Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Retail and Waterfront Access in the South Bronx

Dan McCombie is a research associate at Larisa Ortiz Associates

Besides working as a research associate here at LOA, I’m also a graduate student in urban planning at the Pratt Institute. This semester I’m taking a studio class set in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the South Bronx, with a nonprofit client that has expressed growing concern over the type and rate of new waterfront development. Industrial uses pose a threat to the community insofar as they prevent valuable public access to the waterfront while also promoting air pollution through increased traffic with diesel trucks. This exacerbates an already prevalent issue due to the presence of multiple high-volume bridges and expressways segmenting the neighborhood. In my first blog post I discussed how industrial areas can be problematic for retailers because of some of their associations and externalities. As I engage with this studio project, I ask myself in what ways a robust retail environment can perhaps provide an opportunity to meet the needs of the client (i.e. public space and waterfront access) in an otherwise industrial setting. As this studio is taking place in real time, I hope to update it with some of my findings and conclusions as they occur.  

Existing Retail 

Old industrial meets new residential on Bruckner Blvd 
I’ll start by providing some background. The Mott Haven neighborhood has a very distinct and bustling commercial corridor running the length of 138th St between Alexander and St. Ann’s Avenues. My first impression is that it is a convenience-oriented community center: eminently accessible and with a bent towards local and affordable eateries. But this is not where I will be focusing my attention (at least not initially). What is less obvious further south—in what is technically considered Port Morris—is a smaller commercial corridor of about five blocks, bordering Bruckner Blvd between the Third and Willis Avenue bridges. Unlike the walkable and densely populated 138th St, Bruckner is bisected by 4-5 lanes of busy roadway terminating into on-ramps serving the greater Bronx, Harlem, and Randall’s Island. It is physically and mentally isolated from the rest of Mott Haven by these roadways and the Harlem River.

Streetscaping provides respite from the adjacent traffic 
As a waterfront neighborhood, Port Morris has historically been industrial in character with some sparse residential and commercial uses. In the 1900s it was most famous for being the epicenter of American piano production. However, these days the tenants are a little different. The westernmost block of this corridor houses a specialty coffee shop, a CrossFit gym, and a boutique florist nuzzled amongst a handful of garages and auto-repair businesses. On the corner of Bruckner and Alexander, the former Estey Piano Factory has been converted into residential apartments and an upscale restaurant serving ribeye steaks and truffle-infused macaroni and cheese. Further east along Bruckner, more mixed-use buildings with ground-floor retail and renovated apartments predominate on one side of the road while new high-density luxury apartments and office lofts covered in scaffolding occupy the other.  

Murals engage the senses and create the feel of an arts district 
What prompted this change appears to be events that first transpired near the turn of this past century. In 1997, in coordination with the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp (SoBro), the City rezoned five blocks between Third Avenue and Brown Place on the north side of Bruckner Blvd, allowing residential and light manufacturing uses in what was at that time underutilized industrial space. This was the City’s first official mixed-use zoning district and it created roughly 185 new residential units and a few loft conversions (including the Estey factory). This also coincided with an investment of $875K for commercial street revitalization, creating new concrete sidewalks and driveways, street lights, trees, planters, and benches. The growth in residential uses coupled with the streetscaping improvements prompted a proliferation in retail shops—many which specialized in antiques. During this period the corridor became known as the South Bronx’s Antiques Row, attracting curious customers from far out of state on their single day sojourns to Manhattan.

One of the remaining antiques retailers in Port Morris
Today many of the antiques retailers have disappeared from the neighborhood. A few still remain and are (in my opinion) a source of immense character. This feels like an important observation because even though Bruckner Blvd is not the same niche retail district it was in the past, it has the feel of an arts/design district of which antiques are still very much a component.

Thinking Forward

Is this underpass a potential opportunity?    
After walking the neighborhood and chatting with the client, several ideas have started gestating in my mind. Is there a way to build a linkage between Bruckner Blvd and 138th Street? One reason for wanting to do so is obvious--creating a singular cohesive retail environment could have strong anchor effects, pulling customers from a larger trade area and prompting longer visitation. Whereas 138th St is a district with many affordable and hyperlocal dining options, Bruckner Blvd feels more like an emerging arts/entertainment district, such that patrons might start with a bite on the former and finish with a gallery visit and a tipple on the latter. Maybe that's ambitious. Its about a ten minute walk between the corridors and virtually absent of any other retail. But that part also feels as though it might speak to one of the concerns of the client. In the middle of the corridors are several public housing residences. Is there a way to build off the initial streetscaping investments on Bruckner years ago to create an attractive walkway that directly serves the local community? If greenscaped well, could it effectively mitigate some of the impacts of traffic and auto exhaust? What about an improved pedestrian pathway under the Major Deegan Expressway? It would provide the link to 138th St while also providing that desirable waterfront access. It may also represent a symbolic entrance into a Port Morris arts district.

There are a lot of questions. There are also a lot of challenges. Most of the land on the immediate waterfront is privately owned and will require at the least some ongoing dialogue with landowners and developers. But it’s a place to start. My immediate next steps will be conducting further investigation. What can existing retailers tell me through focus groups or surveys? Do they think they reside in an arts district? What is a realistic trade area for Bruckner Blvd? Where do customers come from? Are there any BIDs or merchants associations who can assist with future capacity building and the pursuit of streetscaping? 

As this studio progresses, I look forward to having some of my assumptions challenged, finding answers to these many questions, and exploring the ongoing role of retail in Mott Haven and Port Morris.

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