A group of residents and developers surveys an abandoned gas station on 138th St. on June 26.
A group of residents and developers surveys an abandoned gas station on 138th St. on June 26.
A group of residents and developers surveys an abandoned gas station on 138th St. on June 26.

Feds ask residents to help plan sweeping change

On a walking tour of Mott Haven in June, residents were asked to think big about the kinds of improvements they would want to see a federal development project bring to the neighborhood in the near future.

But although they acknowledged there is ample room for change, some are nervous that the initiative being considered could hurt low-income residents more than it helps them, if it is not carefully monitored.

The June 25 tour that started at the Borinquen Court Senior Center on 138th St., was the latest in a series of sessions organized to unite residents and developers in creating a plan they hope will attract investment to help revitalize Mott Haven. They are competing with urban areas across the country also vying for private investment dollars, and for federal funding through the government’s Choice Neighborhood Initiative.

The city Housing Authority and a city-based non-profit, the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, are collaborating to lead Mott Haven’s participation in the program, focusing on five NYCHA complexes and surrounding areas, between 132nd and 149th Streets: Millbrook, Mitchel, Patterson, Mott Haven, and Betances Houses.

But some residents worry that what’s best for wealthy investors may not be best for NYCHA tenants. They expressed both excitement and concern.

“I don’t like the idea of too many people coming into the neighborhood and building condominiums and houses for rich people,” said Tony Dalton, 70, who lives at Borinquen. “If you’re going to build something in the neighborhood, build it half and half.”

Representatives of the non-profit tried to ease concerns, reassuring residents they will be the ones shaping the new project. Some worry new plans could include knocking down some of the neighborhood’s smaller complexes, like Betances Houses. But a representative of the non-profit, Zarana Sanghani, said the goal is to “preserve NYCHA housing and low-income and affordable housing,” adding “We don’t even entertain demolishing anything in the neighborhood.”

“We’re here to listen and hear creative ideas,” said Jessica Guilfoy, the corporation’s Deputy Director , at the June meeting. “The conversation is going to be driven by residents.”

Last October, NYCHA received a $300,000 federal grant to study ways to increase affordable housing, improve health and education, and boost job opportunities in Mott Haven. The focus of the June meeting was public safety.

But even if the federal government selects Mott Haven’s plan from among those it receives after the two-year planning process, “There is no guarantee about where we’re going to get funding,” Sanghani cautioned. “This is a competition.”

Over 50 residents divided into five groups visited three problematic areas – a vacant lot at the corner of Third Avenue and 138th St., a derelict gas station, and La Finca del Sur Community Garden at the corner of 138th St. and the Grand Concourse.

Residents pointed out that violent crime in the area is higher than in the rest of the city. Street lighting is inadequate in the areas they visited, they said, and there are no emergency call boxes. They pointed out that several intersections do not have timed crosswalk signals, and La Finca is rarely open.

Some said vacant lots are a problem that presents opportunities.

“This gas station has been closed so long, I don’t even remember the name of it,” said Leroy Williams, deputy director at NYCHA and longtime local resident, while leading his group down 138th Street.

Mona Dreher, 44, said residents should be the ones making the decisions.

“I don’t mind beautifying the neighborhood, because we do need something there, but they need to hire the people that live here,” said Dreher, who has lived in Mitchel Houses for nine years. Local businesses don’t hire young people with NYCHA addresses, she said, which perpetuates joblessness.

“You get stereotyped,” she said, adding a plan should include new youth outreach centers.

Several developers were at the meeting to hear what residents want. In a discussion that followed the walking tours, Marlon Forbes, director for NYCHA’s Bronx Community Operations, said the initiative presents an opportunity for the area to blossom into a hub for young professionals and new businesses.

“The culture of the South Bronx is so deep and so rich,” he said. “You can flip it the way Brooklyn has flipped its history, the way Fort Greene has flipped its history, the way Brownsville has flipped its history.”

Others, however, worried a plan could lead to a higher-priced neighborhood where the unique local culture is pushed out.

“I see what’s happening in Harlem, losing a sense of flavor,” said Millie Morales, who has lived in the neighborhood her whole life. High crime rates once made her consider leaving Mott Haven.

Still, if residents speak out and their concerns are taken into account, Morales said, they will benefit.

“Everybody that has left this neighborhood still feels connected to it, still feels proud of it. Maybe this will bring some of them back,” she said, adding “The big thing that you feel after these meetings is hopeful.”

The final visioning session in August will focus on education and jobs.

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