A Renewal Plan in the Bronx Advances
By Mervyn Rothstein
The New York Times
Melrose Commons, the groundbreaking attempt by a South Bronx community to design its own urban renewal plan, has made it through the New York City bureaucracy.
The plan for about 1,500 housing units in a blighted 33-square block area east of Yankee Stadium has in less than a year – close to record time – got the go-ahead from Community Boards 1 and 3, the Bronx Borough President’s Office, the New York City Planning Commission and the various other city agencies whose oversight is required in the city’s complex land-use review process. Last month, it received final approval from the City Council.
Now comes the hard part.
“Does this mean there’s a project?” said Richard A. Kahan, chairman of the steering committee for the Bronx Center, a major development plan for a 300-block area of the South Bronx that encompasses Melrose Commons. “No, it means there’s a legal right to do a project.”
For that legal right to become a reality, real estate developers will have to be found who are willing to take a chance on that area of the South Bronx, and Federal, state and city money will have to find its way to the project. Yolanda Garcia, president of Nos Quedamos (We Stay), the neighborhood group that created the final plan, estimated the cost of Melrose Commons at about $15 million a block. At 33 blocks, that comes to almost $500 million, a lot of money at a time when government financing of urban renewal is not expected to approach the levels of the past.
“This community has been neglected for the last 40 years,” she said. “We’re ready to start moving on, and we want to do this right. We want to turn things around and make this a place where anybody and everybody will love to live.”
The plan itself envisions a low- to mid-rise mixed-income residential community, with commercial and community facilities, parks and public spaces: 1,470 to 1,715 new dwelling units, 80 rehabilitated units, 175,000 square feet of commercial retail and office space, 200,000 square feet of space in community structures and 4.1 acres of mapped park and public open space.
One of the keys to the plan is population density. Under the plan, parts of the neighborhood are to include six- to eight-story mixed-use buildings with commercial bases, in the hope that such buildings will provide enough people on the streets and in the stores to help make the neighborhood safe.
“It’s a housing type meant to insure an active, vibrant safe community,” Mr. Kahan said, “and therefore will represent a good, sound economic investment.”
Some in city government have questioned whether such buildings are feasible, whether there are any developers around willing to construct them. But those voices seem to be in the minority. The plan has the outspoken support of many people in the public sphere, from Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx Borough President, one of its founders and guiding spirits, all the way up to cabinet level in the Federal Government, all of whom praise it as a prime example of a new kind of interaction and partnership between government and its citizens.
“The revised plans to restore the community of Melrose Commons represent a guiding principle at HUD,” said Henry G. Cisneros, Secretary of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, who viewed the neighborhood and the plan on a visit to the South Bronx earlier this year.
“Successful revitalization absolutely requires the participation of the community’s residents. The City of New York listened to the people who live in Melrose Commons because they understood that the fabric of a community is strengthened by these partnerships. I salute this success.”
Mr. Kahan, the head of the Urban Assembly, a nonprofit planning group, and a former president of the New York State Urban Development Corporation and the Battery Park City Authority, said that the plan “has captured a lot of people’s imagination — which makes the likelihood of realizing this project much higher than if it hadn’t.”
“The work that has been done is already being viewed as a model of what can be done,” he said. “The major asset we have going in is a cohesive community. We have had delegations from the Ivory Coast, South Africa, Chile and other places meet with Nos Quedamos to see how the group was conducting the planning process.”
It didn’t start out that way.
The Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area is a 33-block area bounded by East 163d Street on the north, Third, St. Ann’s and Brook Avenues on the east, East 156th through East 159th Streets on the south and Melrose, Courtlandt and Park Avenues on the west.
Planning efforts for Melrose Commons began in 1985, when the City Planning Department began studying the East 161st Street corridor as part of a plan to redevelop Bronx’s downtown.
Melrose Commons, which included the largest contiguous stretch of municipally owned land in the city, was designated the residential anchor of the revitalization plan, prepared in late 1989.
At one point, the renewal plan included a middle-income community of 4,000 units: 30 blocks of small, attached houses. Then it became 2,600 units as a vital part of the Bronx Center plan, which Mr. Ferrer began in 1992.
But there was little public participation, and the Melrose plan involved relocating the residents of the neighborhood, which contains many vacant lots and buildings.
The planners had estimated that at the most, 78 private homes, 400 tenants in apartment buildings and 80 businesses employing 500 workers would have to be displaced.
All of which was news to the neighborhood’s residents, who have said they first heard about Melrose Commons in the summer of 1992 when one of them accidentally met a city worker taking notes outside her house. Word quickly spread, and a committee was formed to fight the plan.
Ms. Garcia, whose family has owned a carpet store on Third Avenue for decades, said the feeling was that those who stayed with the neighborhood through the hard times, who had kept it going through the decay and the crime and the difficulties, should be part of the progress.
The 1990 census disclosed that the population of the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area was 2,897 people in 940 occupied units. The median household income in 1989 was less than $12,000 a year, one of the lowest in city.
There were 67 commercial concerns with about 255 employees; 19 automotive business with about 109 employees and 11 manufacturing or warehousing concerns with about 201 employees.
In addition, there were 22 institutional buildings, such as a police station, day-care centers, churches and a school, with a total of more than 730 employees. Residences included 120 occupied one- and two-family homes and three- to six-story multiple dwellings.
Indeed, much of the housing in the Melrose area was abandoned or demolished. Previous attempts to rehabilitate the neighborhood had never gotten off the ground. City figures show that about 60 percent of the area consists of vacant land or vacant buildings, with the city owning about 55 percent of all the properties in the urban renewal area, including 85 percent of the vacant land.
The neighborhood group was intent on keeping what was worth keeping and, equally important, designing a community that would meet their needs and would last. One resident, Pedro Cintron, a Nos Quedamos founder, would interrupt public forums held by Mr. Kahan’s Bronx Center and loudly declare that he and his neighbors wanted to stay in their community and their homes.
The Bronx Center provided two community organizers. A longtime resident donated office space at 811 Courtlandt Avenue for Nos Quedamos to hold weekly meetings and discuss aspects of the plan with representatives of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Parks, Transportation and other city agencies. The group would try to make its views clear and get the city to understand that its members, and not the bureaucrats, knew what was best for their neighborhood.
“In one year, we had 168 meetings,” Ms. Garcia said. “We lobbied everyone. Every Tuesday and Thursday we would send out 250 faxes telling officials of our views.” They worked with two architects — Petr Stand of Magnusson Architects of Manhattan and Lee Weintraub of Weintraub & diDomenico of Manhattan — both of whom participated on a pro bono basis.
The original plan, which was withdrawn by the city, had envisioned the center of the community as being in the south, closer to “the Hub,” the long-established commercial and retail district along East 149th Street.
“It was not anything that jumped out at us as a terrible idea,” Mr. Kahan said. “But at a community meeting the residents said the center was in the northeast quadrant, where there many of the people live and where there are two abandoned courthouses, one of them a landmark.”
So, Mr. Stand said, the northeast is now considered the neighborhood center, “and the idea is to place a planning center in the landmark courthouse and to have Boricua College” — a private institution founded to serve Hispanic students — “occupy the other one.”
The original plan also called for a two-acre park in the middle of the project, “and that also didn’t at first look like a terrible idea,” Mr. Kahan said. “But to the community residents it was immediately apparent that such a park was an indefensible place. It would be a den for crack addicts and other criminals.”
Instead, he said, the approved plan envisions “a hierarchy of spaces for different ages, children and adults, for different purposes, from mews streets to small parks, with different types of defensive characteristics around them.”
Mr. Stand also said that the plans include upgrading the Melrose Metro-North station. “There are now six trains a day,” he said. “We are going to research how to add trains and make it a community asset. After all, it is 15 minutes from Manhattan and can serve as a vital link to both Westchester and Fairfield Counties.”
All of which sounds promising. But now that the approval has been obtained, how will the buildings get built?
Ms. Garcia said that the plan was to begin in the southeastern quarter, where much of the land is city-owned so there is less to be acquired, and where the project can build on current residential and economic development south of 156th Street and closer to the Hub.
“The area also brings into the concept everything we have talked about,” she said. “There would be the six- to eight-story buildings with commercial bases along Third Avenue. The midblocks would have four-story town house walkups. And there will also be smaller one- or two-family homes. And it’s all in conjunction with what’s already here, which is not going to be torn down. Which was our principal statement.”
The plan’s backers say there are many potential resources.
“There is money in this year’s capital budget to do a number of things,” Mr. Ferrer said, “including facade improvement for existing housing and the first two years of site preparation work. In addition, HUD is committed to work with us in a strong way on multifamily houses in small zones.”
Mr. Ferrer and United States Representative Jose E. Serrano, a Democrat who represents the South Bronx, have also asked Mr. Cisneros and the Clinton Administration to include Melrose Commons as part of a proposed empowerment zone for economic redevelopment and community rebuilding that would provide $100 million in Federal aid to the city.
The city’s application for the zone includes the area around Yankee Stadium and the industrial strips of Port Morris and Hunts Point.
The request to include Melrose Commons, as well as the Mott Haven section, was made “after it became evident that the application did not address the issue,” said Bernd Zimmermann, Mr. Ferrer’s director of planning and development. The city and the state are expected to supply $100 million each to supplement the Federal funds.
The area around Melrose Commons has also seen successful development in recent years, most notably at Melrose Court, a housing development recently completed just to the east by the New York City Housing Partnership — a nonprofit organization that works with developers and community groups to build housing in poorer neighborhoods — the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, the Bronx Shepherds Restoration Corporation and the Procida Construction Corporation of the Bronx.
“Melrose Court has been very successful,” Ms. Garcia said. “We can draw off its strength.”
The $29 million Melrose Court, between Brook and St. Ann’s Avenues and East 156th and 159th Streets in the Melrose section, consists of 263 condominium homes in 73 three- and four-story town houses. The project is subsidized by government funds so that two-bedroom units were sold for about $51,000 and three-bedroom units for $72,000. Because of the subsidies, there are income limits for potential buyers.
And government subsidies, said Kathryn Wylde, the Partnership’s president, are the key. “Melrose Court required a larger subsidy than our standard Partnership two-family homes,” Ms. Wylde said. “There is clearly a market demand for ownership units prices in the $70,000 range and affordable to households with incomes in the range of $25,000 to $30,000. The Melrose Commons development will have to reach into that market, which means it will have to have sufficient subsidies to do so. And for a project on its scale, that will undoubtedly mean Federal as well as city and state assistance.”
The prospects for rental housing, she said, will depend on Federal subsidies larger than those for home ownership.
“That’s going to be the bigger challenge. The ability to use all the tools in financing rental housing, including low-income tax credits, will be very important.”
The question remains, however, whether developers are willing to put up the six- to eight-story elevator buildings with a commercial base that the plan calls for.
Back in April, before the Planning Commission approved the proposal, Joseph B. Rose, the commission chairman, questioned the “urban design controls” in the plan, saying there were too many construction restrictions and questioning whether the city, state or Federal governments, or private developers, would be willing to develop the site as planned. He said he hoped that the plan would not remain dormant for decades because no one could obtain financing for the buildings.
“Right now, there are no programs or mechanisms or market for the built form that the plan calls for,” he said at the time, adding that “inflexibility can be just as harmful as a lack of resources.”
Mr. Rose proposed an amendment permitting the city to modify the plan. But the community, Mr. Ferrer and the Council objected, and the Council dropped the amendment before approving the plan.
Despite his setback, Mr. Rose has not changed his stand. “I think there are serious concerns by many people familiar with the economics of construction and the dynamics of the housing market in the South Bronx that some of the things that may be mandated in the Melrose Commons plan may prove overly restrictive,” he said in an interview.
“A lot of the things mandated in the plan are going to involve considerable public resources, and those resources are in scarce supply right now.”
“But,” he added, “we all hope it won’t prove an obstacle to realizing a successful vision of Melrose Commons. I think we should all focus on working together constructively. But it’s important to balance aspirations with considerations of feasibility.”
Mr. Ferrer, however, said he believed that the six- to eight-story buildings called for in the plan can and should be built.
“There’s a segment of the development community that believes that all you can do in inner-city neighborhoods is single- and two-family homes, because the poor people can’t deal with anything different,” the Borough President said. “Not only is that bigoted. It happens to be wrong and pretty stupid.”
And the others involved are fully optimistic. “Joe Rose is right for things as they stand now,” Ms. Wylde said. “But what the Bronx is banking on is that by putting forth an ambitious and visionary plan it can mobilize the public support and the private market sources necessary to make it work.”
Even though there is now no program to support the mixed-use residential and commercial model proposed for Melrose Commons, she said, “the city is proposing such a model for the empowerment zone, and we believe it makes sense as a federally assisted housing type.”
In addition, she said, there are also discussions under way with the state, particularly the Urban Development Corporation, “to bring in the funds necessary for the commercial portion of the subsidies.”
Ron Shiffman, a member of the Planning Commission, director of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development and a strong backer of the Melrose Commons plan, said that among the positive signs for the area was the fact that Caldor’s, a major department store, had opened an outlet in a former Alexander’s in the Hub.
“There are problems that have to be solved,” Mr. Kahan said. “There are some financing packages that have to be created. The main problem is financing buildings that we don’t have programs for this morning, but which everyone realizes we should have programs for. This isn’t rocket science. It is doable if the will is there.”
And, it is clear, the will is certainly there. ‘Melrose has to happen,” Mr. Ferrer said. “We will see most of the housing constructed by the end of this decade. And we’re already in 1994. So that’s not bad.”
Kent Barwick, head of the Municipal Art Society, an active supporter of the Bronx Center and Melrose Commons plans, said he was certain the plan would succeed, in part because he believed the housing prototypes in Melrose Commons would also be desirable in most of the urban neighborhoods in the United States.
“Do I think it will be built tomorrow?” Mr. Barwick said. “No. But do I think it will be built? Yes. And when it is built do I think it will last? Yes.”
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