Residents fear secret gentrification plans

Some dozen protesters rallied outside a closed-door meeting in Longwood, suspicious that officials are planning to rezone a huge chunk of the South Bronx without public input. The planning department and City Councilman Rafael Salamanca say it isn’t so.

Longwood resident Tahica Fredericks holds up a sign demanding access to a planning meeting on Simpson Street.

City says fears are unwarranted because there’s no plan yet

About a dozen residents rallied in Longwood on June 21 to confront public officials they suspected were secretly planning to rezone a 130-block area of the South Bronx. The protesters were vexed that representatives from the departments of City Planning and Housing Preservation and Development were meeting with Councilman Rafael Salamanca and local advocacy organizations at Urban Health Plan but the public was not invited.

But the councilman said that he had called for the meeting to press upon the city agencies the need to act more transparently as they look to develop the area between Longwood north to Crotona Park, to ease simmering distrust among residents who say the plan will lead to displacement.

Advocacy groups at the table included Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, The Point CDC and Mothers on the Move. Outside under the elevated tracks, tenants from buildings managed by Banana Kelly joined grassroots groups Pan-African Community Development Initiative, Picture the Homeless, and Take Back the Bronx, to distribute flyers warning passers-by of looming gentrification.

Residents have been on edge since the planning department announced its Southern Boulevard Neighborhood Study last year, fearing that they will be priced out as has happened to low-income New Yorkers in other neighborhoods. City planners insist they will hold regular meetings with community groups to consider a broad range of ways to revive the rundown area.

An intern for Banana Kelly, Tyler Vargas, said that although residents repeatedly expressed worries about gentrification at a January 2017 meeting with planning officials, “not one time did [the planning department] put gentrification in” a subsequent summary of the meeting.

Tahica Fredericks, a Longwood tenant and Banana Kelly board member, said she was protesting to draw attention to the issue before she is subjected to a familiar fate. She and her family lost their Brooklyn apartment a little more than a year ago when a rezoning initiative led to a sharp rise in rents, she said.

“I think they’re having a private meeting to divvy up our community,” she said. Arranging a second meeting without public input convinced her that the city is up to something, she added, holding up a sign that read “If we’re not on the table, then we’re on the menu!”

Lawrence Blaber Jr., small business director at Pan-African Community Development Initiative, said he suspects that the city has made up its mind already.

“They’re trying to downplay the severity of it and how far along they are,” he said. “So by the time everybody thinks we’re halfway there, they’re already complete and they can sprint to the end and nobody will know what hit them.”

Salamanca said he will ensure residents are informed as the project proceeds.

“If City Planning is not being upfront, I’m going to call them out on it, like I do with every city agency,” he said. The topic of rezoning was indeed raised at the meeting, Salamanca said, because planners may opt to rezone small parts of the neighborhood, and will almost certainly rezone the industrial area around the Sheridan Expressway, “but to say that we’re meeting and not informing the community,” is not true. If the city chooses to rezone some industrial parts of the district, the councilman said, he is “all for that because this is a benefit to the community. We can bring that land back to life, whether it’s a park, whether it’s a school,” or affordable housing.

One attendee at the meeting said that although the Southern Boulevard plan was discussed, all talking points were preliminary.

“I’m confident that there will be points where it’s open and the public will be able to discuss the matter and their issues,” said Maria Torres, president of The Point CDC.

According to the Department of City Planning, the idea of holding “small conversations” comes from the agency’s “planning partners,” who have asked them to hold those conversations “in the communities around Southern Boulevard over the summer listening, engaging, and learning from residents about their neighborhoods.” That, they hope, will “shape the planning process and ensure their local knowledge informs the study as we lead up to a series of area-wide meetings.”

At the first public meeting the agency held to discuss the study at Urban Health Plan last January, Carol Samol, director of the planning department’s Bronx Office, told several dozen residents and housing advocates that “zoning is only a piece” of the study, and that any rezoning would be “surgical.”

Fredericks, who was at that meeting, expressed skepticism with that reassurance.

“Surgery takes a long time to recover from, so how deep is this surgery going to be?” she said.