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Friday, April 27, 2018

Popping up on Parkside Place

Major changes have been announced for Norwood with new construction planned for a rocky slope that residents had always believed was parkland. This has raised concerns.

The site is a long, narrow rock outcropping that separates Parkside Place from Webster Avenue in The Bronx. It is near my home and I know it well. Almost nobody ever climbs up on the rocks above Webster Avenue. There's no reason they would. I am one of the few who has. I was curious about a stair that extended from 207th Street down to Webster Avenue on old maps. It was unclear if it was merely planned or if had actually been built and then removed at some point long forgotten. I went looking for any remnants under the vegetation. There is some concrete that might have been part of a stair, although I can't be sure, as well as some mortar used to stabilize the rock outcropping to avoid a collapse onto the street below.

A stair location is indicated on the Borough President's street title map
Parkside Place is a short, three-block-long street that climbs over and back down those rocks. It splits off from Webster Avenue, climbs the hill to 209th Street, continues to 207th Street, and then drops back down to merge back with Webster. It takes its name from the tree-covered rock outcrop that it climbs over, which has never been a real park, but is park-like as a visual resource.

Recently, somebody started clearing the trees off the rocks. Local residents became alarmed. It was commonly believed this was City parkland (in no small part because the Department of Parks and Recreation showed it as parkland on their interactive parks map), and now it was being clearcut without warning. 

It turns out the Parks map was wrong. The City-owned section is south of 207th Street. The entire section to the north is a long, narrow, privately owned property. A developer now plan to build on it. This has, of course, sparked the typical knee-jerk NIMBY/anti-gentrification reactions.

The renderings prepared by Marin Architects for UA Builders do nothing to help matters. When people in an ethnically diverse, working-class community are apprehensive about being displaced from their homes, there is no comfort from images showing a bunch of white people with expensive cars occupying their neighborhood. 

Yes, that is a Maserati in a census tract with a median houshold income of $41,000 dollars:
This problem with renderings is a frequent occurrence, and it's not even the first time recently within a block of this site. I am skeptical the developers actually have any intention of displacing any residents by building on a vacant lot, nor do I suspect them of trying to fundamentally change the character of the neighborhood. They may misrepresent it for marketing purposes and they almost certainly will look to attract the residents they can charge the most, but the market rate for housing in this area is unlikely to drive a significant change. A new, large residential building on Decatur Avenue a few years ago caused concerns and provided much of the impetus for the Webster rezoning, but it has had no noticeable impact in any way.

Rather than displacement, I expect this infill development to provide some much-needed economic support for the local business strips, which remain tenuous. Instead of putting pressure on retail spaces to upscale, more housing and residents with somewhat more disposable income will help provide a healthier customer base to anchor stores that would be beneficial for everyone in the neighborhood. 

The argument about schools and transit also seems misplaced. These are citywide issues, but they are less acute in Norwood than many other parts of New York. The D train gets crowded (especially during Yankees games), but it is hardly the worst of the subway lines. Moreover, the neighborhood schools have all recently been expanded, relieving the overcrowding that still afflicts many parts of the school system. It should also be noted that the overcrowding we did experience previously resulted from crowding in the existing housing stock while there had been no new construction for decades.

Yet in terms of neighborhood change, this does represent a transformation on Parkside Place itself. The trees clinging to the side of the rocks did provide some greenery to passing motorists on Webster, but this section of The Bronx is hardly lacking in parkland. For those who actually walk this area, the slope and the whole side of the streets above and below have always been covered in trash and frequently used for dumping. The sidewalk on Parkside Place is substandard, and only a portion of this section of Webster ever had any sidewalk at all.  The section that did was both substandard and lost under the dirt ages ago.

Walking along Webster has become somewhat safer with the introduction of the bus lanes. Because of the missing sidewalk and lack of space to walk between the parked cars and rock outcropping, people are forced to walk in traffic. Now pedestrians only have to watch for the periodic bus with a professional driver familiar with the route.

It is unclear if the developer intends to provide a parking garage. The renderings show parking down by Webster, but the plans that were initially filed did not list an automobile parking. Although I expect a fight over parking, it would be misplaced. There are many unused and underutilized spaces on Webster Avenue now. Abandoned cars are only occasionally reported and eventually removed. If new residents along this stretch create more need for parking, they will also provide a presence to deter dumping cars and the motivation to have them removed to free up the spaces. The recent building on Decatur was required to provide parking, which was largely provided with a surface lot on Parkside Place, which has remained empty since the building was completed. If there is a need for some additional parking, it should be possible to make use of that empty lot across the street.

While new construction should bring huge improvements in sidewalks and cleanliness, it will also block views. Parkside Place provides a wonderful overlook out over the Bronx River Preservation, although the trees do largely block the view at street level. There will be residents who will lose the views from their windows, and that change will most certainly not be welcome. Replacing a long vista out over acres of trees with the side of a building is a real loss for a small handful of households. Even though they have no legal claim to the view, it has been an amenity they have always enjoyed and surely never thought they could lose. The residents in the new building will have an even better view from the other side of the street.

For the neighborhood overall, the outlook is positive. Building on this site would create homes for people who want to move into the neighborhood, as well as those already living here looking for a nicer place and likely to consider moving out.  It would help to increase the supply of housing in a city where affordability continues to worsen because there simply aren't enough homes to keep pace with demand. More residents with disposable incomes would also help provide a healthy retail environment to serve the needs of the entire community.

The architecture of the planned building seems sensitive to the site, although I think they may still be able to leverage its unique rocky qualities even better as they refine the design. What I would really like to see is the (re?)introduction of the public stair from 207th Street down to Webster, with a small, well designed overlook. This would engage the new, sleek building in a more dynamic dialog with the natural features of this rock outcropping, and would provide the whole community with a unique space to experience the views and natural formations, rather than just enclosing it all for private use.

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