South Bronx residents confronted city officials at an open house in East Tremont last Thursday, over the proposed rezoning of a large swath of Southern Boulevard between Longwood and Crotona Park.
The open house coincided with City Planning’s releasing of information from a neighborhood study it began conducting last year, seeking residents’ input ahead of the plan to rezone the 130-block area, where census data shows 60,000 people live. The agency hosted community meetings and conducted local outreach, starting last June, and announced a three-step process to “Listen + Learn; Vision + Plan; and Implement,” the plan.
The study is currently in the final stages of the first phase, “Listen + Learn.”
According to the results of the study so far, 973 people responded to questions about what they like and dislike about their neighborhoods. Three-quarters of the respondents liked their neighborhoods because of social fabric, sense of community and diversity. Seventy-seven percent were unhappy because of the prevalence of guns, youth violence and drug dealing.
Fifty-three percent of respondents were unhappy with the housing situation, complaining that rents are too high. Many are skeptical about the city’s lottery selection process for accessing affordable apartments. The category that attracted the most attention, however, was streets and transportation, with 23 percent of respondents chiming in on that topic. Fifty-two percent of them were unhappy about dangerous intersections for drivers and pedestrians, and trash in the streets.
But for the plan’s steadfast opponents, who passed out flyers at the site of the open house at the Children’s Aid College Prep Charter School on Prospect Avenue, the survey was just a facade for the city to do whatever it wants. Longwood-based Take Back the Bronx spearheaded the protest with a spoken word performance as group members recounted their struggles trying to make a living, underfunded public schools, displacement of long-term residents and homelessness, all while criticizing the Southern Boulevard Neighborhood Study. Developers will ultimately get whatever they ask for and residents will get kicked out unless the plan is completely scuttled, they argue.
The director of the city planning department’s Bronx office Carol Samol, said that the city’s number one priority is preserving Bronx neighborhoods and their character, and that planners will work with residents every step of the way in ensuring that the final plan serves the needs of residents.
“The preservation of existing affordable housing, keeping people in their homes at their current income and making sure their living conditions improve is the number one thing we can do,” Samol said. “I understand the fears but we could actively work together, bring resources to the table and make sure it’s working (to benefit) the people who are living here today.”
Many residents at the town hall said they don’t believe that. Shellyne Rodriguez of Take Back the Bronx said that the proof is in the pudding, and the city’s actions so far have not led to poor South Bronx staying in their homes. In addition, she expects that landlords will take advantage of new investment in infrastructure to get richer, at the expense of their tenants.
“What never gets talked about is all the old housing in this neighborhood. How are the landlords going to react when an affluent influx of new people start coming in?” Rodriguez said. “The landlords are going to get more aggressive and push people living on section 8, disabilities and more out. What is the city going to do about it?”
But residents were critical of the study for not being inclusive enough, and said that not enough outreach was conducted for area residents to know about the open house. Lisa Ortega, a resident of Southern Boulevard and community organizer, said that she found out about the hearing through a local nonprofit.
“I spoke to some of the community members around here to ask if they knew anything about the study,” Ortega said. “All of them said that they haven’t heard anything about a study or workshop. I visited the bodega down the street and stopped at all the mom and pop shops to ask. No one recalls ever being invited.”
Samol said that although the small group conversations and summer outreach events helped planners gather useful information from a large sample of residents, they aren’t done reaching out to residents.
“We need to hear directly from people about what’s important to them and what are their goals and what’s their vision for the area,” Samol said. “Then there will be deeper conversations revolving around housing and youth and whatever the topic may be.”