It’s no surprise that following a public hearing on Thursday, May 19, Community Board 10 voted 24-1 to disapprove the proposed Bruckner Boulevard upzoning. But the process is far from over.
The project — which spans four sites with seven property owners — would bring 339 apartment units, 94 of which would be designated affordable, across two eight-story buildings, one five-story building and one three-story building on Bruckner Boulevard. The developers say the Super Foodtown grocery story at 2945-65 Brucker Blvd. would be replaced with a bigger market and claim they will be forced to close Foodtown if the rezoning isn’t approved.
The developers are also proposing 303 parking spaces across the four sites, 15 apartments designated for veterans, office space, an afterschool educational center and recreational space for youth. Peter Bivona, who owns the Foodtown site with his brother Joe Bivona, told the Bronx Times they are contemplating creating a women’s health clinic on the site as well, although the idea has not appeared in the project presentations.
But the project doesn’t align with the neighborhood’s Lower Density Growth Management zoning, which was implemented in 2004. And there has been fierce pushback over the proposed zoning amendment, from an August 2021 protest at the Super Foodtown to residents fundraising for legal support in opposition of the project.
At a previous CB10 meeting on April 19 about the proposal, board member John Marano even encouraged residents to stop shopping at the grocery store.
Last month, CB10 District Manager Matt Cruz made clear to the Bronx Times that the board plans to preserve its low-density zoning and that the application would be an uphill climb.
Janine Thomas-Smith, the one member who voted at odds with the board, could not be reached for comment by press time. According to May 16 executive board meeting minutes, she has felt unsafe expressing her opinion on the project.
Both at an April 19 community board meeting about the project and at the hearing on Thursday, the crowd favored those who spoke against the proposal and didn’t hold back in making sure those who testified were aware, jeering at those in support.
The roars let loose when one of the property owners, James Cervino, said the developers want to be part of the community and aren’t doing this to “make a big fast buck,” touting community benefits of the project.
“We’re not doing a needle exchange program here,” said Cervino, who added he’s been called with threats. “We’re not doing a homeless shelter here. We’re not starting an Antifa rally.”
But residents against the proposal didn’t buy into what they see as a false do-good narrative from project supporters, saying developers should propose projects that align with the neighborhood’s zoning rules.
Waterbury-LaSalle resident Denice Szekely, who said she grew up in the neighborhood and moved back to raise her family, pointed out that developers are required by the city to include affordable housing in rezoning proposals with more than 10 units.
“We cannot fall prey to the false narrative that these developers are looking out for the community because they are including affordable housing as a portion of their proposed residential buildings,” Szekely said on Thursday. ” … No one should be fooled into thinking that the developers have put forth this proposal because of their philanthropic beliefs. They want to rezone so that they can build more units that will add to their rental incomes and bring them further profit.”
Fairmount Avenue resident Frank Vernuccio said the rezoning would end up destroying the neighborhood, and argued that people who support the project are citing widespread issues of poverty, housing and climate change, but it’s the job of residents to protect their own neighborhood.
“Unlike a lot of people who testified in favor of this project, I actually live here,” he said on Thursday.
Residents took issue with William Thomas, executive director of Open New York — which Thomas describes as an independent grassroots pro-housing non-profit — speaking in support of the project, questioning whether he lives in the neighborhood.
In a video obtained by the Bronx Times, a meeting attendee can be heard saying “Why don’t we just strangle them all?” as Thomas spoke.
In an interview with the Bronx Times, Thomas acknowledged that while he does not live in the borough, Bronxites who supported the project were also met with aggression.
Both Thomas and Michael Kaess (who lives in neighboring CB11, which shares a council district with CB10) cited data showing a lack of housing being built in the area.
From 2014-2021, just 58 units of affordable housing have been built in City Council District 13, according to the New York Housing Conference. This number is the lowest of all of the Bronx council districts.
Also, out of the 59 community boards in the city, CB10 is among the 10 boards with the least amount of housing units approved per 1,000 residents from 2010-2019, according to an August 2020 Citizens Budget Commission report.
Open NY also found an ally in Aden Munassar, who testified that she grew up in the neighborhood but couldn’t afford to stick around and buy a home.
“I am sympathetic to the concerns that I heard today,” she said at Thursday’s public hearing. “I grew up in this neighborhood, but I strongly believe that we have to be more open to housing so that our friends, neighbors and family can stay. This is the neighborhood I love and I was born and raised in and I couldn’t stay in it.”
Some attendees aren’t convinced the neighborhood has the demand, however.
On Thursday, when Cervino said new housing stock will provide homes for essential workers, an attendee proclaimed that workers already own homes in the neighborhood.
When a project representative at the April meeting said that everyone needs affordable housing, — pointing out that the property owners aren’t seeking public financing — she was quickly met with screams of “Stop telling us what we need!” and “We don’t need it!”
Councilmember Marjorie Velázquez, whose district encompasses the project site, told the Bronx Times on Wednesday that she cannot endorse the proposed project because of a lack of existing infrastructure, such as school space, parking and public transportation.
“It is paramount that any new development in our community addresses existing inequities,” she said.
The Throggs Neck Democrat did not attend the meeting on Thursday, citing threats made against her.
Although Velázquez insists that her stance against the project has not changed since she first heard about it, some residents were unhappy with her comments at the April 19 CB10 meeting about the project.
“You didn’t seem open to us,” resident Terry Mulhern told Velázquez at the Waterbury LaSalle Community and Homeowners Association on Tuesday. “And I think that’s where the confusion started with you. We didn’t think that you were behind us. You were very put off, you had your mask on, you wouldn’t take it off. You keep saying, ‘What do you want? Tell me what you want.’ You knew what we wanted but you didn’t seem genuine.”
At that April meeting — after some attendees gave her a hard time about keeping her mask on as she addressed the largely maskless crowd — Velázquez asked residents what they want to see at the site instead of the proposed project.
“I don’t want people to call us NIMBYs, because we’re not,” she added, referring to criticism that opposition to the project comes from a “not in my backyard” sentiment.
On Tuesday, Velázquez responded to Mulhern that she wants to be clear about her opposition to the project.
“I’ve been at this since last year, Aug. 5, check my socials,” she said to the community association. “I had put out a statement. And unfortunately, there are people who want to nitpick what I say. And I’ve been very clear about it … It hasn’t changed, and it has not and it will not.”
There are still more steps before the proposal will be back in front of Velázquez at the City Council.
After the board submits its recommendation to the City Planning Commission, Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson’s office will hold a public hearing over two days.
Gibson did not comment on the merits of the proposal instead waiting to hear the public’s reaction to the project.
Following Gibson’s recommendation, the City Planning Commission has 60 days to hold a public hearing and vote on the application. Next, the City Council has 50 days to hold a hearing and vote on the rezoning application. Lastly, Mayor Eric Adams will have five days to review the Council’s decision and decide whether he wants to use his veto power.
In a statement to the Bronx Times, Peter Bivona — one of the site owners — said there is an urgent need for housing across income levels citywide, and each community has a responsibility to address it.
“We will continue making the case that based on its merits and its many benefits to the community,” he said. ” … We look forward to continuing our dialogue with stakeholders throughout the public review process and refining the plan based on that input.”
Reach Aliya Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org or (718) 260-4597. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes