Waterfront Park Space Comes at Price
New development will offer much-needed greenspace and waterfront access. Is gentrification worth it?
By Griffin Kelly
The Upper West Side has Riverside Park, Williamsburg has East River State Park and Long Island City has Socrates Sculpture Park—grassy riverfront oases that make each neighborhood more livable.
And then there’s Mott Haven.
“There is little to no access to green space, and no access to waterfront space,” said community activist Mychal Johnson, an organizer for South Bronx Unite. “There’s St. Mary’s Park and community gardens. The other spaces are asphalt or cement playgrounds, which have trees, but are not the permeable green spaces that we long for.”
A new, massive Brookfield Properties development along the Harlem River will soon change that.
Bankside, currently under construction, will feature a 34,000-square-foot public waterfront space and esplanade with trees, grass, native plants, benches, lounge chairs and a lighted walking path.
Johnson said the green space at Bankside is definitely welcome. But this kind of development is not his preferred method of providing more parks.
“We’re seeing what’s happening around the city, where green space is only built on the waterfront when they build market-rate housing,” he said.
Bankside will be a multi-tower development on either side of the Third Avenue Bridge, at 2401 Third Ave. and 101 Lincoln Ave. It will have 15,000 square feet of retail space and 1,350 apartments, 30% of which will be income-targeted through the Affordable New York program. It’s not yet clear what those units will rent for when the first ones become available in the fall.
Brookfield will also have an ongoing partnership with Building Skills NY, a nonprofit that provides construction job placement for unemployed and underemployed New Yorkers.
Mandating public space
Unlike other new market-rate developments in this section of the South Bronx—Bridgeline, The Arches and the Joinery—Bankside is located in the Special Harlem River Waterfront District, a sliver of the waterfront extending from the 145th Street Bridge to the Third Avenue Bridge. Under City Planning Department guidelines, new developments in the district must provide public access and open space.
“Brookfield’s Bankside project will unlock access to Mott Haven’s waterfront for the first time in more than a century and we are proud to create a beautiful, public esplanade along the Harlem River for the entire community to enjoy,” Laura Montross, Brookfield’s communications director, said in an email.
Chauncy Young, a board member for the nonprofit Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, was among the advocates who pushed for creation of the special district.
“I am happy to have the greenway agreement because there are plenty of places north of the waterfront district where there is not that commitment,” he said.
Yet getting new green space is routinely paired with the addition of new housing that locals can’t afford. According to the city Planning Department, more than half all Bronx Community District 1 residents are rent burdened, meaning they spend 35% or more of their income on rent.
“We want to develop the waterfront for the community that is here now,” Young said. “We want a commitment for the community that is part of the Bronx and has lived here for decades. When developers do market rate, it’s like, ‘market rate for who?’ It’s not affordable for our neighborhood’s residents.”
Clearing the air
Dr. Melissa Barber of Mott Haven, a South Bronx Unite co-founder, said green space and water access are vital to improving the local environment in a neighborhood that has earned the nickname “Asthma Alley.”
“Green space, nature, trees, they are the universe’s way of replenishing us,” she said, adding that the South Bronx is “inundated with industry, pollution, diesel trucks, cars, so we are always bombarded with the pollution in the air. The green space is what purifies the air.”
South Bronx neighborhoods have some of the highest asthma rates in the city. According to the 2018 Mott Haven and Melrose community health profile, for every 10,000 children ages 5 to 17, about 650 visited the emergency room for asthma. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows more than 11% of adults in Mott Haven and Port Morris have asthma. The national average is closer to 8%.
Barber said the city should look beyond industry and large housing plans like Bankside when trying to reshape the South Bronx.
“When you have an environment like ours that is so oversaturated with human beings, the concentration of NYCHA buildings and communities that take the brunt of industry, it’s like, why are we finding every single space available to build more apartments?” she said.
From farms to frenzy
Mott Haven and Port Morris were farmland throughout the 1700s. After Jordan Mott purchased the land from the Morris family in 1828, he introduced an ironworks and a canal, which quickly paved the original path for nearly two centuries of industrial development.
Today, the South Bronx is home to a FedEx shipping center, a FreshDirect warehouse, multiple self-storage businesses and, in Hunts Point, the country’s largest wholesale produce market. They all draw truck traffic.
Green spaces, such as the Maria Sola community garden on East 134th Street, part of the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program, are few and far between. The garden features trees and flowers and offers tricycles, wagons and a Batman playset for kids—all right beneath the Major Deegan Expressway.
“It’s a therapeutic space next to a highway that’s loud and spewing all kinds of airborne toxins around us while we’re there,” Johnson said. “We have to create [green spaces] because we need them so badly. We should not have to go out of our neighborhood to get them.”
Jerome Williams volunteers at the Padre Plaza Success Garden on East 139th Street, near his home. Residents grow tomatoes, strawberries and basil in a plot that covers less than an acre . A red and white footbridge crosses a small pond with a fountain. Cherub statues and colorful flowers surround a new gazebo.
“We developed this garden because there was nothing like that in the area,” he said.
Williams, who would like to see more government spending on parks in the South Bronx, is excited about visiting the Bankside waterfront area when it’s finished. He hopes it’s similar to Soundview Park across the Bronx River from Hunts Point.
Who gets the green?
Every five years, the nonprofit New Yorkers for Parks does a park profile for each community district in the city. This year’s study said barely 5% of the land in Bronx District 1 is park space.
“That’s one of the worst districts in the city, but at the same time, they have an amazing potential for waterfront access,” said Executive Director Adam Ganser, whose group would like to see a park or open space within a 10-minute walk from every New Yorker’s home.
“I think we are very much in a new era, where you can’t just be developing market-rate condominiums as a tool to build park space,” he said. “There’s all sorts of things the city can require of a developer when you’re building on that scale.”
Ganser mentioned things like improving subway stations, increasing the amount of affordable housing to address acute local needs—and creating new public green space.
The South Bronx needs all it can get. Large swaths of the 35-acre St. Mary’s Park—the biggest in Mott Haven—have been fenced off for a reconstruction project that started in 2019. The rebuilding of an amphitheater, a plaza, pathways and lighting is not yet halfway done.
“The baseball field is closed off. The football field is closed off. There are no bleachers anymore. Even the dog-walking area is not completed,” said Mike Young, who lives in the neighborhood and organizes the Padre Plaza Success Garden a few blocks away. “That’s why we have a lot of people on the street corners, just hanging out.”
Young has mixed emotions on Bankside and other waterfront developments that offer open space but not enough affordable housing.
“Developers come up with all this new housing,” he said. “They’re making loads of money, but that’s not helping the community.”