Inclusive Revitalization In the South Bronx: Melrose Commons
Posted by Kaid Benfield on January 18, 2010
I’m sure many in the Rooflines readership are familiar with the inspiring story of Melrose Commons and Nos Quedamos in the South Bronx. It is much less known in my world of environmental advocates, so I chose it as my entry for MLK Day on my NRDC blog.
Here’s some of what I said:
Melrose is a large-scale redevelopment project that, when completed, will comprise some 2,000 mixed-income homes along with shops and services in a part of the South Bronx that had deteriorated badly. The project is making great progress and enjoys very good sustainability characteristics, along with strong support and participation from neighborhood residents working to improve their community. But, as with many such stories, it did not begin that way.
It is hard to imagine now, but the South Bronx was once farmland. It was subsequently settled by immigrants in the mid 19th century and thrived as a collection of well-functioning city neighborhoods for many decades. But beginning in the 1950s it was badly hurt by the all-too-typical urban pattern of white flight to the suburbs, highway construction that created physical barriers between districts, disinvestment, building deterioration, and then “slum clearance.” By the 1980s the South Bronx had lost two-thirds of its population and had become world-famous for urban deterioration, crime and arson. By the early 1990s its population had declined to less than 6,000 of the nation’s poorest people.
The New York City government had begun planning redevelopment of the area in the 1980s. But, when a plan was finally announced in 1990 to replace a 30-block portion of the South Bronx with a massive new development, neighborhood residents were understandably upset, not least because they felt they had not been adequately consulted and many of them would be displaced. While the residents had known a planning process had been under way, they believed that they not had a fair opportunity to review and influence the plan — which called for 2,600 new units of housing, 250,000 square feet of new commercial space, and a realignment of the street system — as it was being constructed. Some critics believed the development also was largely suburban in character, out of place for its urban setting.
According to an excellent summary posted on the web site of the Sustainable Communities Network, people in the affected community gradually began to gather together to discuss pending developments in the neighborhood. The Bronx Center project, a local community group, hosted a public meeting on the issues in 1992. Among the residents’ concerns were displacement, the affordability of the proposed new housing, the welfare of existing neighborhood businesses, a failure to plan for services (health care, senior citizens, youth, libraries) needed in the community, the street realignment, and the overall quality of the project.
With the assistance of the Bronx Center project, the neighbors formed an organization called Nos Quedamos (“We Stay” in Spanish) that quickly brought together a diverse, inclusive group of community residents along with municipal representatives. At the request of the Bronx borough president, the community was allotted time to formulate an alternate development plan. And, to their credit, the city’s Departments of Planning and Housing and Urban Development agreed to meet with the group on a weekly basis to help formulate a new, more responsive vision. Staff members from the city’s Departments of Transportation and Environmental Protection, the Bronx borough president’s office, and the mayor’s office also agreed to participate.
With the help of Magnusson Architecture & Planning, Nos Quedamos began to construct an alternative development proposal that would allow the residents to stay and that would better protect their long-range interests. According to another excellent summary, prepared for the World Sustainable Building Conference in Melbourne in 2008, after only six months of meetings and charrettes the group had persuaded the city to adopt their alternative instead of the original plan.
Today Nos Quedamos, now organized as a community development corporation, is the guiding force behind the plan’s implementation. A range of private developers and architects are involved in building out the plan, and many are incorporating impressive green features.
There is a more thorough narrative along with many photos and links in my NRDC post, which I hope readers will find interesting and useful.