promised jobs pan out as expected.

“Areas such as the Hunts Point Market are still the lifeblood of the community,” he says. “It was affordable, people could afford to raise their families, live there, and shop there, and that ecosystem is slowly being wiped out.”

Both Bowles and Conde point to existing, undeveloped, city-owned waterfront parcels in the South Bronx as potential bastions of affordable housing, with room for hundreds of new units.

“There’s a lot of potential here, and the fact that the infrastructure is coming first is forward thinking,” says Bowles. “The Bronx is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. It could be a real opportunity for mixed-use housing that the de Blasio administration is calling for citywide.”

“We’re very aware of these issues, and working with a lot of different community groups seeking different, alternative, and affordable housing solutions,” Torres says. “But we’re also looking at having a healthy industrial zone. If you have good businesses, you stave off gentrification; you’re less likely to get hotels on the waterfront. We’re hoping to keep the businesses here forward thinking, green, healthy, and thriving.”