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Interview: Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. on the State of the Borough

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Diaz, the Bronx borough president since 2009, shares his thoughts on the past and future of the borough

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. took office in 2009, and in his role as Bronx Booster-in-Chief, he's spearheaded a number of initiatives aimed at improving the lives of borough residents, including the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act. He's also thrown his weight behind high-profile (and somewhat controversial) projects like the renovation of the Kingsbridge Armory, and the creation of four new Metro-North stations in the borough. Here, Diaz expands on his recent State of the Borough address, sharing his thoughts on where the Bronx is at today.

As the Bronx borough president, what's your role in the day-to-day life of the borough?

[The borough president] appoints community board members; we appoint members of the Industrial Development Agency, to the Economic Development Corporation in the City of New York, to the Parent Education Panel. We get a percentage of what the city spends on capital projects and funding. We give out addresses and keep the topography of the borough. We deal with land use and development in our borough, have a say-so in the public review process, the process on development. Whether or not we have a direct vote on it we can also introduce legislation in the city council—we did with the Living Wage Law in the City of New York a couple of years ago.

We're speaking not too long after you gave your State of the Borough speech in February, and in that speech, you said that the "Bronx is blossoming." Can you explain what you meant by that?

Well, it was burned out back in the ’70s and ’80s. No one can deny that over the last couple of decades, we've really turned a corner. Unemployment has been cut nearly in half; the Department of Labor shows that there's more employment participation in our Bronx than in the history of the borough. We've seen 23,000-plus units of housing, the majority built for low- and moderate-income folks, built in sustainable ways. We have seen over $9.5 billion in private investment in the Bronx since I took office. Last year alone, we saw over $2.1 billion of development in the borough and overall, we've seen 54 million square feet of new development of all kinds since 2009. All of that shows that we have come back a long way. We've turned a corner, we're headed in the right direction, and it's not burning down, we're booming.

In your State of the Borough speech, you talked about a few different initiatives that you're working on for this next year—what are some of the priorities for you right now?

We're juggling about four or five different priorities. We want to make sure that we continue to develop the waterfront. There alone, we could do nearly 3,000 new units of housing. One of the top priorities if not the top priority is to make sure that the four Metro-North stations are developed and constructed over the next couple of years. The state has committed over $1 billion dollars to these four Metro North stations. We've also talked about looking at areas for our tourism, which was up 14 percent last year. One of the areas that's just right to continue to grow in tourism is Orchard Beach. I put a down payment of $10 million of my own capital budget towards the renovation of the Orchard Beach promenade and pavilion, and I'm seeing tremendous support from my colleagues at every level of government. We are also anxiously anticipating the renovation and the opening of the Kingsbridge National Ice Center, which will create jobs and accommodate those people who are interested in ice sports. This administration needs to be more accommodating to allow a developer to get control of the building. Once that happens, we can get that up and going by 2018.

What about the biggest issue facing Bronx residents right now?

It's exactly what you're helping us out with and that is shaking the negative perception, the stereotype of our past.

The reputation of the Bronx as a blighted, ruined borough is still something you see today?

Absolutely. People in the Bronx, we've been beaten for so long… Life isn't perfect here, but I try to stay away from the negative and always speak of the positive accomplishments because you've been beaten down for so long that it almost seems to me like maybe Bronxites don't feel like they deserve any better. You know? So we've been changing the mindset, we've been changing the spirit of the people of the Bronx. People are feeling better about where they live, they feel better about the borough, they want to live here. We've been getting the word out, and that's why development is up. That's why investment is up. People are saying, "Wait a minute, there's something happening over there," and there's intrigue; yet we still have a lot of doubters. So we need folks from beyond our borders to come and rediscover. If you haven't been here for a while, rediscover the Bronx.

You've been pretty outspoken about the need for affordable housing in the Bronx, and in particular about the rezoning efforts Mayor de Blasio was pushing forward in the past few years, which recently got City Council approval. How do you think that's going to affect affordable housing in the borough?

I'm afraid that it's going to affect how we go about it in the future. I shared my concerns on this rezoning. I believe that it was never broken and therefore didn't need any fixing. We've done 16 rezonings in the last six years and we've done it with a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach. We've showed the city how you can get not only affordable housing, but do it for different income bands, for those who are at the very low levels of the income bracket, which were not covered initially.

We should never, ever take something as profound as planning for the future of this city for decades to come so lightly and do it with such haste.

We've done it at every level so that in some areas, we can continue to do affordable housing but at a higher area median income (AMI) and regain our professional working class. We have to protect those at lower income brackets and income levels, but I also know that when we speak of displacement, one population that we have not done a good enough job at protecting is our young working professionals. They come out of college and start their careers and don't make enough money to buy a home in areas like Throggs Neck or Riverdale or Pelham Bay.

I also think that it was done in great haste. We should never, ever take something as profound as planning for the future of this city for decades to come so lightly. We have to take into consideration what density's going to mean for transportation hubs, how many school seats we are going to need, how many police officers we're going to need in different areas, if population's going to increase, sanitation, the infrastructure of sewage and pipes and electricity. We also have to protect the character of the neighborhoods. It's a very complex issues, and it's very technical, and all this has been done in less than a year, less than six months? I hope, as we move forward, I don't have to be the one to tell folks I told you so.

At the other end of the spectrum, people are also talking a lot about market rate housing coming to neighborhoods in the South Bronx. What kind of impact do you think that could have on that area in particular?

It could have a positive impact if it's done correctly. As long as we continue to provide the type of housing and promote and advertise that housing to the professionals that live in the Bronx, so they can get a crack at it first. It's a falsehood that we don't have a skilled working professional class here in the Bronx. Any of these folks would love to live in a building along the waterfront with the amenities, with the enhancements and all of the bells and whistles, right here in the Bronx.

When you look at the surrounding neighborhoods, for the most part, you see either rent-regulated apartments or development, so we know that their rents aren't going to go up because of the new development. While we have to continue to do affordable housing, low-income housing [and] protecting people so they're not displaced, if we do this correctly, if we plan with a purpose, that we can do it all depending on the parts of the borough. Market rate can work in Port Morris. I would never say market rate can work in areas like Jerome, which is a site that we are studying to rezone in the future. One size does not fit all.

What do you say then to critics who have been vocal about that kind of change coming to those neighborhoods, or arguing that displacement is inevitable?

What I say to them is that I think about this every day of my life. Every day I wake up, I think about displacement. It's a balance and it's something we have to juggle because rents go up as you increase the quality of living in a neighborhood. Once upon a time, nobody wanted to come to the Bronx, and many of the folks who complain about it now were the same ones who complained that we didn't have nice restaurants, that we didn't have a pleasurable shopping experience, that the Bronx is full of crime. These are all the things I think are part of my responsibility—to build up the borough—and so with that, you're going to see more and more interest, you're going to see more and more development. So how do we keep people here? We gotta create jobs, we've got to do it so they're making a decent wage. We have to make sure that we have state and regional regulations and vacancy decontrol so that we protect those people who are already here.

What are some of your favorite places in the Bronx?

I love the High Bridge. I love to go to the market on Arthur Avenue. I love to play golf in our public golf courses. I love Orchard Beach. I spend a lot of time in different parks playing basketball, like Pelham Bay Park, Soundview Park. We have a beautiful esplanade in the back of Soundview Park. Very few people know about it. City Island is a favorite place of mine. We have Wave Hill, Van Cortlandt Park, and I haven't even started on the restaurants.

Do you have a particular favorite?

I can't say that because I'll make a bunch of people jealous. I try to get around to all of them though. People all over are starting to realize that if you want a good meal, if you want diversity in cuisine, come to the Bronx, baby.

Interview has been edited and condensed.