Community forum debates impact on Hunts Point
Over 100 Bronx residents and community group leaders got together at the Bronx Academy for the Future in Soundview to discuss the future of the Sheridan Expressway, getting a head start on city officials who will soon begin their own year-long study of the highway’s fate.
The Sheridan has been the subject of heated debate in recent years in and around Hunts Point, as community organizations and environmental groups push for the mile-long highway spur off the Bruckner Expressway to be torn down and replaced with parks and affordable housing.
Business groups and truckers argue it should be preserved to keep traffic flowing smoothly.
In October, the city’s Department of Transportation was awarded a $1.5 million federal grant to study existing options, and create their own plan to help decide what to do about a highway environmental groups feel doesn’t have enough traffic to justify keeping it around. Advocates of tearing down the highway rejoiced, thinking it likelier the city will opt for a Sheridan-free Bronx than the state’s Department of Transportation, which has been responsible for the Sheridan until now.
The city is expected to issue its recommendations for best use of the space the highway now occupies by the beginning of 2012.
But while city officials decide how to engage residents and incorporate local input into their recommendations, community advocates decided to revive the discussion before the city sets public forums in the coming months.
“The project to remove the Sheridan and replace it with open space comes from community groups, and that’s not going to change,” said Ashwin Balakrishnan of the non-profit organization Southern Bronx Watershed Alliance, which wants to eliminate the Sheridan in favor of parks and housing.
Representatives from Hunts Point groups Sustainable South Bronx and the Point CDC helped lead small groups of attendees at the February forum to exchange ideas, and to set strategies for providing input to city planners.
“I was there before the Sheridan,” said long time Hunts Point resident Carl Van Patten, 78. “There’s traffic going to the left, traffic going to the right, and they’re all trying to kill us,” he said.
Van Patten suggested new stores alongside where the Sheridan now stands would help Hunts Point residents avoid long bus treks to Fordham Road to shop.
But despite overall support for removing the Sheridan, some were nervous.
“If the Sheridan comes down, how do we prevent gentrification?” asked Guessan Effi, a Bronx resident and participant in the Point CDC’s neighborhood advocacy program, ACTION.
“If the corner store bodega becomes a Starbucks, how will that benefit the community?” she said, echoing the worry of many who say neighborhood beautification will make the area more desirable to outsiders with higher incomes. They worry the creation of open space, parkland and attractive housing could cause rents to rise and force long time lower-income residents out.
“People in Hunts Point can only afford $1000 rent,” said Pamela Fields, adding she was skeptical elected officials would help residents frame the debate with the city.
Julian Terrell of Soundview-based advocacy organization Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice agreed gentrification could become a concern.
“How do you prevent what’s happened in places like Atlantic Yards?” he said, referring to the wave of upscale new housing that has changed the face of downtown Brooklyn, forcing many residents out.
Rasean Robinson, 16, a student at St. Raymond’s who takes part in Youth Ministries programs, saw the value in compromise, suggesting the Sheridan be narrowed to one lane in each direction, leaving room for fishing, a skating rink and a movie theater, as well as affordable housing, around the highway. But he, too, worried about residents being forced out.
“We have to be real careful about what we put in there,” he said.
Andre Rivera, who like Robinson participates in Youth Ministries programs, however, thinks the advantages of tearing the spur down outweigh the risks. He said that after seeing a video of the Bronx River, he thought, “my god, this is beautiful. People can’t see the beauty because of the highway.”
But Rivera added that any new businesses should be “locally owned mom and pop shops.”
Rivera echoed the conclusion many others had arrived at.
“Tonight shows there’s more community involvement than you think,” he said, adding, “everyone here needs this stuff.”
A version of this story appears in the March 2011 issue of The Hunts Point Express.