Story and photos by Gregg McQueen
Make way for WHEDco.
Strewn with gravel and broken concrete, the sprawling vacant lot at Brook Avenue and East 163rd Street has sat neglected for decades, but on Fri., Jan. 13, the property was filled with the sounds of upbeat music, which could be heard drifting for several blocks.
Latin jazz legend Bobby Sanabria and his band played as officials gathered to break ground on Bronx Commons, a $165 million project that includes 305 units of affordable housing, retail space and a 300-seat concert venue called the Bronx Music Hall.
The 426,000-square-foot development is spearheaded by the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, or WHEDco, a nonprofit responsible for other Bronx housing projects.
Officials touted Bronx Commons, expected to be completed in 2019, as a project that would transform a long-abandoned, city-owned land parcel — the final undeveloped portion of the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area — into a vibrant community hub.
“As we create and preserve affordable housing at a record pace, we all know that we’re not just helping the people who will live in these buildings, but we are building better neighborhoods,” said Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) Commissioner Vicki Been.
Since the groundbreaking, it was announced that Been would step down from the HPD post by month’s end to teach at New York University.
Nancy Biberman, Founder and President of WHEDco, said the groundbreaking was a long time coming, as her group first proposed the complex eight years ago. She added that community members played a key role in the design of the project.
“Neighborhood residents have guided the work on this project since the very beginning,” said Biberman.
The project’s 305 apartments will be created for residents spanning seven income bands. Units will be available for homeless individuals and families exiting the shelter system, as well as households with annual income ranging from $22,032 to $89,760, according to HPD.
“We fought hard for this project,” said City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, who pointed out that housing is routinely cited by his constituents as their number one concern. He said that any housing projects done in his Council district should be mixed-income.
“We will no longer approve just low-income housing, because we need to ensure that everyone in our community has access,” said Salamanca.
Been said the city understood the importance of creating housing to serve a variety of income levels.
“We firmly believe that mixed income buildings make for stronger buildings, and make for stronger communities,” she stated.
Assemblymember Michael Blake, who lives around the corner from the Bronx Commons site, said the current state of the country makes the mission of WHEDco more important.
“That is, what are we doing for our women, what are we doing for housing, what are we doing for economic development?” he remarked.
Housing Development Corporation President Eric Enderlin lauded the project, which will also feature a public plaza, as one that incorporates affordability, diversity, open space and access to the arts.
“But the real story is the 305 families who will be living here,” Enderlin said.
“It’s nice to think of all the people who will benefit from this,” added RuthAnne Visnauskas, New York State’s Executive Deputy Commissioner for Housing Development. “I hope I’ll be here in two years for the ribbon cutting.”
As officials and project partners grabbed shovels to conduct a ceremonial groundbreaking, Sanabria’s buoyant jams alluded to a time when the long-abandoned block could be relevant again.
Biberman said she hoped the Bronx Music Hall could resuscitate the area’s deep music history, noting that the neighborhood was once dotted with places where residents could hear live music.
“What got lost in the Bronx, in addition to the housing, were scores of music venues,” she said.
As he surveyed the lot that will transform into Bronx Commons, Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr. recalled the 1981 film Fort Apache, the Bronx, which depicted the southern portion of the borough as a burned out, dangerous epicenter of urban decay.
He said the South Bronx has come a long way since those times.
“It was ever since then that many folks in the Bronx, and many of our friends outside our borders, came together to say, ‘you know what? We deserve better,’” remarked Díaz.
For more information, please visit whedco.org or call 718.839.1100.