Melrose Commons, A Case Study for Sustainable Community Design
Prepared for the 1996 Planners Network Conference, “Renewing Hope, Restoring Vision: Progressive Planning in Our Communities.”
by Petr Stand, Magnusson Architects
Yolanda Garcia, Nos Quedamos
Eddie Bautista, New York Lawywers for the Public Interest
Edited by Barbara Olshansky, Environmental Defense Fund
Sustainable design has most often been defined along environmental lines. It has generally been defined as incorporating design principles which advocate the use of materials that create little or no pollution in their manufacture; minimize the use of non-renewable resources as well as the sensible use of renewable resources; support the creation of pedestrian environments, public transportation and the move away from reliance on fossil fuels. The traditional definition also includes the concept of a shift towards the development of the man-made environment along natural lines, taking advantage of climate, solar orientation, prevailing winds and topography and the development of local capacity for waste elimination through recycling and the use of biodegradable materials. Although this definition is adequate from an environmental perspective, urban conditions demand a more comprehensive approach. Sustainable design must address the social condition of our man-made environment by providing access to adequate livelihoods, adequate shelter, health care and education, and meaningful participation in local, state and national politics. Sustainability must also be addressed in terms of scale – from the individual and the community in which they live through the layers of municipal and other local territorial divisions to regional, national, and global concerns.
The strength of any community lies in its ability to provide both for its current residents and for their children. This is defined by the value that is placed upon the individuals who live within the community and their vision of what their community is and how it should evolve. The urban environment, with its infrastructure, density, social and political organization provide the opportunity to model a sustainable environment, intermeshing the environmental and social issues across a local/regional perspective. Yet the value of cities in the national economy has become acutely diminished. This loss of value has been precipitated by the massive suburban expansion of the last fifty years and exacerbated by disregard for the inhabitants of urban communities in the formulation of plans and development scenarios.
The Borough of the Bronx has an existing infrastructure that includes not just water, sewer and roadways, but also cultural centers, educational institutions, parks, recreational facilities and community-focused business districts, all serviced by a 24-hour public transportation system. Its location places the Borough equidistant from both the Manhattan central business districts and the newer suburban (Westchester, Connecticut, Long Island and New Jersey) business and cultural centers. Thus the Borough has many strengths.
However, the Bronx also has a history of mistrust between government and residents. This mistrust stems from the absence of public development that supports existing community infrastructure (both physical and social). Moreover, it has been perpetuated by the continuing specialization of public development into more discreet government agencies that lack the ability to effectively integrate their activities or engage the communities (both residential and business) in a meaningful dialogue. Thus, the Bronx has experienced ongoing alienation of people and communities from the activities of government.
This alienation has deprived us of the ability to see the interconnectedness of the social and the physical city and the inherent vitality of creating a sustainable community – sustainable because its citizens are empowered and actively participating in the continuing development and evolution of their community. The shared responsibility of community and government to collectively address the issues of revitalization is essential for redefining the Bronx’s role in the economy of the city and the region. The vitality of citizen participation and its crucial role in creating responsive sustainable communities is illustrated by the truly collaborative planning process that has remade an urban renewal plan in the Melrose area of the Bronx. This intertwining of the social and physical city is essential sustainable development.
The planning process for the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area draws its strength from a shared vision of the City of New York, The Borough of the Bronx and the local community. This vision is one that respects, supports and involves the existing community of Melrose in the formulation of plans and policies that address the issues of housing, open space, community renewal and sustainability that are vital for the continued growth of the Bronx and its role in the regional economy. The process must be responsive to social issues and the development of an environment that fosters cohesion, growth and responsibility The urban renewal plan will also be informed by the cultural and historic perspective that the community brings to it and will permit change, as the community evolves over time.
A brief history of the Melrose Commons project
The Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Area, a 30-block area in the South Bronx with a large concentration of city-owned property, was originally conceived of by the City as a place in which to create a new middle-income, home-ownership-based community. Plans along these lines were developed by the Departments of City Planning and Housing Preservation and Development in the late 1980’s. In August 1990 the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (D.E.I.S.) for those plans was issued. According to the D.E.I.S., the plan called for the creation of 2,600 units of new, middle-income housing, 250,000 square feet of commercial space, a centrally located 4-acre park, and a realignment of the street system in the northeastern corner of the area to a ninety degree grid system. It also identified 78 homeowners, 400 tenants and 80 businesses with 550 employees to be displaced in order to implement the plan.
The Melrose community is home to approximately 6,000 people and has a median family income of under $12,000 a year. At no time during the City’s planning process were the residents of the community consulted as to how they saw the future of their home. Although no formal presentation had been made to them, the community was aware of the plan and knew that it would lead to a certain amount of displacement. Rumors began circulating that the City was going to bulldoze the existing neighborhood and build new housing that would be unaffordable to the majority of community residents. The residents and businesses that had survived the devastation of the South Bronx in the 1970’s were expendable in the City’s program for redevelopment.
A public forum to discuss pending developments in the area, organized by the Bronx Center Project, took place on November 12, 1992. At this time an announcement was made that the Urban Renewal Plan was in the process of being certified. A number of community residents – homeowners, tenants and businesses – used this forum to vent their anger at the plan to displace them and take their neighborhood, and to express their outrage at being betrayed by their elected officials and the city agencies. Without input into what was to become of their community, they were left without the means to plan for their future. They saw their investments in their community being devalued and rendered worthless, and opportunities for growth, employment and an improved neighborhood being denied to them. They demanded that any new development slated for the area include them.
How the goals of the community were made part of the plan
“Be part of this committee and help save our community. Make changes for your own future, do not let your children down. Plan for your future and their future.” We Stay/Nos Quedamos Committee, February 1993 Home owners, business owners and tenants united and began to hold meetings to inform and organize additional community residents. A turning point occurred as Bronx Center Project representatives began to actively explore the opposition to the Urban Renewal Plan and question why a seemingly homogeneous community would mobilize to stop the plan. According to Yolanda Garcia, chair of the We Stay/Nos Quedamos Committee, “When members of our community realized the potential devastation that awaited our area, home owners, business owners, and tenants alike joined forces and proclaimed that this proposed Urban Renewal Plan would not be certified. It was clear to us that our community would be yanked by its roots and cast aside. City agencies had once again determined our fate without ever engaging in conversation with the very people who were to be directly affected. The need to clarify that the community was not opposed to prosperity, that indeed we welcomed development, was our first issue. We set out to make it perfectly clear to all who criticized our actions that we desired to be an integral part of the long awaited prosperity by remaining home owners, business owners and residents of the Melrose Community. In the proposed Urban Renewal Plan, our community was to be displaced, thereby removing the very same people who had weathered the abandonment of all aids and money throughout the past decades. These were the same community residents who had taken on the awesome responsibility of protecting their homes, businesses and ultimately “THEIR COMMUNITY.” The Urban Renewal Plan removed us from prosperity and made way for new residents who would reap the rewards of our sacrifices. The idea that prosperity meant our community residents had to be sacrificed was inconceivable. We had to be a part of the prosperity. We Stay/Nos Quedamos is not only the name of our committee, but our mission statement.”
In addition to concerns about displacement, questions were raised by members of the community about the affordability to residents of the proposed developments, the opportunities for the existing businesses to expand, the possibility of introducing services (health care, senior citizens, youth) not present in the community, the inappropriateness of the designated open space in the plan, the fact that realignment of the street pattern did not reflect how the streets were actually used, the need for appropriate densities to permit a continuation and expansion of municipal services to the community, and the quality of construction and the appropriateness of the proposed building materials.
By February 1993, residents had organized the We Stay/Nos Quedamos Committee. Responding to their primary concern of stopping the Urban Renewal Plan’s certification along with their desire to be included in the planning process, Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx Borough President, convinced city officials to postpone the certification of the Urban Renewal Plan. In order to develop the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan, a collaborative effort by government and community commenced. Participants in this coalition included the affected community as represented by Nos Quedamos, the Departments of City Planning, Housing Preservation and Development, Transportation, and Environmental Protection, the Bronx Borough President’s Office, the Mayor’s Office, and the office of Congressman Jose Serrano.
The coalition established a six-month period in which to redraft the plan. Nos Quedamos undertook the responsibility of developing the community’s proposal for a new plan. The working sessions were conducted in a space in the Melrose Commons community donated by one of the residents. Bi-weekly community meetings in the basement of a local church were conducted in the evening to keep residents informed of progress and to allow the broadest opportunity for discussion and involvement in the development of the new plan. Every Tuesday, Nos Quedamos met (and still does) at their headquarters at 811 Courtlandt Avenue. With every meeting, it became apparent that the community’s vision and foresight were very different from that of the City of New York.
Nos Quedamos’ goals were to:
- make Melrose Commons self sustaining
- ensure the continued participation of the community
- outline procedures and establish standards for quality
- outline procedures and establish standards for the environment
- outline procedures and establish standards for design
“The season of change was upon us,” recounted Ms. Garcia, “as time progressed some suggestions were studied. We walked the streets in groups and conversations became more in depth about truly understanding the affected community. So began the transformation process of each others’ determination of reality. We (residents) understood the pathways and respected the existing structures, form and composition of our community. It was the `experts’ claim that the old ways worked best. This was precisely our argument; in order to make Melrose sustainable, old ideas had to be revised. As our community members gave input about our district’s design and format, this joint effort allowed us to experience a true metamorphosis that represented change at the grass-root level. When government and residents sit down and collaborate about community projects, life can only get better; participative and proactive management makes for a positive and healthy environment. The activity of ”getting involved” offers Melrose members the chance to realize what we have been waiting for. The people of Melrose were the caretakers during a time when no agency (government or private) cared to help. Today, we are more than prepared to join forces and help our neighborhood flourish and thrive in a collaborative setting. Our community is dedicated to assist in the process of rebuilding itself.”
Analysis of the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan
The following summary examines the needs of the Melrose community, as reflected by the re-drafted Melrose Commons urban renewal plan.
The plan should cause no involuntary displacement of the existing community.
Under the initial development plan proposed by the City of New York a substantial portion of the existing community was going to be bulldozed to make room for new development. The City’s goal was to maximize the size of the development sites. Nos Quedamos approached the plan from the perspective that the basic building block for redevelopment is not the physical structures but rather the people who live and do business within the community. The commitment to this community shown by the people who have survived the devastation is the strength on which to rebuild.
Although no displacement is a guiding principle in the development of the plan, the community understood that some displacement would occur. The goal was to minimize such displacement, to decide intelligently for it where it had to occur, and to resolve conflicts resulting from these decisions. For example, a property owner might agree to sell a residential building to the City for demolition and the tenants of that building might wish to stay. The community decided that if displacement had to occur, the right to reside within the community remained paramount – relocation had to be provided for within the Melrose Commons community. By the fact of their residency, the time spent and investments (both social and physical) made, the people of Melrose have acquired tenure (equity) within their community. As development occurs, residents would use this equity to assist them in acquiring replacement residential or commercial space.
The following principles were articulated by Nos Quedamos:
HOMEOWNERS: Guarantee the right to reside in one’s own home, and where not possible, then within the community and, in any case, without economic penalty and the opportunity to benefit from the resources made available for revitalization.
TENANTS: Guarantee the right to reside in one’s own home, and where not possible, then within the community and, in any case, without economic penalty and the opportunity to benefit from the resources made available for revitalization.
BUSINESSES – WHICH OWN: Based upon the overall redevelopment plan, to allow for businesses to remain, or, to be relocated at the same location, as near as possible to the original location, or within an adjoining area; to provide financial assistance to whichever approach is settled on; to allow valuation of business to include such factors as:
- type of business
- customer base
- locational importance
- growth capabilities
BUSINESSES – WHICH RENT: Same as Businesses which own, except for those valuation components of the business which are specific to property ownership.
The ultimate plans for the City-owned buildings also needed to be addressed by the urban renewal plan. These buildings came into the City’s portfolio because they were abandoned by their previous owners. The City’s policy is to return these buildings to private ownership as rental buildings or tenant cooperatives. The tenants of these buildings have a right to reside within the community and need to be involved in the decisions concerning the present and future status of their homes. These buildings are a resource to those people who reside in them and to the community; they are not only a source of affordable housing, but also provide a visual and historical richness to Melrose Commons.
The plan should permit a mixed income community to develop and create a variety of ownership and rental housing.
The development of an appropriate density, a minimum of 60 units per acre, is a major concern to the Melrose community. Density means establishing a critical residential mass that will encourage commercial and institutional uses to locate here. A mixed use community will foster a pedestrian oriented environment with access to jobs, recreation, and educational opportunities. The revised plan calls for the creation of 1700 units of housing that are woven into the fabric of the existing community. With the acceptance of the “no displacement” principle, the number of existing buildings that will remain has increased, creating smaller and more fragmented development sites and reducing the number of new units. The new buildings to be created will be varied, including buildings of different scales and different types, from home ownership to supportive housing.
In order for the physical environment to have the ability to care for its inhabitants and provide for their upward mobility, a range of occupancy types must be created that will allow a mixed income neighborhood to develop. However, affordability is a primary issue in the development of the new housing and has to address the fact that the median income in this area is under $12,000 a year. The housing types will include:
- home ownership, condominium/cooperatives, and rental housing to permit a greater flexibility;
- senior housing and other forms of supportive housing with appropriate facilities, such as day care, health care, social services;
- appropriate disposition of existing city-owned buildings by involving the tenants in the decision making process;
- renovation of existing privately-owned buildings, as appropriate.
The primary building form being created in Melrose Commons is residential. The new residential buildings will incorporate both commercial and community facilities. The preferred building material is concrete and masonry. Building design should maximize natural light and cross ventilation. The building forms should lend themselves to the creation of small mid-block parks and community gardens.
The plan must provide affordable housing at densities appropriate to an urban community.
The New York City zoning regulations call for a required off-street parking ratio of.5, that is, 1 car for every 2 units of housing. However, subsidies for affordable housing development do not permit the construction of parking garages. This means that the plan must provide for a required surface parking capacity for 850 vehicles. This will consume large expanses of land and decrease the number of dwelling units that can be developed on a given site. (The parking requirement mandates locating the parking on the same site as the new residential development.) Therefore, when a given piece of land could support a larger number of dwelling units, the dwelling unit count must be reduced to support the reality of surface parking. The community objected to this ratio and argued to lower it. Community members wanted more dwelling units and improved mass transit service. The City agreed to reduce the parking ratio to.4 for sites with elevator apartment buildings. The community was not a satisfied with this compromise and will continue to work to reduce the amount of required parking.
The plan should utilize architectural design guidelines that maximize the public investment by creating a visually desirable, urban environment that will encourage development.
Ensuring the quality of the new buildings in Melrose Commons is of paramount concern to the community. Buildings that are well built, with a minimum 50-year life cycle, will maximize the public and private investments being made in the area. The materials used, such as as masonry, should be appropriate to an urban area, environmentally sensitive, and durable. Building orientation should maximize natural light, solar access and natural ventilation.
Architecture and urban design must also be responsive to the social context. Architectural quality is not only established by massing, materials, light and shadow but also by understanding the cultural diversity of urban communities. The cultural perspective that the residents bring to their neighborhoods, the history of the various people and communities that have lived there before, the remaining architecture and place names that are valued, both inform the “sense of place” of the neighborhood and enable its connection to the greater community. Design quality should also be able to transcend the past and present, however, as an urban community substantially changes every generation or two.
The plan should promote physical development that is both environmentally conscious and sustainable.
The flow of energy, water and other materials through our communities describes the pattern around which their ecology is shaped. The configuration of these systems, from waste water treatment to storm drains to municipal solid waste disposal have become increasingly costly. Since the costs of moving stormwater off the land depend on how much street and pipe construction is necessary to move the water from the City into surrounding bodies of water, capturing the stormwater as close as possible to where the runoff gathers can be the most inexpensive treatment. By treating the water in “wetlands”(in the case of Melrose Commons, the northern boundary greenbelt could incorporate a series of ponds that would accomplish this) to remove hydrocarbons, nitrates, suspended solids and other pollutants it is possible to generate clean water. An innovative stormwater retention system that can service a complex of buildings and/or blocks can reduce costs to the city’s infrastructure system.
Recycling is also an important element in physical sustainable design. This would include controlled demolition and renovation of the existing structures, not only to minimize the release of toxins – such as asbestos and lead – but also to reuse materials when and if possible. In addition designated recycling areas must be incorporated in the design of the new buildings. Recycling also includes composting of organic garbage. Compost from food and yard waste could be used for plantings in the community. The waste heat from the composting process could be used to assist in the heating of domestic water, allowing a reduction in the use of fossil fuels.
Urban communities because of their higher densities of residential and commercial development and access to public transportation facilities, can foster a reduction in automobile use and promote a pedestrian oriented environment. Such objectives can be achieved through the construction of bicycle lanes, greenways, mixed use buildings with ground floor commercial spaces and the design of streets that relate to the scale and sense of place and neighborhood. Lighting, tree planting, bus shelters, street furniture as well as the “infrastructure of daily life” i.e., ATMs, public telephones, mailboxes must be part of the landscape of the community. An examination of the current levels of bus service, routes and stops is necessary. Many residents believe the current level of bus service is inadequate and will not properly serve the developing community.
The proposed open space should be distributed into a system that responds to the community’s concerns of program and security.
The development of the open space responds to the community’s concerns regarding security and program. Large spaces need to be visible from the sidewalk across their length and width, and located so that pedestrian traffic and building development provide an “eyes on” environment. Where possible these spaces should be related to existing or planned institutional use such as public schools and be programmed for other community uses such as after-school centers and community gardens. Smaller spaces, developed as children’s playgrounds and community gardens, should occur in mid-block locations and be formed by the residential buildings, with windows oriented towards them.
Some of the new open spaces include a new 40,000 square foot passive park along Melrose Avenue; the pedestrian oriented “Town Center” – a paved civic open space that would include a college, planning center, community facility, athletic facility, and commercial activity; and the northern boundary park. This park would form a buffer between Melrose Commons and the industrial area to the north and would be a new active green space connecting the existing park at East 161st Street to the Town Center at O’Neal Square.
The existing vacant land inventory must be managed. Interim uses for these parcels should serve some public purpose such as community gardens and playing fields. However an interim land use policy must be properly managed with a community understanding of long range planning goals.
The plan should respect the street pattern and movement patterns within the community.
Crosstown traffic in the Bronx is complicated by the topography of the Borough with its series of steep ridges and valleys. In Melrose Commons crosstown movement is made possible along the 161st/163rd Street corridor. These two streets, oriented to the city street grid are connected by a diagonal street that fronts O’Neal Square, the western boundary of the proposed “Town Center”. Under the City’s original urban renewal proposal, this diagonal street was to be eliminated in order to create a grided system of streets (“more orderly” in words of the transportation planners). This action would have removed a seamless flow of east /west traffic, creating a series of intersections, additional traffic lights, right/left turns, and confusion. The community argued strenuously against this idea, pointing out that an unconfusing flow of crosstown traffic was important for Borough development, communication and movement between this community and others. Moreover, an increase in intersections would disrupt existing commercial development and result in greater congestion and air pollution from idling automobiles. The Commissioner of Transportation, hearing the dispute between the planners and the community, visited Melrose, toured the area and watched the traffic flow. He agreed with the community’s conclusion and enabled the urban renewal plan to develop around this important pathway.
Melrose Commons is bordered on its north end by a railroad yard (in a cut 30 feet below street level) and an industrial zone. As mentioned above, this border should be “greened” with recreational space. Doing so would enable the creation of a crescent street, connecting Courtlandt Avenue with Elton Avenue This crescent street would enable the development of housing with “eyes on the park”. The new crescent street would be bisected by Melrose Avenue and would give a unique sense of entrance to the community from Melrose Avenue. Melrose Avenue, the ‘main street’ of Melrose Commons is serviced by mass transportation connecting this community with the North Bronx.
The plan should provide for an appropriate distribution of commercial space and services and enable community residents and businesses to increase their earnings potential and expand their economic opportunities.
There is a hierarchy to the commercial activity in Melrose Commons. Third Avenue and East 161st Street are regional streets that are served by a variety of mass transportation systems. The commercial uses they can support are quite broad and they are easily accessible to people from outside this community. The commercial uses for Melrose Avenue, on the other hand are local and need to respond more specifically to the surrounding residential community.
The community agreed that existing businesses should also fall within the no displacement principle because they provide jobs and important services to community residents. For those businesses that the community judged to be problematic in their current location, relocation to an appropriate area within the community or to the adjacent industrial park was held to be an important objective.
Development must also include the provision of critical basic services, such as retail activities, banking, medical, educational, cultural and social services. In order to permit Melrose to become both sustaining and nurturing to its inhabitants, community services are considered to be an essential component of the plan. These improvements will also create jobs and business opportunities for community residents. Services which are currently unavailable in Melrose Commons include primary health care, senior center/adult day health care, a public library, recycling center, and a 40th/42nd Precinct police sub-station. Services which currently exist but will need either relocation and/or expansion include an after school center, day care and the post office.
The Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan must also enable community residents and businesses to increase their earnings potential and expand their economic opportunities. Economic development must be anchored on the existing strengths and successes that community residents, businesses and institutions have achieved. Existing businesses and merchants should have the opportunity to become suppliers of materials and services for the new development and renovation work. Every new private and public development and expansion of existing activity should include jobs and job training for community residents. Community residents and businesses must also have the chance to participate as entrepreneurs and investors and to have access to investment capital.
The value of having local preference for hiring, vending, job training and relocation will enable the public investments being made in Melrose Commons to capitalize on and extend the present strengths within the community (both structural and social) and maximize this public dollar investment by turning those dollars around in the community creating additional economic and growth stimulus.
Provide the means (through advance training and labor exchanges) and the real opportunity (through government mandate) for preferences for local hiring, for construction and permanent jobs starting with the pool of available labor from the Bronx Center (and immediate) area, the Bronx, the City, and then, non-City residents.
Development should complement the existing infrastructure and the community’s regional location and provide for future growth and evolution.
Melrose Commons has the opportunity to develop the connections it has to resources outside of the immediate community, and to the role it will play as the outside community begins to take advantage of the resources within it. Three examples of this are as follows:
East 161st Street MetroNorth station
The MetroNorth station, with its current entrance at 162nd Street and Park Avenue, is an underutilized resource. This station connects Melrose Commons to Westchester County, Connecticut, and midtown Manhattan. The station provides access for the community to a larger job market as well as the educational, cultural and recreational activities in the region. It is also the closest mass transit connection for people from Westchester and Connecticut to Yankee Stadium, the courts and the county building. However, the current entrance to the station is in an inappropriate location. East 161st Street is a major crosstown street linking Melrose Commons with the courts, the Concourse Plaza Mall, the County Building, subway lines and Yankee Stadium. The station entrance needs to be shifted to East 161st Street, made visible and handicapped accessible.
Third/Washington/Elton Avenues, East 159th Street to East 163rd Street.
This area has been identified by the community as its latent civic heart. The bordering streets, Third Avenue and East 161st Street/East 163rd Street, are the regional North/South and East/West connectors, served by mass transit and providing access to the rest of the borough. The two abandoned courthouses located here are to be rehabilitated with new civic, community, educational and cultural uses. The former YMCA (currently utilized by New York State as a correctional facility), which contains a swimming pool, running track, and playing surfaces, at East 161st Street and Washington Avenue should also be returned to community use. The closing of Brook Avenue and East 162nd Street to vehicular traffic will provide sufficient land mass to create a pedestrian mall and plaza off of which new community, educational, cultural and entertainment activities could occur. Due to its accessibility, the public nature of its planned uses, and its separation from the residential sections of Melrose Commons, this area would be the ideal space to develop nighttime activities including dining and cultural entertainment as well as open-air activities such as an outdoor performance space and a green market.
The continued participation of the community in the planning process and in its physical implementation is essential for the success of the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal plan. This will enable the facilitation of strategies to achieve the community’s goals and objectives and will ensure adherence to the plan guidelines for both physical and economic development.. The Community, Borough and City partnership will also allow a more flexible approach to plan modifications and amendments as the community evolves.
The campaign waged by the We Stay/Nos Quedamos Committee to seize control of the planning process is a classic struggle for self-determination that is increasingly being waged in various neighborhoods throughout New York City. Despite Nos Quedamos’ overwhelming success confronting the City’s bureaucracies, institutional barriers persist for communities striving for sustainable revitalization. The following are examples of some of these barriers and recommendations for revising them.
Communities and the New York State Urban Renewal Law
There are no provisions in the New York State Urban Renewal Law that provide for community participation in the formation of an urban renewal plan. The only provision for any type of community input can be found in the City Charter and Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) which must discuss how a community can participate in the review of an urban renewal plan. Often, by the time a plan has reached the first stage of ULURP review, there is little maneuvering room for modifications.
Under the Charter, HPD is the city agency responsible for drafting, sponsoring and implementation of urban renewal plans. Giving communities an early say at the formative stages of an urban plan might be a remedy. One possible legislative change would be to require HPD to incorporate community participation during the formulation of the urban renewal plan application.
While ostensibly an urban renewal plan, the route taken by the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan more closely resembled that of a Section 197-A plan. City Charter Section 197-A, is a provision that permits a local community board to develop a long-range neighborhood plan that can be adopted as policy by the City Planning Commission. Once adopted the plan can serve as a legally binding guide for future growth and development within the community. Community-initiated planning encouraged by Section 197-A can be a key to addressing the inequitable siting of hazardous facilities in disadvantaged communities, as well as for sustainable development.
Unfortunately, 197-A plans can only be considered by city officials if they are sponsored by a Community Board, Borough President or City Planning Commission. A Charter revision that can be enacted by the City Council would empower community entities other than Community Boards to develop their own 197-A plans for submission and consideration.
Despite a two-year collaborative planning effort between Nos Quedamos and city officials, the plan still faced stiff opposition. The heart of the Melrose Commons plan aims to re-populate Melrose by re-zoning the area to allow for higher density, affordable housing with appropriate urban design controls. In the midst of ULURP review on April 25th,1994, City Planning Commission Chair Joseph Rose submitted amendments to the Melrose Commons plan without any public hearing. These amendments, ultimately approved by the City Planning Commission, would have established an accelerated review period for “minor” modifications to the Melrose Commons Plan after the formal ULURP process concluded. Commissioner Rose’s “minor” modifications targeted the density and urban design controls of the Melrose Urban Renewal Plan – which represented the core of the Melrose Plan. If Commissioner Rose’s expedited review had been upheld by the City Council, it would have established a dangerous precedent threatening any community-initiated plan unpopular with City Hall. As a result of city-wide pressure, on Thursday, June 9th, the City Council approved the Melrose plan and deleted the Planning Commission amendments.
A plan is only as good as its implementation (and enforcement). In order to ensure adherence to plan guidelines (both HPD/DCP requirements and community standards), allow flexibility in interpretation as the physical developments evolve over time, develop phasing strategies that permit residential and business relocations to occur properly, and enable local preference (job training, contracting, vending opportunities), it will be necessary to develop a mechanism by which the community can be involved in both the development of RFP/RFQ’s and their review and selection Nos Quedamos believes that true community planning is a partnership defined by a community’s ability to co-sponsor a project. This means:
- Community as Sponsors
- design review
- selection of contracts (in pre-development agreement)
- selection of contractors
- Community participate in marketing
- Selection of buyers and renters
- Continuing participation with the “partnership” in monitoring all:
- meetings and briefings
- construction quality
- environmental issues
- marketing materials (for local vendors, etc.)
- Provision of funding for community monitoring:
- drawings, designs, construction, etc.
The implementation of traditional sustainable development principles – energy efficiency, mass transportation, “green” materials, recycling – is possible within our existing urban centers. Yet sustainability is more than this. Even the most environmentally sensitive community will fail if the people who live there aren’t “sustained”. Sustainability means that community provides opportunities for growth. It is a sustainable community because of a social fabric, both within the local community and the larger urban community, that weaves a responsibility into the preservation and evolution of the community.
The community has realized that they have the opportunity to formulate guidelines to ensure that the specific developments (the urban renewal plan subdivides the area into approximately 60 development sites) are designed and built to standards that support the community’s vision of their future. A dialogue on design issues and an environmental agenda has already begun within the community.
Government alone cannot be responsible for determining the fate of its people by triggering events that will forever change the composition of those affected. A community that is as culturally rich and diverse as Melrose has demonstrated that people can come together and determine their future in concert with elected officials. Community members must be brought in as equal partners in the renewal and development process. The success of the collaborative model used in developing the Melrose Commons Urban Renewal Plan proves that this is the way to rebuild not only our community, but every community.
The working relationship that has developed among the Melrose community, Nos Quedamos, the Bronx Center Project, the Borough of the Bronx and the City of New York will result in a plan that has a broad base of support. This plan will provide the community with a reinvigorated sense of public trust and civic responsibility as well as the physical and economic base for renewal and growth.