EXCLUSIVE: Special Harlem River Waterfront District Just Moved One Step Closer To Becoming Reality

Courtesy of SoBRO
Courtesy of SoBRO

Could thousands of waterfront units along the South Bronx’s Lower Concourse Rezoning District reaching heights of up to 40 stories be far away? Picture gentrification of the South Bronx Citibikes, a Fairway market, cafes, high-tech and web design companies, bakers/caterers, artist work space, and professional/incubator space along the waterfront.  Parks and esplanades tying commercial, residential (both affordable and market rate as well as supportive housing), and retail all together.

If SoBRO and property owners in the district get their way, it can be what the future holds.

SoBRO (The South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation has just issued Phase 1 Visioning Study & Preliminary Market Feasibility Study for the Special Harlem River Waterfront District (which they’re now calling Lower Grand Concourse Waterfront, bye-bye SHRWD? We grew to love that name).  The study was released at a meeting where SoBro, “gathered over 75% of waterfront property owners, community, City, State, and Federal representatives in order to take meaningful steps in creating a world class model for waterfront development with integrated community access.” SoBRO administered and executed the study, was funded by the New York Department of State, and MAP (architects who designed the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Development Project) and AKRF (who specialize in environmental, planning, and engineering) acted as consultants to the plan.

According to the press release issued along with the study, Jamila Davis, Vice President of Business Services at SoBRO stated that they are, “taking vigorous steps to expedite the development of the Lower Grand Concourse BOA.  Whether it is through a Master Plan model or through developer-initiated projects, the South Bronx waterfront represents the potential to create global best practices in impactful and measured community and economic development.”

So take that as a fact that it seems this is definitely coming and may be arriving sooner than we all thought. (Although the plan duly notes that being in a flood zone and new resiliency requirements can cause delays and increase projected cost estimates related to the project).

The new plan has almost doubled the units from 2,100 from a draft report we reported on back in March to 4,000 residential units comprising of 2.8 million square feet. A more detailed breakdown from the study can be seen below along with the proposed uses for each parcel. (See figures for parcel locations)

Courtesy of SoBRO
Courtesy of SoBRO

Upon reading the market study under the residential section, I noticed a glaring error. The study says that pricing for the units should reflect current rents in the South Bronx which they listed as:

  • $1500-$1,800 for 1 bedrooms
  • $2,000- $2,300 for 2 bedrooms
  • $2,500+ for 3 bedrooms (*Friedland Realty Advisors and Halstead Property, LLC (and other data)

These numbers are way off for the South Bronx as the average 1 bedroom in the area  is still around $1,100-$1,200 (even lower if you know where to find). 2 Bedrooms generally begin at $1,200 depending on location and can reach as high as $1,800 and 3 Bedrooms are generally $1,600-$1,800 as well depending on configuration and location.  It seems that the numbers provided by the above agencies just used buildings like the Clocktower and apartments along the Grand Concourse above 153rd Street.

For the proposed developments, SoBRO is calling for market rate rents of $2,500 for a two bedroom apartment and $1,100 for the same apartment under affordable housing guidelines (using inclusionary zoning).

Michael Brady, Director of Special Projects, Strategic Initiatives & Governmental Relations at SoBRO said, “The Phase 1 Visioning Study and subsequent market and feasibility preliminary data are an important step in making sense of long awaited development on the Lower Grand Concourse waterfront. Heavily mixed affordable housing would receive significant subsidy attention and provide for the existing community to benefit from waterfront development. A 50 / 30 / 20 blend with commercial and retail developments would provide a balance for existing and new residents and add to the economic vitality of the area.”

The cost of this project is far from the numbers that Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr mentioned earlier this year when he incorrectly stated, 1,500 units and no less than $500 million in development.  As per the analysis in this study, parcel 1, if developed as suggested at almost 800,000 square feet of residential and commercial retail along with infrastructure needed — including resiliency since it sits on a flood zone — it would cost almost $410 million dollars including subsidies.  Based on this fact alone the remaining parcels and assemblage area combined will in all probability cost around $5 billion to develop (of course, if started today, which it’s not so that number could very well be $8-$9 billion).

It should be noted that the waterfront park and walkways would connect with the proposed Mott Have-Port Morris Waterfront Plan which currently has priority status by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

The breakdown of what can be built vs what is being proposed is as follows:

“Each parcel has the potential to be developed individually; in order to maximize the development potential, identify the current market trends, and takes advantage of available public and private financing. When examined individually, all parcels taken together yield the following maximum numbers:

  • Residential: In excess of 7.0 million square feet (sqft) or 8,500 dwelling units (DUs)
  • Commercial: In excess of 3.9 million sqft
  • Community Facility: In excess of 8.1 million sqft

Rather than using these maximum numbers above, our recommended approach is a zoned development area that will create a sustainable community that meets the needs of the future residents, visitors, and businesses; while impacting the surrounding neighborhoods in a positive manner. We have begun to adjust these maximum numbers by implying program (housing, supermarkets, entertainment, schools, cafes, pharmacies, dry cleaners, parking, etc.) across all the parcels located within the conceptual site plan.

  • Residential: 2.8 million sqft or 4,000 DUs
  • Commercial: 2.3 million sqft
  • Community Facility: 1.0 million sqft”

Transportation Problem

Let’s face it. The area, although surrounded by 3 subway stations (the 2/4/5 trains at 149th Street / Grand Concourse at the northern end, 4/5 line at 138th Street / Grand Concourse and nearby 138th Street / 3rd Avenue on the 6 line) are already at capacity with all by the time the trains arrive at these stations during rush hour.  The situation is quite abysmal and adding 4,000 units (and say about 10,000+ new residents) without a comprehensive transportation plan is not gonna do the area any good no matter how great the development will be.

The proposed solutions do not really seek to ameliorate the situation since the following options wouldn’t be for the average joe but instead for the market rate resident:

Public transit suggestions:

  • Create a shuttle bus route that runs along Exterior Street, and connects the Grand Concourse at East 149th Street and Third Avenue at East 138th Street. This would connect the community to the 2, 4, 5 and 6 subway lines; and the northbound, westbound, and eastbound bus lines.
  • Create an express bus stop at the Madison Avenue Bridge. Exterior Street is a pass-thru at the moment, which does not promote development. Express buses include BxM1, BxM2, BxM3, and BxM18 buses.
  • Locate Citibike stations in the development area to connect the community to the 2, 4, and 5 subway lines; the Bronx greenway and other borough connections; and Harlem.
  • Locate a ferry dock at the shore-ward edge of the required public park that is to be located at the northern end of the Special Harlem River Waterfront District.

The community seriously needs additional transit options (like perhaps extending the 2nd avenue subway up to the neighborhood since it’s only right across the river?).

Below is a breakdown of each parcel and the Phase 1 Visioning for them directly from SoBRO.  Click here to read the full market study and analysis and click here to read the final draft of the waterfront plan.

Program Analysis

Courtesy SoBro
Courtesy SoBRO

Parcel 1

The base zoning for this site is commercial (C4-4) which has a residential equivalent of R7-2. The commercial uses would be focused around entertainment uses – movie theater complex, gallery, and South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation potential indoor sports such as bowling or gymnasium, dining (indoor and outdoor) cafes and/or pubs possibly with live entertainment, food for consumption along the outdoor promenade. Uses might also
include specialty shopping such as clothing, baby products, and toys. Residential towers will rise above the commercial base. The area on the eastern boundary of Parcel 1 is an easement for maintenance and expansion of the Expressway. This area can become a public plaza with vendor cart locations, planting and sitting areas.

Parcel 2 and Parcel 3

These two sites are grouped together, since the two property owners are looking at doing a joint development. The base zoning for Parcel 2 is commercial (C4-4) which has residential equivalent of R7-2. The base zoning for Parcel 3 is residential (R7-2) with a commercial overlay (C2-4). The commercial uses for Parcel 2 would be focused around the needs of the residential community such as supermarket and/or specialty food shops, pharmacy, laundry, dry cleaner, other convenience retail and possibly specialty shopping, cafes and restaurants that would permit take-out orders. Parcel 3 would house community facilities within its base, such as a preschool and elementary school, and medical offices.
Residential towers would rise above the bases.

The proposed public park for this community, as per the SHRWD, is located between Parcel 1 and 2. The commercial uses, particularly food services should be organized to work with the park.

Parcel 4, Parcel 5 and Parcel 6

The base zoning for these sites is residential (R7-2) with a commercial overlay (C2-4). The base of these buildings could house community facility uses such as day care, elder care, social service offices, and medical offices. General retail/small food shops could be located along the base, particularly fronting the shoreline walkway. Residential towers will rise above the base, possibly some supportive housing, and/or senior housing.

The intersection of Exterior Street and East 138th Street and the Madison Avenue Bridge forms a ‘boundary’ within the Special Harlem River Waterfront District, effectively subdividing the study area into two pedestrian zones, north and south, due to the traffic congestion.

East 138th Street is an extremely dangerous intersection for pedestrians. It is an exit and an entrance to the Major Deegan (I-87) Expressway as well as providing access to Manhattan via the Madison Avenue Bridge and the Third Avenue Bridge. This intersection has high volumes of vehicular traffic, particularly during morning and evening rush hours, with multiple turning lanes and complex traffic signaling. It effectively forms an “invisible yet tangible” pedestrian barrier separating the neighborhoods between the north side and the south side of the intersection.

Parcel 7, Parcel 8, and Parcel 9

These sites, zoned residential (R7-2) with a commercial overlay (C2-4) are separated by ‘natural’ pedestrian barriers on their north and south sides. On the north, East 138th is the barrier. On the south side, (Parcel 9 and the land below the MetroNorth bridge), the land, owned by MetroNorth, is an undeveloped area that is the most natural shoreline frontage of all the sites. This area should be stabilized and preserved as a wetland and public open space. This area is also where the rail line engages the land and railway signaling and traffic control devices will have to be installed to protect the public as well as the trains.

As these sites are somewhat insulated from the area to the north and south, development should focus on residential above commercial bases. Commercial activity should consist of general retail needs for the residential community. Community facility space could be devoted to educational purposes with a focus on the potential wetland/public open space on its southern boundary.

Courtesy of SoBRO
Courtesy of SoBRO


The assemblage sites are those located between the Metro North railroad bridge (the southern boundary of Parcel 9 SHRWD) and the Third Avenue Bridge. The current zoning for these is mixed use MX-1: M1-3/R8. The current land uses are compatible with the zoning and can remain and continue to grow. However, a major land use along the shoreline is for industrial storage and personal storage. This is not necessarily the most productive use of the land and is inconsistent with the new residential and mixed use district planned for the SHRWD. As the area below the Third Avenue Bridge has slowly been developing with old warehouse buildings being converted to residential, new stores and restaurants, artists and antiques dealers occupying former industrial spaces, we thought to reorganize the area to make it more accessible and to bring a greater mixed use density to the sites. Commercial activities should focus on a major retail supermarket that would also serve the community south of the Third Avenue Bridge. Community Facility uses could focus on the burgeoning artist’s community south of the Third Avenue and provide gallery space, retail outlets devoted to arts and antiques and artist live/work housing.


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Ed García Conde

Ed García Conde is a life-long Bronxite who spends his time documenting the people, places, and things that make the borough a special place in the hopes of dispelling the negative stereotypes associated with The Bronx. His writings are often cited by mainstream media and is often consulted for his expertise on the borough's rich history.