Press | December 25, 1998

Residential Real Estate: Neighborhood Rises in the South Bronx

By Rachelle Garbarine

The New York Times


An enclave of three-family houses is beginning to take shape in the heart of the South Bronx, signaling the long-awaited start of Melrose Commons, the ambitious plan by a local community group to transform what was once an urban wasteland into a viable neighborhood.


The 35 houses, with a total of 105 units, are to rise on five vacant sites along Elton Avenue between East 156th and East 159th Streets in the southeastern corner of the redevelopment area, which comprises 35 square blocks east of Yankee Stadium. The houses will be built over the next 15 months as part of an $11 million project called Plaza de Los Angeles, named for its proximity to two churches.


Construction is under way on the first 26 houses. They are designed to allow the owner to live in one apartment and rent the two others to help pay the mortgage. Construction on the remaining nine houses is to begin in March.


The houses “will change the dynamics of those streets,” said Mario Procida, president of Procida Realty and Construction Corporation in the Bronx. His company is developing the project with Magnus Magnusson and Petr Stand, of the Manhattan architectural firm of Larsen Sehin Ginsberg & Magnusson, which designed the project. Both are also design consultants for Melrose Commons.


The long-term redevelopment plan envisions a mixed-income community with 1,700 residences in low- and mid-rise buildings, along with 250,000 square feet of commercial space, an equal amount of community space and 4.1 acres of open space. The entire development is expected to take 10 years to complete and cost more than $500 million.


The community group Nos Quedamos (We Stay) created the plan.


Plaza de Los Angeles “says we are moving forward and turns the plan from a theory into a reality,” said Yolanda Garcia, executive director of the group.


The first houses, priced at $218,500 to $233,901, will be offered to families whose annual incomes do not exceed $70,950. Each has a duplex unit and two simplex apartments, as well as a small yard and two parking spaces at the rear of the property. The 1,355-square-foot duplexes, for the owners, have two bedrooms, access to the yard and, in some cases, a basement. One apartment will have two bedrooms and 875 square feet; the other will have one bedroom and 455 square feet. Rents will be $600 to $750 a month.


Prices have been kept low because the project is part of the city’s New Homes Program, whose sponsors include the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the nonprofit New York City Housing Partnership. City, state and borough subsidies are estimated to have lowered the prices of the houses by $94,235. Tax abatements will reduce annual real estate taxes to $684 from a projected $1,500, and common charges at the project, which will have a homeowners’ association, are to be $66 a month.


Mr. Procida said discussions are under way with lenders to offer 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages. Buyers need a minimum of $19,000 in cash – about $11,000 for a 5 percent down payment and $8,515 for closing costs.


The Department of City Planning began studying Melrose Commons in 1985 as part of a plan to redevelop the South Bronx. Four years later the area, which contained a broad swath of city-owned land, was designated the residential anchor of the plan. It first called for 4,000 units, a number that was reduced in 1992 to 2,600 units. But there was little public participation in the plan.


That year, local residents fought off the renewal effort and became partners in designing the current plan, which the city approved in 1994. But the project was delayed, in part because the city did not complete the condemnations until earlier this year, said Bernd Zimmermann, director of planning and development for the Bronx Borough President, Fernando Ferrer.


With the first project in place, the development pace will speed up, Mr. Zimmermann said. Beyond Plaza de Los Angeles, construction is to start this spring on a 60-unit rental building on Third Avenue between 168th and 169th Streets, and plans are advancing for 90 condominium units atop 20,000 square feet of retail space on Third Avenue, between 156th and 157th Streets.


Procida, along with other partners, also plans to build a 60,000-square-foot shopping strip on the northern border of the redevelopment area, on East 163d Street at Washington and Brook Avenues. Mr. Procida said construction would not start until a third of the space had been leased.


The Melrose Commons plan includes design guidelines that reflect how residents want their neighborhood to look. The Plaza de Los Angeles homes, for example, resemble brownstones. They will have facades of red and beige brick and sand-colored cast stone instead of the vinyl siding usually found on affordable housing in the South Bronx. And parking spaces, rather than being in front of the houses, are at the rear of the property.


“The intent is to create a recognizable urban neighborhood,” Mr. Stand said.


The design also shows that the guidelines “will not hamper development,” added Mr. Magnusson, referring to early concerns of city planning officials.


The first 26 homes are to be completed by the end of 1999, with the remaining nine to be finished three months later.


“These will be homes people will be proud to live in,” Ms. Garcia said. “They will set the tone for the rest of the community.”


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