City Council approves Lower Concourse rezoning

Environmental activist and canoe enthusiast Harry Bubbins objected to elements of the Lower Concourse rezone. Nevertheless, the plan was approved by the City Council on Tuesday, June 30. Photo by Victor Chu

When Department of City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden looks at the Lower Concourse, she pictures a Harlem River promenade. She pictures skyscraping condos, corner stores, lofts and a waterfront park. Burden pictures a rusty neighborhood remade for residential and commercial development.

When Friends of Brook Park director Harry Bubbins looks at the Lower Concourse, he pictures a Harlem River rail line. He pictures yuppie co-ops, gourmet delis and a Con Edison parking lot. Bubbins pictures a concrete jungle remade for wealthy developers and Manhattanites. He lives in the south Bronx.

On Tuesday, June 30, the City Council approved and made final Burden’s plan to rezone 30 square blocks south of E. 149th Street, west of Morris Avenue and north of the Harlem River. Community Board 1 approved the plan on February 26 and acting borough president Earl Brown approved the plan with conditions on March 26.

According to Burden, the rezone will revitalize the Lower Concourse and create 3,400 permanent jobs. The existing neighborhood is home to auto shops, parking lots, self-storage facilities, waste transfer stations and light industry; many buildings are empty. The new Lower Concourse, a mixed residential and commercial zone, will accommodate apartment houses, condo towers and supermarkets. It will open the Harlem River to Bronxites, requiring developers to maintain a waterfront promenade. To the north is the Gateway Center, a new shopping mall at the Bronx Terminal Market. To the west is Port Morris, rezoned in 2005. Brown recommended that Burden take pains to protect existing businesses.

Superficially, the plan fits Bubbins’ sensibilities. The outdoorsy Castle Hill native is passionate about the environment, the Bronx and the waterfront. He and a team of Mott Haven residents have transformed a vacant lot on E. 141st Street into an orchard/playground/prayer hall. On Friday, July 10, Julio Garcia, 12, and Altariq Gentry, 10, roamed Brook Park, admiring collard greens, shooting hoops, chewing mint leaves.

But the rezone approval rankled Bubbins for a handful of reasons. On July 10, he pushed a canoe down E. 141st, past the Mott Haven Houses and the Major Deegan Expressway to the Harlem River and launched a watery Lower Concourse tour. First, Bubbins fears gentrification. Although the rezone incentivizes the construction of affordable housing, that housing may be built off-site and, according to Bubbins, its affordability is based on regional median income levels, not median income levels in the poor south Bronx.

Second, a freight rail line parallels and, for much of the Lower Concourse stretch of the Harlem River, protrudes from water only feet offshore. The rail line is an impediment to water amusements like swimming, inconspicuous on land but painfully obvious in a canoe. Third, Burden and the City Council have agreed to let Con Ed retain its waterfront parking lot and operations facility at Exterior and E. 141th streets. In fact, Con Ed will expand the facility in violation of the rezone. As penance, it’ll open a waterfront promenade on site.

Fourth, left out of Lower Concourse plan is Bubbins’ canoe launch, a vacant patch of weedy rock south of the Willis Avenue Bridge at the terminus of Park Avenue. According to Bubbins, it’s the only authentic waterfront access spot from Hunts Point to Highbridge and sites just outside of the rezone. It should be a public park, Bubbins said.

The plan will create a new 2.2-acre public park on the Harlem River between E. 144th and E. 146th streets, DCP spokeswoman Rachaele Reinoff said. Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo voted for the rezone on condition that the Parks Department investigates Bubbins’ Park Avenue spot. A feasibility study is underway, Reinoff said.

The rail line is an impediment to water fun, Reinoff admitted. But the promenade will sit two feet higher and only two trains use the rail line each day.

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