Waterfront development proposals stir concern

The rush is on to develop a 13-acre, state-owned site on the Harlem River waterfront in Port Morris. So far, two ambitious proposals have been leaked to the media—one calling for a soccer stadium and 550 apartments, the other calling for 2,000 units. Both would include retail and community space. But environmental advocates and City Councilwoman Diana Ayala say that neither proposal is good for residents.

Rendering of a proposed soccer stadium by Rafael Viñoly Architects.

One plan includes a 26,000-seat soccer stadium

Two real estate giants are joining forces in hopes of bringing a professional soccer stadium to the Port Morris waterfront, along with 550 new apartments, according to New York Yimby. A day later, Crain’s reported on a competing proposal by an established developer of affordable housing in the Bronx, calling for 2,000 apartments, a medical facility, a charter school, retail space and a publicly accessible waterfront area.

The first proposal comes from a team consisting of the New York City Football Club, the Related Companies and Somerset Partners, who estimate the project would cost $700 million.

The second proposal, by L+M Development Partners Inc. and Omni New York, would be in close proximity to another project already in the works by the developer, called Bronx Point, where hundreds of apartments would line a proposed waterfront esplanade, along with a much-anticipated hip-hop museum.

The Empire State Development Corp., which promotes economic growth through tax incentives and marketing, issued Requests for Proposals in 2016 to develop on a triangle of barren land on a 12.8-acre parcel of the state-owned Harlem River Yard, which spans a stretch between the Third Avenue and Willis Avenue bridges.

But some residents are alarmed by the scope of both of the new proposals. They and an elected official say it’s critical that the community is consulted before any next steps are taken.

“The soccer stadium is a horrible idea,” said Mott Haven resident Monxo Lopez, who serves on the grassroots Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Trust. “These people dress up business as sports and are quick to forget about the consequences for the community.”

“I know there’s a lot of enthusiasm around a stadium in the Bronx, but I don’t know that my constituents would be thrilled about it being in that location,” said City Councilwoman Diana Ayala, whose district includes Port Morris. “There’s a lot of congestion in that community. Asthma rates are through the roof in the South Bronx, and that’s very concerning to me.”

The industrial area that surrounds the vacant parcel is dotted with power plants and overrun with commercial truck traffic, and has long been dubbed “Asthma Alley.” Eight percent of Bronx children suffer from asthma, according to the city’s health department, double the rest of the city, and advocates have long complained that the South Bronx is the epicenter of the borough’s epidemic.

Environmentalists also worry that traffic generated by a huge new waterfront housing and commercial complex would not only worsen health problems, it would also put residents at risk of flooding. Annel Hernandez, associate director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, said that the city should avoid overbuilding on low-lying waterfront areas and instead create natural buffers against flooding.

“We want to create green, open spaces for community members in the South Bronx who face disproportionate environmental burdens,” said Hernandez. “The majority of waste transfer stations are located there. You always have trucks coming in and out of the neighborhoods, so having these open spaces along the waterfront is really critical.”

The question of whether the waterfront parcel should be developed at all is a valid one, said Lopez.

“Very few of these developers think about the environment first,” he said. “It’s foolish. We have this nasty American mentality that a development has to happen regardless, and has to happen fast.”

Councilwoman Ayala said she worries about how the developers will define affordability if either of the two projects under consideration move forward. The Bronx’s median household income is $35,302, according to recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, far lower than that the rest of the city.

“Obviously building affordable housing is first and foremost on my list of priorities,” she said. “My constituents are desperate for affordable housing and they also want access to the waterfront. How we introduce that concept, I don’t know.”

If the soccer stadium proposal passes, it would be the first of its kind in the city, and would be designed by internationally-renowned Rafael Viñoly Architects. The layout includes a 25,000-square-foot medical facility, a waterfront park and 150,000 square feet of retail space, along with the 550 units of affordable housing, according to New York YIMBY.

Somerset owned the adjacent parcel but recently sold it to another developer. High-rises with more than 1,200 market rate apartments, along with retail, a community facility, a park and a riverfront esplanade are planned for the parcel within two years.

This isn’t the first time developers have tried to find a home for a new soccer stadium in the Bronx. In 2013, the owners of NYCFC and former Mayor Bloomberg nearly reached an agreement to build a $350 million soccer stadium near Yankee Stadium, but opposition by then Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio cut the deal short. Port Morris would be the sixth proposed location since 2011 in the club’s search for a permanent home.

A rendering of the L+M/Omni plan.

Eugene Schneur, co-founder of Omni New York, who has been building in the Bronx for 14 years, said his aim is “building a community in the Bronx for the Bronx. I don’t think anybody owns more affordable housing in the Bronx than us. We have a long, deep commitment to the Bronx,” he said. “We want the local community to participate in this and be a part of this development.”

Harlem River Yard is governed by a General Project Plan, which would allow the state to bypass the city’s public review process and determine its own zoning regulations for the parcel.

Mychal Johnson, co-founder of grassroots advocacy group South Bronx Unite, said he suspects that officials will fail to adequately publicize any plans for the waterfront to keep residents in the dark.

“I just feel like they often put these projects out without communicating with the community,” said Johnson, who has three-year-old son. “We have the least quality of green space per capita. Kids are playing on asphalt. It would be great to have more opportunities for people to go and enjoy the waterfront.”

The Empire State Development Corp. did not immediately answer questions from The Herald about when it will announce a decision.

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