The city wants to turn the Sheridan Expressway into a West Side highway-style boulevard. The at-grade Bronx street with lights and trees is designed to mend a neighborhood torn apart by the aborted highway, while still giving truck access to the nearby Hunts Point market.
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."
For such a short highway, the fifty-year old Sheridan Expressway generates a lot of unhappiness.
"I don’t even know if you could call it an expressway," said Elena Conte, an organizer at the Pratt Center for Community Development. "It’s a fragment. It’s a mile and a quarter long."
It was planned by Robert Moses, whose original idea was to continue it through the Bronx Zoo. But local residents – not to mention the zoo and the New York Botanical Garden – opposed an extension and, in the 1970s, those plans were dropped.
But some Bronx residents have never made peace with even an abbreviated expressway. Activists, working together as the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, have for years been working to tear the highway down. In 2006, WNYC’s Andrea Bernstein went up to Bronx with the Pratt Center’s Joan Byron.
"There are three schools right on the expressway," said Byron. "So by redeveloping this as residential and parkland, those schools would have a green connection right across to the river." (A video of the plan is below.)
One of the supporters of this tear-down is Bronx congressman José Serrano. Two years ago he secured a $1.5 million federal grant to study three different options for the Sheridan: keep it, modify it, or take it down altogether. "The initial agreement we had, the understanding we had, was that they were going to look at everything," he said.
"What I’m concerned about, what the community is upset about, what we’re all upset about, is that they immediately took off the table the possibility of full removal of the Sheridan," said Serrano. "We just think that’s totally unfair and improper."
But as much as some wanted the highway gone, others say it's a vital piece of the road transportation network.
"Well, we were completely dead set against that and have been since the dawn of time," said Matthew D’Arrigo. He's co-president of the Hunts Point Market, the massive food distribution center located off the expressway.
"Without the Sheridan," he said, "a thousand trucks a night would have just one way to get to this market."
He says the market hasn’t been shy about making it known that taking down the Sheridan could jeopardize its ability to do business – and the thousands of jobs it brings to the Bronx.
"Everybody. Everybody. Everybody knows our position on that," he said.
Right now, the market is in the middle of negotiations with the city for a long-term lease. After this weekend, if it doesn’t reach a deal with New York, Hunts Point Market can start talking to other places. Like New Jersey.
Privately, officials told WNYC that fear of losing the market prompted the city to drop the removal option.
But recent a press conference in the Bronx, Mayor Bloomberg said the decision was driven by data, not politics. "All of the traffic studies show that it would not be feasible to do that," he said.
Predictions that losing a highway would cause traffic hell have been wrong before. Sam Schwartz – also known as Gridlock Sam – worked for the city DOT in 1973, when part of the then-elevated lower portion of the West Side Highway collapsed. In a 2010 interview with WNYC, he described what happened.
"People panicked," he said. "They thought that was Armageddon. They thought that was the end."
It wasn’t the case. Traffic on some roadways did go up. “We had trouble tracing one-third of the people and it wasn’t that they weren’t coming in," Schwartz said. "When we looked at transit, transit went up. We had the same number of people coming in, but they weren’t coming by car.”
Schwartz wouldn’t comment specifically on the Sheridan, but cities like Milwaukee, San Francisco and Portland all say they’ve seen big economic and environmental benefits when urban highways have been torn down.
New York City DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan called that comparison flawed.
"I think you know the Bloomberg administration has been very innovative when it comes to traffic engineering," she said. "But in this instance this particular option didn’t work -- but that doesn’t mean other options can’t work here and we’re going to continue to explore them."
Serrano, a Democrat, helped get a $1.5 million federal grant for a years-long study that examined replacing the aging Bronx highway with housing and parks. The congressman said the city made a decision about the road that runs through the South Bronx before the study was completed.
"It destroys their dreams," he said, referring to members of the community who worked for more than a decade on the project. "It destroys the study. It destroys any semblance of doing it right by immediately taking this option off the table."
A spokesperson for the city says the two remaining scenarios — to retain and to modify the Expressway — "will continue to undergo further analysis. The study will be completed in early 2013." The city has said removing the highway would divert too much truck traffic to local streets.
Serrano says he'll work with members of the community to try to convince the city to change its mind.
"Why would you quickly say removing it is not an option?" he said. "Well then, why even keep studying it? That wasn't the agreement we had. We were going to look at everything."
Activists shared Serrano's outrage.
"The first thing that we need to do is for the city to look at all the economic development options that are possible," said Elena Conte, an organizer at the Pratt Center for Community Development, which is part of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance. "And to make a decision that actually benefits all the stakeholders in the community. And that involves giving (the Sheridan's removal) the hard look that it deserves."