Government / Housing

Southern Boulevard rezoning opponents disrupt planning meeting

Gustavo Huerta

Shellyne Rodriguez of Take Back the Bronx at an open house in East Tremont on June 14.

Protesters argue that city’s study is window dressing for development plan

South Bronx residents confronted city officials at an open house in East Tremont on June 14, over its study of a large swath of Southern Boulevard between Longwood and Crotona Park. They say that when the city eventually rezones the 130-block area as is anticipated, the end result will be the displacement of longtime residents who won’t be able to afford higher rents that will result from the plan. 

The open house at the Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School on Prospect Avenue coincided with the City Planning department’s releasing of results from a neighborhood study it began conducting in November 2016. That survey sought residents’ input ahead of the plan to rezone the area, which census data shows is home to about 60,000 people. 

The city’s survey consisted of questions that were split into eight major themes: streets & transportation, housing, security, health, youth, community, parks & open space, and retail & local business. The category that attracted the most attention was streets and transportation, with 23 percent of the 973 residents who took the survey responding to that topic. 

Among the positive takeaways, three-quarters of those who answered questions on the theme of community said they liked their neighborhoods because of the social fabric, sense of community and diversity. 

Among the negative results, more than three quarters of respondents who answered questions about health and security were unhappy with the prevalence of guns, youth violence and drug dealing.

In the housing category, 53 percent of respondents were unhappy with the state of housing, complaining that rents are too high, and many are skeptical about the city’s lottery selection process for accessing affordable apartments. 

But the plan’s opponents, who passed out flyers at the site of the open house, the survey was just a facade for the city to do whatever it wants. Longwood-based Take Back the Bronx spearheaded the protest with a spoken word performance as group members recounted their struggles finding jobs, paying their rent and accessing decent public schools for their children.

The director of the city planning department’s Bronx office Carol Samol, said that the city’s number one priority is preserving the character of Bronx neighborhoods and those who live there, and that planners will work with them to ensure that the final plan serves residents’ needs.

“The preservation of existing affordable housing, keeping people in their homes at their current income and making sure their living conditions improve is the number one thing we can do,” Samol said. “I understand the fears but we could actively work together, bring resources to the table and make sure it’s working (to benefit) the people who are living here today.”

Many at the town hall said they don’t believe that. The city’s actions so far have not led to poor South Bronx staying in their homes, said “Apple-converted-space” Rodriguez of Take Back the Bronx, adding that she expects that landlords will take advantage of new investment in infrastructure to get richer, at the expense of their tenants.

“What never gets talked about is all the old housing in this neighborhood. How are the landlords going to react when an affluent influx of new people start coming in?” Rodriguez said. “The landlords are going to get more aggressive and push people living on section 8, disabilities and more out. What is the city going to do about it?”

In addition, the protesters were critical of the study for not being inclusive enough, saying that there was little outreach conducted in the area before the open house. Longwood resident Lisa Ortega, a community organizer, said that she found out about the hearing not from the planning department’s outreach efforts but through a local nonprofit.

“I spoke to some of the community members around here to ask if they knew anything about the study,” Ortega said. “All of them said that they haven’t heard anything about a study or workshop. I visited the bodega down the street and stopped at all the mom and pop shops to ask. No one recalls ever being invited.”

Samol said that meetings the planning department has led in the area have helped planners gather useful information about serving the neighborhood’s needs, and there will be more of those. 

“We need to hear directly from people about what’s important to them and what are their goals and what’s their vision for the area,” Samol said. “Then there will be deeper conversations revolving around housing and youth and whatever the topic may be.”

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