Special Harlem River Waterfront District Visioning Session: Real Grassroots Planning Or Just Business As Usual?

A packed room where every seat was taken and people were still coming in as the presentation began, soon emptied out leaving behind a fraction of residents who attended.
A packed room where every seat was taken and people were still coming in as the presentation began, soon emptied out leaving behind a fraction of residents who attended.

On Tuesday, May 5th, the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation—better known as SoBro—held a “second” visioning session on the Special Harlem River Waterfront District to discuss the issues of developing the waterfront, residential, needs, and gentrification issues.

Tucked away in a corner, the 1st waterfront "visioning session" was obviously not the main reason this event was held.
Tucked away in a corner, the 1st waterfront “visioning session” was obviously not the main reason this event was held.

The reason I say second in quotes is because SoBro held a block party last year where they had a small station in a corner—away from the center of pedestrian traffic and flow—where they collected surveys about the waterfront. Surveys that were never heavily promoted. Many residents were unaware that a “first” session had occurred. In fact, these are the very words SoBro used to describe the event held last year on June 14th:

“Join us for a day of food, dance and music! Enjoy performances of Salsa, Bomba / Plena, Hip-Hop, and special performances by the Hip Hop Legends: Grand Wizzard Theodore, Grand Master Melle Mel, Soul Sonic Force, and Curtis Blow. Restaurants will open their doors to showcase some of the best food the Bronx has to offer! This event is FREE to the public.”

Sounds like an invitation to a block party, not a "Visioning Session".  Sure they made sure to place the words there but they did in small print below what they obviously considered to be the most important part of the event.
Sounds like an invitation to a block party, not a “Visioning Session”. Sure they made sure to place the words there but they did in small print below what they obviously considered to be the most important part of the event.

No mention at all about this being a visioning session on the waterfront except in tiny print on the flyers. Worst of all, the survey was in English only neglecting the huge population in the area that is Spanish or French speaking only.

At Tuesday’s “visioning session” they provided a Spanish survey this time, however, it was obviously translated by using Google or an online translator.

The survey in Spanish was barely legible and confusing filled with misspellings, incorrect grammar, and phrases that don’t exist in the Spanish language. I was embarrassed for SoBro that they would have the audacity to issue such a sloppy document to the community which further makes people ask, “Does SoBro know the community they are supposed to be working for anymore?” It’s a slap in the face to the residents who live there.

SoBro is a community based organization that has been around for over 40 years and you would think that by now they would understand and know their audience.

It is also an organization that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct the study of the waterfront as it pertains to the Brownfield Opportunity Area and you think they would, at the very least, hire a professional translator for a few hundred dollars to accurately translate the survey.

The English version wasn’t any better and was actually quite offensive when it asked “What types of amenities would you like to see” and the first answer was “friendly neighbors”.

As someone who has worked in the real estate industry for over 15 years, that is completely unacceptable and is NOT an amenity and it borders on the illegal practice of steering if they were acting as real estate agents.

The survey also asked questions about what types of apartments they’d like to see in terms of number of bedrooms etc and what they thought was reasonable rent for a 1 bedroom apartment which went from $500 to $1000 and as high as $2,500 a month with the option to provide an alternate rent amount.

But enough about that.


The evening began with brief introductions and an overall of what SoBro does and has done in the community.

It was here where one revelation was made that was very disturbing and had several residents concerned.

According to SoBro, they manage every single Industrial Business Zone in The Bronx. This is a monopoly that is not acceptable by any means. No single organization should be in charge of such a delicate part of our economy.

During the presentation, SoBro admitted that they weren’t ready for so many people to show up as the room was packed to standing room only with people still streaming in.

SoBro also poorly planned the evening by not taking into consideration that people would want to speak and ask questions before the break out sessions into the various workshop groups—which is exactly what happened and people began to express concerns and make statements about SoBro’s handling of such a sensitive issue.

After folks spoke and the break out sessions began, many people simply walked out and contrary to what SoBro or other folks will tell you, a little more than half of those in the packed room were gone and instead they formed their own groups and discussions outside as the evening progressed.

At the core of why many were unhappy with the session was the fact that, yet again, this was not community engagement nor was the community consulted with from the beginning. A plan was created saying, “Here’s what we can do in the area” rather than “what would you like to see done in the area?”

There’s also the issue of why when the community demands safety, better amenities, parks, access to the waterfront, better schools, better transportation and the community is in CONSTANT advocacy on these issues no one listens but when money starts entering into the community from the outside and special interests are seeking to develop these strategic lands, all of a sudden these are issues to listen to.

Then what? So the existing community doesn’t count but now that there exists the very real probability that new residents of higher incomes will be coming in, NOW these amenities and services are of importance? Does not the existing population matter?

SoBro's "first" visioning session doesn't even mention the waterfront in their description.
SoBro’s “first” visioning session doesn’t even mention the waterfront in their description.

It should be noted that many who stayed behind were either from SoBro, city agencies, board members of the Brownfield Opportunity Area and residents not from the immediate neighborhoods that would be directly impacted by what happens. Very few actual residents from the community stayed behind because of how disturbed they were by the presentation and having seen these types of “visioning” sessions before.

The common consensus was that this is already a done deal and SoBro is simply filling out check boxes so that they can say they complied with state regulations and had community engagement.

“Presenting a plan and then asking the community to comment is not participation. Holding one meeting, on a weeknight, for 40-50 people is not participation. Using the spectacle of “visioning” and participation to create the illusion of buy-in erodes the very foundation of community. A real participatory process starts with the community: what are our values? What are our hopes, dreams, and aspirations? Who are we, and what do we, collectively want?” said local resident, Elizabeth Hamby.

“Development is not necessarily a bad thing, but when the conversation is led by the developer and the community is merely consulted it creates the conditions for dislocation and displacement.” continued Hamby.

And Elizabeth Hamby is absolutely correct. Development isn’t necessarily a bad thing but when it is used as a tool without any real consideration for the existing residents, it then becomes a huge problem. Yes the lands, with the exception of two lots which are owned by the city, are private, but haven’t we already seen what happens when there isn’t a real exchange with the existing residents who are the ones that will feel the brunt of whatever is built (or not)?

At one point during the evening, a couple of residents walked by with signs in Spanish that read “Desalojo es violencia” or “Displacement is violence”.

Is it really our waterfront, our vision, our reality?
Is it really our waterfront, our vision, our reality?

Joyce Hogi, also a resident further up on the Concourse who is actively present at many area meetings which concern our neighborhood and borough also echoed similar concerns to Hamby’s.

“What I saw was more “top-down” planning that was not really taking into account the needs of the community. We want to see development but responsible development that encompasses those who currently reside and work there. I suspect that this was an “exercise” to fulfill the obligation that they had gone to the community.” Hogi said.

Not everyone saw the exercise as futile.

Angel Molina, also a local resident and an individual who has political aspirations said, “It’s a David vs Goliath scenario, change is upon us. But, we’ve been here before. During last night’s meeting while some walked out, the majority stayed. We broke into small groups to discuss a variety of topics, which generated thought provoking and sometimes contentious discussion, especially on the subject of gentrification.”

Molina said they left, “…feeling optimistic because the venue provided an opportunity for community members of diverse backgrounds to come together and strengthen their connections. We all understood we had a limited say, but still wanted the opportunity to help shape the future of this community. The group was more than willing to not only share their ideas, but to lend a hand as well.”

Parkchester resident and local entrepreneur, Judith Ford said, “I enjoyed the open communication between the people there SoBro did a good job navigating the discussion. It was very informative and cool to see residents of the area new and native interact…there were great ideas shared and I really can’t wait to see the vision spread sheet that is going to cone of all the discussions. ”

Still, many others saw the flaws of the visioning session including individuals who have deep understanding of systemic issues that plague our communities and those that have worked in the front lines through activism.

“Open processes that engage a wider community of stakeholders are critical to any development project that will have a resonating impact to countless Bronx households. The suggestion made to create a community task force that will make this process more accessible is something that must materialize. More importantly, the recommendations and suggestions that come out of this engagement must be honored and diligently advocated for by community organizations like SoBro-whose first priority are the people in the neighborhoods they serve.” said April De Simone, co-founding partner of designing the WE and Bronx resident.

“We can’t blindly trust that this project won’t have a displacement effect or create a tale of two cities within ONE community” voiced Mychal Johson, longtime area resident and former Community Board 1 member until he was ousted by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr for his opposition to FreshDirect moving into the neighborhood and bringing in thousands of more truck trucks into a community already overburdened by such traffic and 8x the national rate of asthma.

“This community can’t afford to have a different quality of life existing on different sides of the street” said Johnson.

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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.