The Long-Awaited Waterfront

This piece was originally produced for WNYC's The Affordability Project on December 21, 2016


The South Bronx waterfront is industrial, smelly, and inaccessible.

Nearly a third of the city’s garbage goes through Mott Haven and is then transferred to trucks or a train that snakes along the Harlem River’s edge, out to garbage dumps around the region.

“You can smell how horrible it is, that water sitting there, that is all water that leaks from trucks that come by,” said Ed Garcia Conde, a Melrose resident and author of the blog, Welcome2theBronx. “This actually permeates through the neighborhood. On certain days when it’s warm and humid, it stretches around.”

Garcia Conde and many other South Bronx residents want the waterfront cleaned up — they want esplanades and green space instead of railroads and highways. They've been envisioning what they want the waterfront to become for decades.

The city wants it cleaned up too. In 2006 Mayor Bloomberg announced the South Bronx Initiative, a plan to attract development to the South Bronx. It sought to leverage private development to create a continuous promenade on the Bronx side of the Harlem River that would be publicly accessible.

Now, developers Keith Rubenstein of Somerset Partners, along with the Chetrit Group, are ready to break ground on the first section of the neglected waterfront in Mott Haven. They plan to build six towers on both sides of the Third Avenue Bridge with approximately 1,200 market-rate units.

“There's a lot of unhappiness, drug needles, other broken bottles to say the least,” said Keith Rubenstein about the area, and he has plans about how to clean it up.

“We’re taking industrial property that was highly populated with bus and truck traffic and moving that out, taking those buildings down, creating new buildings with open space and access for the public to the waterfront.”

But Garcia Conde and others are worried that the market-rate buildings will drive up rents in the area and push out low-income residents who currently live there. People in the community want developers like Rubenstein to include affordable housing in their buildings, but that's not required in the zoning rules.

Tom Angotti, a professor of Urban Studies at Hunter College and author of Zoned Out, Race Displacement and City Planning in New York City, said the problem is bigger than any one developer. He says it’s a public policy issue and that has much bigger consequences.

“We looked at the rezonings over the last 15 years and you see a pattern,” said Angotti. “The areas that are rezoned for new development do tend to be communities of color, low-income communities, and the areas that have been protected by zoning tend to be white, homeowner areas.”

A comprehensive plan should take into account the effect it will have on local communities. He says the city’s plans have always been piece-meal and often short-sighted.

“The city of New York has really never had a comprehensive plan, a land use plan, a long term plan," he said. "Zoning is not the same as planning....It doesn't necessarily presume a broader vision of the future of the city."

Mayor de Blasio is trying to solve this growing inequality through his recently approved proposal known as "Mandatory Inclusionary Housing," a citywide program that could lead to more affordable housing.

But Mott Haven has already been rezoned several times and mandatory affordable housing isn’t required of developers there.

Rubenstein said he can't satisfy everyone in the community but he planned to build a beautiful public promenade that will be accessible for everyone. He expects to break ground soon on what is a tiny sliver of the South Bronx Waterfront, surrounded by highways, waste transfer stations, and railroads and in the process, start to realize Bloomberg's decade-old vision.