Bronx Rezoning Plan Sparks Gentrification Fears

Bronx residents hear about rezoning March 5. As yet another snowstorm piled icy powder on the city’s streets and slowed the elevated 4 train to a tortoise-like crawl on March 5, a loud crowd of more than 250 people packed the Latino Pastoral Action Center on West 170th Street for a meeting on the city’s plans to rezone the southwest Bronx neighborhood’s main streets from manufacturing and commercial use to residential use.

The rezoning, part of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to create affordable housing by piggybacking on luxury development, would cover 73 blocks along Jerome Avenue from 167th Street to 184th streets and the area’s primary side streets. Intended to encourage the construction of 4,000 new apartments, the plan, like a similar one in the works for East New York in Brooklyn, has many residents fearing it will spawn gentrification that will push them out. 

“There’s reason to be suspicious. It’s not necessarily antagonistic,” the Rev. Ray Rivera, director of the Latino Pastoral Action Center, said after the meeting. Previous redevelopment schemes in the borough, such as the new Yankee Stadium and the renovated Bronx Terminal Market “promised a lot, but fell short on delivery,” he added.

Those suspicions were the core concerns of the meeting. “We are hot, hot, hot because the city is about to rezone 73 blocks of our community—and they left us out of it,” Fitzroy Christian of Community Action for Safe Apartments declared. The crowd responded by chanting “Whose Bronx? Our Bronx!” as a crew of construction workers from Laborers Local 79 pounded drums and plastic buckets. (People were particularly offended by the plan’s original designation of the area as “Cromwell-Jerome”—as a name no one in neighborhoods like Highbridge, Mount Eden, and the Concourse uses, it came off like a gentrifiers’ rebranding, à la “Pro-Cro” in Brooklyn.)

“I want to make sure that the people born and raised here can afford to stay here,” said Local 79 Bronx business agent Barrie Smith, who is also president of 100 Black Construction Workers. “I’m not about just building. I’m about coordinating construction with the community.”

“We want to uplift the neighborhood, but we don’t want to be pushed out,” said Madeline Mendez of East 167th Street. “The rents are getting so high even the City Councilpeople are complaining.”

“Don’t let what happened to us happen to you,” Dave Powell of the Brooklyn-based Fifth Avenue Committee warned the crowd. The rezoning of Brooklyn’s Fourth Avenue, he said, was a “developer-driven process” that had no protections for tenants, gave landlords an incentive for vicious harassment, “and we didn’t even get the fake affordable housing.”

Public Advocate Letitia James, one of several elected officials who attended but did not speak—others included Councilmember Vanessa Gibson and Rep. Jose Serrano—said afterwards that she had “witnessed great displacement” when her downtown Brooklyn neighborhood was rezoned. To avoid those problems, she said, there should be a lot of community participation in the process and “development from the ground up.”

Local businesspeople are also worried. Aside from the usual commercial rent increases that more upscale development would generate, the Jerome Avenue corridor has more than 200 auto-related businesses, such as repair shops, body shops, and sound-system installers. If the avenue was rezoned residential, they would be automatically become illegal.

The community groups organizing the meeting set four main principles they believe any rezoning must follow.

First, strong antiharassment and antidisplacement policies. There are 64,000 rent-stabilized apartments in the area, one of the highest concentrations in the city, but it lost one-sixth of them in the last year, said Carmen Vega-Rivera of CASA, and market-rate construction could drive rents up even more. “This thing is like a tornado that will pick up everything,” she said. “If we don’t do this right, we’ll lose more housing than we can build.”

Second, good jobs and “a local hiring program for union construction,” said Sherice Valentine, a member of Local 79 and 100 Black Construction Workers. That would include apprenticeships, so it would create what Barrie Smith called “career-oriented jobs” instead of low-paying, intermittent nonunion work, and give people “a fair opportunity where they’re from.”

Third, real affordable housing—“real” meaning what people in the neighborhood can afford. “Often we are told that we don’t make enough for affordable housing,” Lourdes de la Cruz of CASA said in Spanish. The cheapest apartments built under programs that reserve 20 percent as “affordable” are generally priced for people who make $35,000 to $50,000 a year—but the Highbridge area has a median neighborhood income of slightly less than $25,000. Real affordability would mean rents of around $624 a month, she added. 

Finally, real community participation. “We are the experts,” Fitzroy Christian told the crowd, as he stood in front of two banners that read “Nothing about us without us is for us” and “nada acerca de nosotros sin nosotros es para nosotros.” That slogan was originally South African, he said in a mellifluous Caribbean accent, and “it is not really that different from the slogan ‘No taxation without representation.’”

The city will spend the next few months planning, and is expected to issue its recommendations in the fall. That plan would then have to go through the environmental-impact statement and Uniform Land Use Review Procedure processes, and be approved by both Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and the City Council, with Vanessa Gibson and Fernando Cabrera having a strong voice as the local Councilmembers.