On a recent Saturday afternoon, Melody Hernandez visited a dilapidated pier on the South Bronx waterfront at East 132nd Street. There is no open green space along its shore, no tree-lined patch of waterfront where residents can sit on a bench and gaze out at the water that encircles their community.
Instead, she visited a rocky shore surrounded by a fence littered with trash, and wondered what it would be like one day to stroll on parkland there with her seven-year-old son.
“We’re surrounded by waterfront, but my son is growing up without any access to that,” says Hernandez, who lives in Mott Haven and teaches at an elementary school in the borough. “We have to go to other communities, other boroughs, for that access. It shouldn’t be that way.”
For decades, Hernandez’s family and other South Bronx residents have been cut off from the waterfront by a web of infrastructure and industry. A plan initially developed by the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) and the community aims to change that with what they’ve dubbed the Haven Project: a network of connected open spaces near the Mott Haven and Port Morris shore.
The initial phase of the project first aims to transform a burned-out pier at East 132nd Street that’s owned by the Department of Transportation (DOT) into a 4,400-square-foot park. In 2016, consultants for the NYRP pegged the cost at $3 million, and the city allocated $2.75 million towards it in the 2017 fiscal year budget. NYRP raised about $750,000 on its own, which it put toward designing the project and, for a time, creating a shuttle that could link residents to the Randall’s Island Connector in the interim, according to the group.
But nearly three fiscal years later—the 2019 fiscal year ends in June—that money has yet to be transferred to the NYC Economic Development Cooperation (EDC) so the project can move forward, casting a shadow over the plan. To complicate matters, thanks to rising construction costs, that portion of the project is now estimated to cost $5.5 million, according to NYRP’s consultants (OLIN, McLaren Engineering Group, and Range). Deborah Marton, NYRP’s executive director, says the city has told the group that their own estimates put that figure beyond $8 million.
“Every year that that money goes unused, it decreases in value and prices go up,” says Marton. “There’s an increased sense of urgency that this needs to happen. And that sense of urgency is coming from the community itself saying, ‘We need this space.’”
The city has been in active talks with NYRP about the stalled money, but the administration puts the onus on the nonprofit, and says NYRP must have the remaining funds it needs in place for the project before the city will transfer its share from one agency to another.
“DOT has worked with EDC, Parks, and the Mayor’s Office to move this project forward,” a spokesperson for DOT said in a statement. “The City funding allocated this far cannot be provided to the New York Restoration Project until full funding is in place. The City continues to discuss the project with the New York Restoration Project.” The mayor’s office and EDC declined to comment further.
Of the $2.75 million earmarked for the project, $2 million came from City Council coffers and the remaining $750,000 comes from the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.’s office. Alina Suriel, a spokesperson for Diaz, says they set aside funds for the project “because it’s of utmost importance to us that Bronxites have access to our natural resources.” NYRP has made requests to Diaz’s office and the City Council for more funds now that the expected costs have risen, but have not received additional allocations.
It would be a challenge, but not unfeasible, for NYRP to raise the difference on its own, but if those city-allocated funds do not materialize, it would kill the Haven Project, said Marton. “It’s DOT’s property and if DOT isn’t supporting building a pier park there, it’s not going to happen,” she says.
Locals involved with planning the Haven Project say they feel as though the goal post keeps moving for a plan that would provide sorely needed recreational space for a community that falls below the city’s standard for acres of active open space per 1,000 residents—coming in at 0.32 acres instead of 1 acre, according to a report by independent research group New Yorkers for Parks. The plan also aims to implement storm resiliency measures that would provide protection from future Hurricane Sandy-level tempests.
“The bar keeps getting moved,” says Mychal Johnson, co-founder of South Bronx Unite. “The guideline for what success is keeps moving further and further away from us.”
Johnson, who has lived in Mott Haven for the last 16 years, says the dearth of recreational space is an equity issue with heavily-trafficked roads and industries, including a FreshDirect trucking facility and the New York Post printing plant, which block access to the shore and contribute to air pollution. It’s so bad that the area has been given the nickname “asthma alley.”
“We have the High Line, we have Brooklyn Bridge Park, we have Central Park—a lot of really good green space and access to recreational opportunities in other parts of the city, but it seems like that’s only afforded to communities that are either not of color or are more economically influenced,” says Johnson. “And that should not be.”