A view of the lot, before its recent clean-up, looking north from 138th Street. The Abundant Life Tabernacle begun construction work on a future church 18 years ago. Now, Barrier Free Living will build a residence for domestic violence victims and people with disabilities on the spot.

Some residents worry, though, about new burdens

With people going in and out of its grocery stores, restaurants and pharmacies, East 138th Street bustles. But just before it reaches the Bruckner Expressway, next door to the historic St. Luke’s Church, gapes the hole.

The foundation of a substantial building that was never built, the immense hole is rimmed with concrete and filled with weeds and years of accumulated garbage. Birds look for food near fluorescent lights and old circulars, bottles and clothes. A wire fence that protects pedestrians from falling down the hole intrudes onto the sidewalk.

Now, a plan to build a residence for domestic violence victims and people with disabilities offers a chance to fill in one of the few remaining gaps in a neighborhood that’s rebuilt most of its vacant lots. But the complaints and suspicions of some residents reflect a concern that Mott Haven has been forced to deal with an overwhelming number of social services agencies. Some say they bring more problems to an already-overburdened community than they solve.

A non-profit organization called Barrier Free Living plans to build 120 units of housing on the site. Fifty would be set aside for disabled people, with priority given to veterans. The other 70 are to be studios for single women who are victims of domestic abuse.

CEO Paul Feuerstein said he was excited to find a spot to build. He’s optimistic that shovels will be in the ground by the summer of 2012.

Arline Parks, a member of Community Board 1 and a housing advocate at the nearby Diego Beekman apartments, says she is wary.

“I’m not opposed to development, just make sure what’s developed is not going to add more problems,” Parks said.

Feuerstein acknowledged the concern over so-called transitional housing that include homeless shelters and halfway houses for drug abusers or parolees, but he said the new building is not like that. It will not offer short-term housing.

Residents to stay for as long as they want, he said. “They can go out feet first, or they can stay.” He added that though he makes no apologies for finding housing for people with disabilities, he’s open to suggestions from the community.

Two buildings once stood where the hole gapes now: one on the corner of 139th and Cypress and the other on 138th. Juan Vazquez is the superintendent at an apartment building next door on 138th Street. He said the hole is a breeding and feeding ground for rats. They have been a problem at the site since he moved into his basement apartment 11 years ago.

When he walks down the stairs to his apartment he bangs on the metal trashcans to scare away the rats. They usually run past him, up the stairs, and back to the lot.

“Everybody complains, but I can’t do anything,” said Vazquez.

The Abundant Life Tabernacle, located on Third Ave., near the Hub, bought the lot from the city in the early 1990’s, intending to build a new church. Asked why the lot has remained vacant for so long, a representative for the church declined to answer.

Felix Santiago, the groundskeeper at St. Luke’s Church next door, said the site had been vacant for 30 years. The hole on 138th Street dates back to 18 years ago when Abundant Life began construction, then abandoned it.

“It’s such an eyesore, especially since Nehemiah built all those beautiful homes,” said Madelyn Feliciano, the office manager at St. Luke’s,  referring to the affordable home ownership program sponsored by South Bronx Churches. She said the neighborhood has cleaned itself up since she moved to the area in 1972.

Agnes Valentin is one of the residents of the houses on 139th Street. When she moved in almost 12 years ago the neighborhood was starting to bounce back. She said South Bronx Churches tried to buy the lot to build more houses. Now, she said she’s curious about the new development.

“I don’t mind having development, but I think the South Bronx is turning into one big rehab center,” said Valentin.

Barrier Free has partnered with Alembic Development Company, which paid $2 million for the property in January, according to city records.

While the planned development doesn’t need community board approval, Feuerstein said he hoped for a letter of support to help obtain more funding. That effort came to a standstill when District Manager Cedric Loftin suffered a stroke last winter.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern right now,” Feuerstein said.

For now, the lot is seeing modest improvements.  In April, Felix Santiago, the groundskeeper at St. Luke’s Church, and his brother Esmeraldo, hauled out trash, mowed the weeds and filled in holes with wood chips. They said the new owners paid them for the clean-up.

Tracey Coleman, the principal at St. Luke’s School, wanted to hear more about the project, but said it hasn’t been the first time she’s heard about potential developments at the site.

“I will believe it when I see it being built,” said Coleman.


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