Housing / Parks

Southern Boulevard could be site of city’s next major overhaul

Dept. Of City Planning. A map of the area the city is studying around Southern Blvd. as it plans for possible development.

Planners met with residents, advocates to discuss area’s future

As the city considers an ambitious facelift to a 130-block area of the Bronx, residents and housing advocates recognize the need for change but worry that large scale development may make the neighborhood unaffordable for low-income residents.

At a Jan. 31 meeting at Urban Health Plan in Longwood, city planners met with representatives of local nonprofits, Community Board 2 members and residents to prompt a discussion about the Southern Boulevard Neighborhood Study, which the city unveiled last fall. The project calls for revamping an area from E. 163rd in Longwood north to Crotona Park and the Cross Bronx Expressway, and from Rev. James E. Polite Ave. on the western end to the Bronx River on the east.

The area consists mostly of low-rise housing, vacant lots and the Sheridan Expressway, which advocates have long urged the state to demolish to make way for green space and walkability.

Despite assurances from the city that it wants communities to participate throughout the planning process, skeptics fear that low-income residents will be pushed out when a revamped Longwood and points north become magnets for middle class New Yorkers looking to escape high rents in other gentrifying neighborhoods.

Some cited the rancor that the Jerome Ave. rezoning plan has caused among western Bronx residents and businesses as a harbinger of trouble to come. One resident suspected the city already has a plan but isn’t telling.

“It sounds like the plan is already written,” said Tahica Fredericks, a photographer who moved to Longwood from Brooklyn with her husband and two children a year ago when they could no longer afford the rent and other rising costs in their former neighborhood.

“I’m hearing echoes,” said Fredericks. “It sounds beautiful but it seems to always be at the expense of the people who are already there.”

But the Director of the Bronx Office of the Department of City Planning, Carol Samol, responded that the city is all ears. “We’re trying to build a consensus,” she said. “There is no plan. This plan could go in any direction. Could be businesses. Could be housing. Zoning is only a piece of it,” with “parks, schools, quality of life,” all possible components.

Many of the elements needed to jump start a plan, she said, are already in place.

“There are some strong organizations,” to help planners “build on strengths of a neighborhood,” said Samol. In the beginning phase of the Jerome Ave. project, local community boards asked the city to rezone the whole area. As a result, the city focused on rezoning as the key in its initial study for that project. In contrast, rezoning is likely to be applied in a much smaller section of the Southern Boulevard area. “It’s going to be surgical,” she said.

Prior planning initiatives that have been in place for years will help ease any new project along, planners say. Along with repurposing the Sheridan, other past projects include the creation of a greenway along the Bronx River waterfront, a parks department initiative to upgrade Crotona Park, and a plan in Soundview calling for new housing for different income levels.

Some worried that speculators will be set to pounce once rezoning is finalized, without regard for the South Bronx’s many low-income residents. A housing advocate noted that developers filed 15 building permits in the area in recent weeks. The area that would be developed encompasses several zoning classifications, but planners have not said whether there will be rezoning.

The city says that shifting population numbers over the decades show that the blocks surrounding Southern Blvd. can handle lots of growth. In 1970 the area was home to 250,000 people. Ten years later, there were just 88,000 people left, due to high crime rates, rampant arson and a massive reduction in city services. That number is now back up to 137,000 inhabitants, according to the U.S. Census.

Some who have lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s and ‘80s said they see opportunities for a revival.

“There’s so many assets this neighborhood has,” said Kerry McLean, Vice President of Community Development at the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corp., who oversaw programming at the Bronx Music Heritage Center in Soundview. “There are ways the city can support artistic expression. A lot of us were shaped because we were in band or choir. Now there’s no funding (for music in schools).”

Longtime Community Board 2 member Marta Rivera remembered the days when Hunts Point was the heart of the city’s Latin cultural explosion.

“We had four theaters on Southern Blvd,” said Rivera. Now there’s only one theater in the whole Bronx.” Still, Rivera noted, unlike Mott Haven, there is no natural center along the boulevard.

“Unlike the Hub, there’s no hub,” said Rivera. “It’s not connected.”

Ideas for improving quality of life ranged from better lighting under the elevated train, making retail space more affordable, creating an area for street vendors, and bringing in better tasting, healthier food.

But some were wary of what they sense is a lack of direction in the opening stages of discussion.

“We understand there’s a plan,” said Community Board 2 Education Committee chair Cedric McClester. “But what’s the vision?”

When the 30-some attendees were asked what surprised them the most about the meeting, the conclusion was unanimous: They were surprised that there had been a meeting at all for them to air their views.

“I’m surprised and grateful that we’re having this opportunity to say what we feel,” said Community Board 2 member Paula Fields.

Harold DeRienzo, president of Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association which organized Longwood renters during the ‘70s and ‘80s, said residents are better able to protect their interests now than they were when the arsons raged.

“We have people who are more aware than they were 10, 20 years ago,” said DeRienzo. “A lot of those same people live in this community now.”

Although he said he was optimistic that the planning department has “opened the door” for conversation with residents, he added that housing advocates are prepared for a fight if the city begins ignoring the public’s stake in the project.

“If we have to engage in a parallel process, we will,” he said.

Residents are encouraged to click on this link to participate in the neighborhood survey.

The story was updated on Feb. 11. 

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