The following is a Welcome2TheBronx reader submitted article by Jonathan Keller.
The Bronx is in the midst of a rebirth. Crime is down, demand around the metropolitan area for housing is up, and the old narrative of the Bronx is crumbling, revealing what many of us already know: the Bronx is beautiful and a great place to live and work.
The Bronx renaissance has brought renewed interest in living and working in our neighborhoods, and in 2012 the Bronx saw more people moving to the borough than leaving for the first time since the 1940s. It has also drawn the focus of developers and investors seeking to tap into the vitality of our borough.
Last summer, the New York Times broke the story that the recently announced Major League Soccer expansion team, New York City Football Club (NYCFC), was eyeing City-owned property mapped as parkland just south of Yankee Stadium (co-owners of the club) for their permanent home. After their plans to build their 28,000 seat stadium in Flushing Meadows Park was opposed by the Queens community, the new franchise set their sights on the South Bronx and on redeveloping a massive parking garage used primarily for Yankees games. The stadium would also be built on E. 153rd Street and adjacent parcels to the southwest.
In January 2014 the 161st Street Business Improvement District held a Town Hall meeting to discuss the proposal. The meeting was heavily attended by community stakeholders including local elected leaders, local construction union workers, organizations affiliated with the Yankees, and the NYC Press. While many residents had trouble entering due to Fire Code size limitations, some, like me, did manage to get in after waiting outside in the cold.
The media coverage that came out the Town Hall meeting has shaped the public dialogue on the proposed stadium. Unfortunately, the reports ran headlines like “Poll: Locals want soccer arena,” and “South Bronx group hasn’t given up on soccer stadium” that indicated a large majority of residents are in support of a soccer stadium. This is not the case.
Preliminary results from a recent poll by the South Bronx Community Association show that the vast majority believe another stadium is not in the best interest of the neighborhood. Residents overwhelmingly do not want the stadium to be built. The neighborhood has weighed in – a soccer stadium would be a detriment to our working class neighborhood and represents a marked departure from our vision.
All cities go through periods of crisis, riding social and economic waves, but few have shown the ability to reinvent itself in the same way as New York. While New York experienced declines resulting from decentralizing forces, the City’s population was reloaded by a renewed flow of both foreign and domestic immigration in the years after 1980, propelling the City to a new peak population of 8.34 million in 2012. This growth has spilled into the outer boroughs over the last 20 years, and while much growth occurred in Brooklyn and Queens, the Bronx gained the most residents out of the five boroughs from 2000 to 2010.
The combination of a strong flow of foreign immigrants to New York City, which has historically been significant, and domestic migrants, which is a relatively new phenomenon, has led to an extremely competitive housing and job market, and the demands on existing hard and soft infrastructure have never been greater.
The competitive advantage of the upper-middle to upper-class and their desire to live near “work and play” has changed many working class neighborhoods into rich enclaves and pushed demand for middle and lower-income housing further into the boroughs. In many respects, this heightened desire to live in the City has led to an urban renaissance and many neighborhoods receiving a new lease on life. But this has also often meant that long-time residents move out in search of cheaper housing. Just as social capital floods into an area, those that need it most must leave.
In the face of blind and dispassionate market forces, we have few tools more powerful than the planning process to decide how our neighborhoods are built. The Bronx needs smart, sensible planning in order to secure both market rate and affordable housing and the businesses that support jobs for the future.
The Bronx is in a unique period where the most expansive growth is not here…yet. Now is the time to put in place measures that will allow the Bronx to reap the most benefit from future growth without sacrificing its character and context. Now is the time to focus on planning for the next 30 years for this great borough and its people. A strategic vision to foster equitable development would create a healthy, fully-functioning neighborhood with thousands of new mixed-income housing units and local jobs. The City should work with the community to come up with a suitable development plan for the project site as a keystone to a wider comprehensive plan for the area.
This area of the Grand Concourse (Downtown Bronx, Concourse or Concourse Village depending on your preference) has a great deal of underutilized land situated near mass transit with connections to both upstate job centers and Manhattan.
The area within a half-mile of the parking garage is characterized by historic pre-war and Art Deco five- to six-story apartment buildings and rowhouses interspersed with commercial corridors, vacant lots and surface parking lots.
One of the best-connected neighborhoods close to the Manhattan core, residents are typically only a 7 minute walk to the subway that will shuttle them into midtown in 25 minutes and downtown in 30-35 minutes (provided there are no switching issues at Union Square…). The area boasts the Yankee Stadium Metro-North station and access to the Melrose Metro-North Station offering easy access to upstate and Connecticut job markets. The neighborhood also has easy access to the state highway, and multiple bus lines run along the Grand Concourse, E. 149th Street and E. 161st Street.
The garage is one of many sites throughout our neighborhood dedicated to Yankees game parking. No one would disagree that the current parking garage is a blight on the area. But it has the potential to be so much more.
Proposed Soccer Stadium
As currently reported, the proposed 28,000-seat soccer stadium would replace a massive (556,968 square foot), underutilized parking garage, about a 1,000 feet from Yankee Stadium. It would also be built over E. 153rd Street and the parcels just southwest, which consist of a surface public parking lot and an elevator manufacturing company that employs approximately 350 workers (GAL Manufacturing).
The stadium would be home for the New York City Football Club (NYCFC), a Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion team and the league’s 20th franchise. As of 2013, the MLS regular season stretches from March to October, with each team playing 34 games a year, splitting 17 games at home and 17 on the road. It is possible that the stadium could be used for other events such as concerts or other sporting events. A conservative estimate for the stadium would be around 30 days of events a year.
The proposed benefits of the stadium are a lowering of the current debt of the Bronx Parking Development Company (BPDC); increased tourism; job creation; and the vague catch-all “increased revenue.” Some have some validity, but any real positives do not outweigh the negatives.
The proposed soccer stadium would generate new jobs. The construction of the stadium would provide new construction and operational service jobs. At this time we do not know exactly how many jobs would be generated in constructing the stadium. Nevertheless, construction jobs are temporary. Once the stadium is open, the jobs that will be available will be part-time (less than 10 percent of the year) and unlikely to provide benefits. The handful of full-time jobs that would be available (non-management, operations, promotions, etc.) would likely not be located on-site.
The proposed soccer stadium would bring soccer fans to the area and tourism would increase. However, what has happened with Yankee stadium is the creation of a part-time micro-neighborhood of jersey stores and sports bars that fail to serve the daily needs of the year-round community. And again, the stadium would operate for roughly 30 days a year. Would the increased tourism 30 days a year make up for a dormant site for the rest of the year? Unlikely.
The stadium would generate revenue, but probably not for the City of New York or for the community. Multiple peer reviewed studies have shown that new sports facilities deliver very little in the way of new jobs and new taxes that are meaningful. Stadium economics are confusing and the real cost of development is generally obscured from the public (New Jersey is still paying for the old Giants Stadium). The real costs are underestimated “due to the routine omission of land cost write-downs, infrastructure grants, and lease give-backs” and are “often obscured by complex development and leasing agreements.” Revenue generated for this particular project would pale in comparison to the full cost of building and operating the project.
Costs and Externalities
The new stadium would cost the City millions of dollars in taxpayer money, divert City funds to game-day services and depress interest in building housing and the creation of good, stable local jobs. The stadium would also cause an increase in traffic and related pollution and deprive residents of an important piece of land that could be developed with a higher and better use.
As currently proposed, taxpayers would be asked to support the approximately $350 million construction of the 28,000 seat stadium through $300 million dollars in City funding via tax-free bonds, additional public land, and more tax-exempt financing issued by the City’s Industrial Development Agency. It would also be exempt from paying property taxes until 2056, allowing it to operate rent free for essentially the life of the stadium. The NYCFC would also pay $25 million to the BPDC to allow the beleaguered company to pay off part of its debt to bondholders. According to an Independent Budget Office report, another agreement with the BPDC would mean the City would not begin receiving payments from BPDC until 2056-foregoing about $150 million in lease revenue alone. Together the plan for the new stadium and bailout for the parking garage company would cost the City close to half a billion dollars.
Advocates may turn to economic development theory to support the subsidies, claiming that revenue from the stadium would flow back to the public and eventually would pay for itself. But as outlined above, these economic forecasts are routinely overly optimistic and real benefits never materialize for the public.
Even without the enormous amount of subsidies, even if NYCFC paid for the stadium on its own, the stadium would still negatively impact the neighborhood’s health and general welfare.
Public Health and Infrastructure Costs
The de-mapping of E. 153rd Street and relocation or outright removal of the Deegan Expressway ramp would exacerbate traffic by pushing cars and trucks onto our residential side streets. The new stadium would bring thousands of additional vehicles into our neighborhood, which would impact our daily lives with traffic congestion, increased noise levels, and particulate matter pollution. The altered transportation network would also exacerbate traffic on Yankee game days. By taking away a vital inlet/outlet into the neighborhood, hundreds of thousands of vehicles would have no choice but to make their way to the stadium from farther away and snake through back streets.
The South Bronx has some of the highest national childhood asthma rates due to the location of schools and residences within half a mile of major mobile emission sources (the Deegan, Bruckner, and Cross Bronx Expressway). Smart planning should look to lower emissions and vehicle miles traveled in “Asthma Alley,” not increase them.
Vacant and Dormant Space
Our neighborhood’s land use is divided between the historic residential area and inactive and passive uses. Public parking lots, vacant lots, and parks and recreational areas accounting for 42% of the land area within a half-mile of the garage site (See Figure 1 below). You can viscerally feel the openness of the area. While we enjoy the benefits of plenty of light and air and recreational space, inactive and passive uses can be detrimental to a neighborhood when they become concentrated in one location. With little to no daily oversight and responsibility, the vacant lots and underused lots are magnets for trash; their sidewalks go unshoveled during the winter, and at night their emptiness leads to a perception of disorder and lack of a community.
As discussed further below, the redevelopment of the garage site should seek to activate this area year round and be a catalyst for further development of the underused lots. Conversely, the proposed soccer stadium would replace two underused lots with a large structure that is dormant for 90% of the year, reinforcing the existing land use pattern.
The land use changes associated with the development of the soccer stadium should be considered a major resource loss. The stadium use is a long‐term commitment of land resources, rendering the land useless for other purposes (like making a dent in Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build or preserve 200,000 affordable housing units over 10 years).
In recent years, the area has seen significant investment and redevelopment as it transitions from light manufacturing uses and surface parking and vacant lots toward residential and retail uses. New parks have been built, old parks have been renovated, the Gateway Center opened with over a million square feet of retail, and the Yankee Stadium Metro-North station opened, to name a few examples.
The City has planned for sustained growth along River Avenue and East 161st Street and to the south of E. 149th Street through two rezonings approved in 2009. These rezonings sought to foster new residential and commercial development on underutilized lots and lots that have traditionally only operated for a portion of the year (Yankee game days). The underlying goal is to capitalize on the new investments in the area and to motivate landowners to redevelop their property with something the community could use year round.
The slow but methodical increase in residential development is evidenced by the recently approved rezoning of the eastern side of Gerard Avenue at E. 150th Street and the proposed development of a 17-story mixed-use building planned for 810 River Avenue. As proposed, the current one-story furniture warehouse at 580 Gerard Avenue would be replaced by a residential building with 124 dwelling units (28 affordable units) above ground floor local retail. The old Ball Park Lanes building at 810 River Avenue is slated for redevelopment, which will consist of (PDF) 134 new dwelling units above 25,000 square feet of retail space. Another large development was slated for two City-owned vacant parcels on either side of East 151st Street between Gerard and River Avenues that are currently used for Yankee game parking. These sites were the focus of a potential development plan to permit hundreds of new affordable housing above ground floor retail until.
With the right plan, redevelopment of the garage site could be a catalyst for equitable development. Development of surrounding lots could provide well over 2,000 new dwelling units above ground floor local and regional retail. The new developments would fill in the empty lots, transform the urban design to connect the pedestrian with the community, and add feet and eyes to the street at all hours. The new retail would offer year-round jobs and services to an area that lacks options for healthy eating and the basics that other areas enjoy. We fear that the redevelopment of the underused sites in the area would be hampered by a second stadium. The stadium would reinforce the perception of this area as the Meadowlands of the Bronx rather than a great place to build more housing and retail.
A 30-Year Plan; Not a 30-Day Stadium
Here is our simple but fragile vision for our neighborhood: a future where a diversity of races and incomes seek prosperity and peace on safe, vibrant streets.
The garage site should be redeveloped, but not with a soccer stadium. A good first step would be to take a step back and engage the residential community in the planning process and come to a consensus about what should actually be built on this site.
Two potential ideas, both with their own pros and cons (that should be discussed by the community), would activate and invigorate our area. The easier of the two would be to focus on a development that does not require rezoning the site. This could consist of a hotel above community facility space and ground floor retail. The current C8-3 zoning already allows hotel and retail uses at a maximum FAR of 2.0 and community facility uses at a maximum FAR of 6.5. Another idea is to rezone the site to permit residential or mixed-use development. It appears that in either case, the City would need to go through the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) to officially dispose and alienate the parkland since the garage site is officially parking accessory to parkland.
In either scenario, the City could help rejuvenate this portion of the South Bronx with a shot in the arm. The basic ground work has been laid for sustainable and fair growth in the surrounding area. We need to build upon and implement those plans through calculated efforts, not to undo them with a 30-day stadium.
Alternative Locations for Soccer Stadium
There are locations throughout the five boroughs that would be better suited for the soccer stadium. Two such sites are the existing Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island and the Bronx Psychiatric Center in the Eastchester neighborhood.
Icahn Stadium would be a perfect fit for the soccer stadium. It is not in an existing residential neighborhood, it has easy access to all the major regional highways and the infrastructure already exists to transport tens of thousands of people there and back during game day. In fact, Icahn Stadium was proposed to be enlarged to about 25,000 seats as part of NYC2012 bid for the 2012 Olympics.
Bronx Psychiatric Center is an ideal site for the stadium to be part of a larger master plan that includes new housing and retail. The Center is currently undergoing the RFI process for “purchase and redevelopment.” It is adjacent to the proposed Morris Park Metro-North station, the Middletown 6 train station and the Hutchison River Parkway and Bruckner Expressway. Such a large site would lend flexibility to a master plan that includes new commercial and housing developments around a stadium.
Like all New Yorkers, we want a fully-functioning neighborhood that is safe and vibrant, where we can live affordably and comfortably. A proposal for this site at 153rd street and River Avenue should seek to spur on equitable development and light the way. Our neighborhood is not the Meadowlands. We are a dense, residential community of thousands of people with a vision for a prosperous neighborhood. Situating another stadium in our midst would be overwhelming and remove so much of the potential our neighborhood has to flourish. Our neighborhood could be a crowning achievement of what New Yorkers voted for in November: a city (and a neighborhood) where development occurs that supports a wide variety of incomes and people.
We have a vision to prosper. This stadium will not get us there.
About Jonathan Keller:
Jonathan Keller is a lifelong New Yorker. He worked in the Bronx for three years before ultimately moving to the Concourse neighborhood in 2011. He holds a Masters in Urban Planning from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at NYU.
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