“The Times Square of the South Bronx” is an apt moniker for a place more commonly known as “the Hub”. Situated at the crossing of subway lines, bus routes, and major thoroughfares, the Hub is one of the busiest commercial districts in New York City. The corner of East 149th Street and Third Avenue constitutes the center of this half-mile, spoke-like network of traffic arteries that radiate into the Melrose and Mott Haven neighborhoods. You cannot stand in one place here: Hordes of commuters boarding buses and entering and exiting narrow subway entrances sweep you along. Street vendors occupy much of the sidewalk selling everything from sunglasses to sodas. Salsa music blares from curbside radios and the heavy smell of food being fried at street stands wafts through the air. On a weekday afternoon in June, virtually all passersby were Hispanic or African American, and a great many were wearing jeans and sneakers. No hipsters were apparent, and no one was wearing a suit.
Throughout this bustling area there are still stately old masonry theaters from the era when the magician Harry Houdini and actors such as Lionel Barrymore performed here. Today, many of these historic buildings are bedecked in a riot of awnings and signs advertising beauty parlors, pawnshops, and electronics stores. In some cases, billboards and posters—such as a long brown one advertising Envy Nails—cover entire rows of second story windows. Alongside the faded Beaux-Arts buildings are more recent arrivals—Lego-like cinderblock structures with plate glass windows. You can see unfulfilled potential in the dusty upper story windows of 149th Street‘s sturdy old loft buildings decorated with faded “Offices for Rent” signs that might be appropriate for tenants such as tech startups or design studios.
In many ways the Hub is still recovering from the dark days of the 1970s, when the South Bronx became the most notorious symbol of urban blight in the country. Community District 1, which includes the Hub, lost 43 percent of its population during that decade. Fires and abandonment destroyed up to 97 percent of the building stock in some census tracts. Take a turn off East 149th Street, one of the Hub’s main drags, and north on Bergen Avenue and you will find trash-strewn sidewalks and fenced-off, weed-covered lots abandoned for so long that small trees have taken root. Back when the Bronx was burning, many property owners stopped paying taxes, and the city used foreclosures and eminent domain to acquire a vast inventory of such properties. However, the area as a whole has improved recently, thanks in part to better policing, say local residents such as Tanjy Davis, a former restaurant owner out for a walk with her daughter. “Brook Avenue has changed so much,” she said. “They used to have prostitution over there and young kids were shooting guns.”
There are signs that the South Bronx as a whole is reviving. In 2013, the Opera House Hotel, the Bronx’s first luxury boutique hotel opened for business in a renovated 1913 theater on 149th Street. And in the past year there has been a tremendous amount of real estate speculation in the Bronx. According to the New York Daily News, multifamily sales rose 67 percent and sales of development sites were up by 85 percent. However in the area around the Hub virtually all the new residential buildings have been built as affordable housing, and they owe their existence to generous government subsidy programs that generally include the sale of city owned land to private developers for nominal sums of money. A case in point is Via Verde, the award-winning affordable housing development completed in 2012 at the corner of 156th Street, just beyond the empty lots on Brook Avenue. Via Verde received a slew of subsidies from the New York City Council, NYC Housing Development Corporation, The New York State Affordable Housing Corporation, the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), and other government agencies.
Much of the new City-subsidized development in and around the Hub is targeted toward alleviating poverty. The 88,000-square-foot Triangle Plaza Hub is currently under construction on the site of a former municipal parking lot at 149th Street. The $40 million development will provide the South Bronx with essential goods and services that most Manhattan neighborhoods take for granted, including a primary care medical center for the federally designated medically underserved community. Triangle Plaza Hub will also house a Fine Fare Supermarket, which will benefit from tax incentives under the City’s FRESH program for grocery stores selling nutritious, affordable produce and meats in underserved communities.
The potential capstone to the Hub’s redevelopment is a proposed $345 million project called La Central, slated for the last large assemblage of vacant city-owned land in the South Bronx. A draft proposal for the project calls for a mixed-income affordable housing development of five buildings with 992 rental apartments, 2.2 acres of publicly accessible open space, and a host of new ground-level retail spaces. The project, which spans three existing blocks including a superblock created years ago by the de-mapping of a city street, will fill in the gaping hole between the residential developments along Brook Avenue, such as Via Verde, and the commercially-oriented areas around the Hub.
With so many government approvals and so many government subsidies required for such a large project to move forward, community support is critical. The draft proposal was presented at Bronx Community Board 1’s land use committee in June by a development team that packed the hearing room. There were representatives from La Central’s lead developer, the Hudson Companies, as well as the non-profit development partners for the project, which include Common Ground and the YMCA. In addition, there were representatives from a large design team that included FXFOWLE, MHG Architects, and Future Green Studio.
Aaron Koffman, a principal at the Hudson Companies, told the community board that La Central’s facilities and amenities were intended to provide services and recreational opportunities for the entire neighborhood. “It is about community, education, and affordable housing—those are the three pillars,” he said. One such space is a 10,000-square-foot studio and classroom space for BronxNet, a non-profit public access television station devoted to community-based programming and broadcast skills trainings for local residents. BronxNet would be joined by spaces for other non-profits, including music education program Music Has No Enemies, a day care center, and the South Bronx’s first YMCA, home to a diabetes prevention program run by Montefiore Medical Center.
FXFOWLE partner Dan Kaplan described how the project was designed to enhance the Hub with substantial open space within the development and a public plaza on an adjacent lot. Its street walls with ground-level retail seek to connect the buildings to the existing neighborhood fabric, and a pedestrian thoroughfare will reestablish a neighborhood connection lost when a section of East 152nd Street was de-mapped years ago. The massing ranges from a 25-story tower on the northern part of the site to 12-story buildings with two-story attached maisonettes. Articulated facades with recessed sections and bands of different colored bricks are intended to break down the scale of the development into smaller elements so as not to overwhelm immediate neighbors, among them low-lying warehouses along Bergen Avenue.
Because HPD is in charge of selling the land, the critical subsidy for such developments, it is able to exact a great many concessions in return. For La Central, HPD is mandating that the developers meet special green design standards established for affordable housing, setting the terms on the affordability of the units, and even requirements that the units be larger than those currently required by the city’s building code. The city‘s various stipulations might appear to be a difficult proposition for a private developer, except for the fact that the taxpayer will undoubtedly be picking up the tab for many of the features and amenities described in the draft development proposal. If the La Central deal goes through, the Hudson Companies and its non-profit partners will be able to buy the land for their development for a dollar per tax lot and potentially benefit from a number of subsidies that could include various government loans, tax-exempt bonds, and tax abatement programs that can last for up to 40 years.
Building state-of-the-art affordable housing can be quite profitable for private developers according to housing advocates. “The Hudson Company is certainly going to make money off of this and off of anything that is city sponsored,” said Moses Gates, Director of Planning & Community Development for the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development, “If you have all of these great design elements, it is not the developer paying for them,” said Gates. “It is the public paying for them that is how it works, the developer has their return in mind and if they want to do all of this cool fancy stuff, they find funding for it and that funding is various subsidy programs.”
The proposed rents for La Central are designed to be affordable for households from a wide range of the income scale: between 30 percent and 100 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI), or equivalent to an annual income of $18,150 to $60,500 for an individual or $23,350 to $77,700 for a family of three. The housing units awarded through government run lotteries that generally attract a tremendous number of applicants. In 2014, the tenant lottery for 2,500 subsidized apartments in New York City drew 1.5 million applications—a 600 applicant to unit ratio. To help preserve the neighborhood, the city is requiring the developers to fill 50 percent of the units at La Central with local residents from Community District 1.
However, despite being given preference on 50 percent of the units, for many Community District 1 residents, the rents will be unaffordable. According to data from New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, in 2013 Community District 1 had a 16 percent unemployment rate and half of household incomes were under $21,600. Further, close to a third of households in Community District 1 are “severely rent burdened”—which means that their rent equals at least 50 percent of their monthly pretax income.
Although his organization is focused on helping the poorest New Yorkers find housing, Anthony Winn, Chief Operating Officer of the influential local housing advocacy organization Nos Quedamos (We Stay), said that it is critical to have developments that can accommodate a variety of income ranges. “Often times you get an overemphasis on housing for the poor, which is important,” said Winn. “But when you are trying to grow and develop a community, you want to keep a balance between making sure that those with the most need are served while also making sure that you are not creating a concentration of poverty.”
For La Central to move forward, the land that it is slated to occupy must be rezoned from its current manufacturing designation to allow a residential use. And because the project involves a rezoning, the sale of city owned land and other government actions, the plan must pass through the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), a lengthy process that requires approvals from various agencies and public hearings before the New York City Council and the local community board. At the CB1 hearing on La Central, residents expressed concern about the building slated to be solely owned by the non-profits Common Ground and Communal Life, which would provide 96 studios at 30 percent AMI, 60 percent of which would be set aside for veterans with mental illness and low-income elderly people with HIV/ AIDS from throughout the city. Several board members said that the proposed supportive housing should address the needs of local elderly residents rather than accommodate populations with serious problems from across the city. Hudson’s Koffman responded that government financing was not available for an alternative supportive housing program and that his company was addressing guidelines set by the City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD): “We are doing nothing different from what they [HPD] are doing all over the city.” However, many at the hearing said that their community already bears too much of that burden. “There is and there has been a concern with an oversaturation of particular populations that cause major quality of life issues,” said Bronx Community Board 1 Land Use Chair Arlene Parks, “and the burden on a police department, the 40th Precinct, who already is so overburdened that they cannot respond to all of things we have going on here.”
Although the supportive housing component of the proposed La Central project remains contentious, the overall program wins praise from community members. “We are looking to have a diverse population in the district and for different persons of different incomes to be able to afford to live here,” said Cedric Loftin, District Manger of Community Board 1. “Those portions are going to have to be discussed, but we feel that the project will meet those needs.”
“It looks like a very exciting project in terms of what it is going to do for the community dynamic,” said Winn from Nos Quedamos, although he noted that his organization has not yet taken a formal position on the project. “There is diversity in what the structures are going to look like,” added Winn. “They are bringing in a diversity of formats in terms of the housing units, and it is looking at community use and community resources that go beyond the residents of the building—that YMCA, for example, is going to serve the greater Bronx community.”
Community-based organizations in Melrose, especially Nos Quedamos, have a formidable track record when it comes to influencing development outcomes. In the early 1990s, city officials made plans to raze the remains of a 30-block swath of Melrose and replace it with massive new developments. Neighborhood leaders found out about the City’s tabula rasa plan and formed Nos Quedamos to preserve what was left of their neighborhood. The New York City firm Magnusson Architecture and Planning (MAP) worked pro bono with the group to produce the alternative Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan in 1993. The plan, which included local residents in the design process and prioritized their housing needs, was adopted by the city the following year. “The vision was for a mixed-income neighborhood,” said Magnus Magnusson, Principal of MAP. “And although it was very hard to envision middle income there originally, we felt that it was very important to make the buildings look like middle income.”
The South Bronx is still one of the five poorest congressional districts in the country. But some of the government subsidized housing built in Melrose Commons over the past decade undoubtedly would attract a long line of prospective affluent tenants were they located in one of the city’s pricier precincts. One such development is the MAP-designed Aurora, an eight-story, 91-unit condominium building located on a tree-lined block of Washington Avenue. The boxy, brick-faced building is a good neighbor—it features setbacks to break up the massing and a supermarket and restaurant featuring Mexican food made from family recipes at ground level. The Aurora, which received subsidies from the Affordable Housing Corporation and the Bronx Borough president’s office, has every amenity on a checklist for middle income housing: bamboo floors, ceramic bathroom fixtures, and a gracious landscaped terrace for residents with play equipment for children.
According to the architects and developers who designed the recently completed Melrose Commons, because city-subsidized affordable apartments are built to guidelines imposed by HPD and are generally larger, they are also often are of better quality than market-rate units under construction in wealthier neighborhoods. And as opposed to the tower-in-the-park typology prevalent in other urban renewal areas, the affordable housing developed in Melrose typically relates to the street, with ground-level retail along the avenues and lower-scale townhouse buildings along side streets.
Although the South Bronx has not yet managed to attract much market-rate housing, the population moving into its affordable housing has become increasingly income diverse. “For many years the top income level at the typical new building in the South Bronx was 60 percent of AMI,” said Ted Weinstein, HPD’s Bronx director. In the case of La Central, the development proposal calls for half of the units to be between 80 percent and 100 percent AMI.
The city’s development policies in the South Bronx have also won support from affordable housing advocates. “On the whole it has been an unqualified success,” said Moses Gates from ANHD. “However, the availability of City-owned land has been critical to subsidizing that success,” explained Gates. “When you have land that is government-owned, you can go from the ground up and say how do we make it happen, rather than everybody throwing out bids and just taking the highest one.”
Over the past decade, in addition to shepherding the construction of thousands of units of rent stabilized affordable housing in the South Bronx, HPD has promoted the use of environmentally friendly designs and materials by awarding competitive points for green features in requests for proposals and by instituting minimum green building standards. “In the old days it was how many units and how cheap,” said Les Bluestone, a developer who in 2009 completed the Eltona in Melrose Commons, the first LEED Platinum affordable rental building in New York State. Bluestone credits the city for raising the bar: “The Bloomberg administration started looking at quality issues that weren’t studied so much in the past, and that is continuing under the present [de Blasio] administration.” Melrose Commons became the first neighborhood in the city to join the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Neighborhood Development Pilot Program (LEED-ND) in 2010.
Sustainable design certainly provides a host of benefits for people from any socio-economic group. But in the South Bronx, green features can be critical to the physical and economic health of low- and moderate-income residents. “In affordable housing, when it is a family of three and every dollar counts, the fact that utility bills could be knocked down by a significant percentage makes a difference,” said Kaplan, the architect from FXFowle. The development, which is aiming to achieve a LEED Silver rating, also includes a plethora of green features, such as solar panels to power a co-generation plant, which will reduce reliance on the city’s electric grid by 50 percent. A rooftop variable refrigerant flow system will eliminate the need for wall air conditioning units, allowing for tighter sealing throughout the building.
One of the primary ways La Central will reduce energy loads is through traditional block and plank construction, which utilizes precast concrete planks for the floor system and concrete cinderblocks for bearing walls, in contrast to the steel-beamed, market-rate buildings with glass facades being built in other parts of the city. “With market-rate housing you are trying to maximize the amount of glass that you have within the confines of the energy code and that generally means 45 percent glass,” said Kaplan. “La Central and other affordable housing projects we are designing are probably within 20 to 25 percent range for glass,” he said, noting that despite advances in glazing, glass generally is the biggest source of heat transfer in residential buildings.
The green features at new developments like La Central also have the potential to reduce the South Bronx’s high rates of asthma, linked in part to substandard building conditions like mold infestations. At The Eltona, developer Les Bluestone prohibited smoking and installed continuous background ventilation to reduce the impact of formaldehyde off gassing from residents’ furniture. In addition, non-toxic pest control systems such as non-cellulose wall structures and steel mesh termite barriers prevent the infestations like the recent ones that have been linked to repertory problems in New York City public housing projects. According to a recent Mount Sinai study, The Eltona’s features appear to have substantially reduced asthma attacks among residents. “It was absolutely amazing,” said Bluestone. ”People who were being hospitalized multiple times a month all of a sudden weren’t going to the hospital.”
La Central will not be the most high-tech or environmentally sustainable building in the area around the Hub. Across Brook Avenue from the fenced off vacant lots where La Central is slated for construction is the aforementioned Via Verde, designed by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw Architects. Via Verde is the most state-of-the art affordable housing development in New York City. With its colorful prefabricated aluminum, cement and wood panel facade, and rooftop farm, it can hold its own against the new iconic buildings along the High Line in Manhattan. Further, although it features ground-level retail and a community health center, Via Verde is a relatively self-contained development—a gated courtyard, although originally intended for public use, is generally open only to residents. And with 222-mixed income residential units, Via Verde is much smaller than the La Central development, which with its commercial spaces, public thoroughfare, and large public greensward promises to redefine the neighborhood. “One of the reasons that we like La Central from a design point of view is that it is bigger than a single building,” said Kaplan, “and we had an opportunity to create a neighborhood.”
With close to half of its units slated for renters making above 80 percent AMI and 11 percent slated for renters making up to 100 percent AMI, La Central promises to alter the demographics of this poverty stricken community. However, there is no way that the proposed development with its low- and moderate-income guidelines and its supportive housing component can be construed as being an agent for the kind of gentrification that is sweeping other New York City neighborhoods. “Somebody like me, who doesn’t make that much money, still makes too much money for buildings like these,” said Winn from Nos Quedamos. “If you make halfway decent money, you cannot get in because you make too much for the rental requirements and the number [of units] available at 100 percent AMI usually is just a fraction of the building, and then there is competition for those units.”
The developers hope to complete the ULURP process by April 2016 and purchase the property from the city the following month. Much about the project’s design could change as a result of the various reviews required under the city’s land review process. However, neighborhood leaders say that things are off to a good start. “Community-based organizations are aware of what will be happening on the site and I am sure that there will be interactions short-term and long-term,” said Loftin from Community Board 1. “People are going to be looking at bringing educational engagement to the process and also seeing involvement long term, once the project is developed—so we are very excited.”