Planners’ Dreams and Urban Realities

The concrete barrier at the end of Lincoln Avenue -- one of only two locations where a public street meets the Harlem River waterfront in Mott Haven. Photo by Anika Anand

A new Mott Haven—mixed-use, greener and benefiting from the kind of transformative waterfront access that has taken place in other New York neighborhoods—already exists on urban planners’ drawing boards.

The neighborhood is long overdue for concrete change beyond the maps and renderings, activists say.

“The Harlem River is one of the least accessible waterfronts in the city,” said Chauncy Young, a community organizer who heads the Harlem River Working Group for the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality.  “Communities have been cut off.  We are trying to reconnect.”

City officials have acknowledged the need for renewal through a series of zoning changes over the past seven years, designed to encourage new kinds of development.

But they also acknowledge some formidable barriers: most of the land on the river is privately owned, the existing infrastructure blocks waterfront access, and capital-budget funding is still a distant dream.  In reality, officials say, market forces will determine how quickly change comes to the Mott Haven waterfront. They hope for an uptick in the economy to quicken the pace of change.

In 2009, the city rezoned the Lower Concourse, stretching from the 149th Street Bridge down to where Park Avenue meets the Major Deegan Expressway.  The rezoning was a response to a decline in industrial use and the desire to encourage commercial and residential activity.  The plan created a Special Waterfront District where a public walkway would follow the shoreline of the Harlem River through the newly zoned area — a little over a half-mile long.  It also included a waterfront park between 144th Street and 146th Street.

But three years later, there hasn’t been any movement.  Most of the rezoned land is privately owned, and the new zoning will only take effect when new development occurs.

Because of the Oak Point Link, a freight rail short-cut that carries two trains a day, residential builders along nearly two miles of waterfront would have to install noise-abatement windows to satisfy environmental regulators. City officials have likened it to building next to the elevated subway tracks or in busy mid-town Manhattan.

That hasn’t stopped urban planners from imagining what ideal waterfront access would look like.

Last year, students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a plan of their own for the Harlem River Waterfront.  Called “Bronx: Meet Your Waterfront,” the project won the  “By the City, For the City” competition.

The proposal envisioned a greenway, or a path for biking and walking that connects at four different waterfront locations: High Bridge and Depot Place, Macombs Dam, Pier Five and Lincoln Avenue, using existing abandoned paths and empty lots to connect the spaces.

The city approach banks on the private sector and economic expansion to usher in change on the waterfront.

In late 2011, the Harlem River Working Group, a community organization devoted to the development of a greenway, secured a $35,000 grant from the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit.  The Working Group is currently working with the Pratt Center to develop its own plan.

The Pratt plan, due to be released in June, is similar to the MIT plan, but it expands up to Fordham Landing and down to Park Avenue and the Randall’s Island connector, proposing these locations as additional greenway sites.

The city approach is more cautious, based on a wait-and-see philosophy that banks on the private sector and economic expansion to usher in change on the waterfront.

The Lower Concourse Rezoning Plan passed in 2009. (Source: NYC Department of City Planning)

Under the Lower Concourse Rezoning Plan, development can’t occur until the private landowners decide to either sell or change how they’re using the existing sites.  The city offers financial incentives for developers to create affordable housing in the rezoned area, but there is little evidence, at least publicly, that any of the eight privately owned properties are up for sale.

The property designated for a waterfront park would need to be sold to the city and turned over to the Parks Department before any public park could be constructed, said Jerry Willis from the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, an Obama administration program to connect urban neighborhoods to their waterways.

The lease is up in 2014, city officials say. But even then, the park probably won’t be built until housing comes in on the surrounding lots, on the theory that it makes no sense to build a park if no one is living there.

“As the market facilitates redevelopment on the Lower Concourse waterfront, the framework will be in place to provide the park for that growing population,” said a City Planning spokeswoman.

A further obstacle is the transit and industrial infrastructure that pervades the area.  Abandoned lofts and warehouses and currently viable industrial plants stand between residential neighborhoods and the waterfront, making it difficult and unsafe for community members to pass through, said Andrew Stone from the Trust for Public Land.

Another safety hazard is the Oak Point Link, a freight line that is a barrier blocking the waterfront. Boaters who are safe at low tide face the danger of being stranded during high tide where the Oak Point Line runs over the water, said Willis. Because of this risk only the Park Avenue and Lincoln Avenue sites could feature boating access, because they extend past the train track.

Even the city would have to build expensive and time-consuming pedestrian crossways over the tracks to protect the public, said Willis.

Such an expansive project is always publicly funded, said Stone.  And, even though the proposed city budget for the Fiscal Year 2013 includes a line recommending the funding for a waterfront park in the area, there just isn’t any money in the capital budget at this time, said a city official.

And it’s not likely to be on the radar in the near future.

“It took the Bronx River Project about ten years to come to fruition,” said Willis from the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. “Ten years ago, Hunts Point and Concrete Plant Park, which are now accessible to the public, were at the same stages the South Bronx is now.”