The first community meeting since New York City announced it would no longer study the removal of the Sheridan Expressway was a bumpy one.
Members of the New York City Department of Planning were in the South Bronx Thursday to give an update on the Sheridan-Hunts Point land use study. But some area residents -- including members of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, who led a march to the meeting -- wanted answers about why the city dropped the Sheridan takedown option.
Tawkiyah Jordan, a project manager in the Bronx city planning office, started off the meeting talking about demographic trends in the neighborhood and said the evening's agenda would focus on land use planning west of the Bronx River.
Kellie Terry Sepulveda, executive director of the South Bronx community development group The Point, asked why the meeting didn't include the Bruckner neighborhood -- which lies on the other side of the river. "From a community perspective they're one and the same."
Jordan said "it has so many complicated pieces I felt like we needed to focus on it separately...this is more a presentation about land use and zoning...in just trying to think about how to get through all the information, it felt like Bruckner Boulevard would be a meeting unto itself."
But Sepulveda said the community had spent almost a decade looking at the South Bronx and decided that the best option was to remove the Sheridan. "Our needs weren't being addressed holistically by the state. And now we're here today having these needs being unmet. And we're concerned."
Jordan countered that the Bruckner neighborhood was "of such importance that it really deserves a deeper look, and in a different way, than the areas we're looking at right now." ("I want you to do the same for the removable option," muttered one meeting attendee under her breath.)
"It seems to me, if you separate Bruckner Boulevard from all the other communities, it feels to me like a sense of divide and conquer," said local resident Elisabeth Ortega.
"It's not!" said Jordan. "But that's how it feels!" said Ortega. "And if not today, when?"
Ortega spoke bluntly of "feeling shafted" by the city's decision to take the Sheridan removal off the table. "Without any conversation! Without any transparency whatsoever! The fact that it's just off the table! How can it be off the table when you've got people here who feel so strongly about it!" She continued: "It just hurts to hear you say 'well, we're just going to deal with the Bruckner at another time.'"
"I know that there's extreme dissatisfaction with not just the process but with the way things have been communicated and decided," said Jordan. "And I understand that that conversation is not going to stop today. And that many of the people in this room will probably continue that conversation. That is fine. What we are here to do today --"
Sepulveda interjected. "Will the city continue that conversation with us? That's why we're here. Because if not there's nothing left for us to discuss. Respectfully, Tawkiyah, respectfully."
Jordan said what was important to remember is that "there are actual opportunities to create change, and to make improvements in all of the neighborhoods we're looking at."
"We need to allow them to give their presentation" said another man in the back later identified as a member of Bronx Community Board 3.
After some more back and forth, Jordan got to the point. "If what you want to hear me say is that the removal option is back on the table, I don't have the right or power to say that. But what I do have the right and the power to talk about tonight is what we can do in the neighborhood....that conversation is one that can be had, but that's not one I came here prepared to talk about tonight." She tried gamely to keep moving the meeting forward, but another burst of questions from the back derailed her.
Eventually Nnenna Lynch, a senior policy adviser to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, stood up. "We're happy to meet again to talk about the transportation analysis," she told the room. "As far as what we're going to do..."
"Yes or no, please," said Julien Terrell, a community organizer for Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. "Yes or no please? Are we going to be able to talk about our recommendations within the context of removing the Sheridan? Because that's the only way getting access to our waterfront is actively going to work."
"We're here tonight to talk about land use," said Lynch. "If you'd like to continue the conversation about the removal option, we're happy to do that -- we just don't think tonight's the proper forum."
And for about three-quarters of attendees, that was the end of the meeting. "Our communities are under attack! What do we do?" yelled Terrell. "Stand up fight back!" shouted meeting attendees. And, chanting, the group walked out.
While the meeting about land use continued inside the building on Intervale Avenue, members of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance congregated outside.
Some were hopeful. "I'm going to write to the president of the United States," said Jimmy Graham, an area resident. "He won that battle over health care."
But Cerita Parker, an activist with the South Bronx advocacy group Mothers on the Move, was disheartened. "I feel insulted by the whole process. For the people who make the decisions to not even be here -- it's an insult and a slap in the face as well," she said. "I just couldn't sit there and hear her talk about 'well, we're going to do the Bruckner at another time.' The Bruckner is a part of the whole deal. And all of that area encompasses the Hunts Point Market. Obviously we are not the big stakeholders in the Hunts Point Market. And I feel that once again the community has been given the shaft."
But remaining inside, according to a spokesperson for the city, were people who held a productive meeting about land use. "This is far more than a study about a transportation artery – it’s about planning for the future of neighborhoods around the Sheridan. We're looking for ways of achieving the objectives in the study that the community identified in previous workshops," said the spokesperson, adding the city is committed to improving issues of waterfront access, pedestrian safety, strengthening retail corridors and providing affordable housing in the South Bronx. "And we're looking for ways to do that collectively with the community."