Restoring the grandeur that made the Grand Concourse famous is the aim of city preservationists who want to make it a historic landmark. On Thursday they reached out to residents of the concourse to discuss their plans at a gathering at the Bronx Museum of Art.
In a push to move preservation plans forward, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, together with the Bronx Borough President’s office, initiated talks with residents along the concourse in hopes of putting to rest concerns about the landmark status and what it will mean for residents along the concourse today.
The proposed district covers East 153rd to East 167th streets, but also encompasses stretches of Walton and Gerard Avenues on either side of the thoroughfare “in order to give the project a sense of place.” The zone comprises approximately 73 properties, including a significant number of Art Deco and modern apartment buildings and institutional structures, two parks and two already designated New York City landmarks: the Bronx County Building and the Renaissance-inspired Andrew Freedman Home for the elderly.
The plan would mean the commission could regulate any changes to a building’s façade and would promote projects that restore buildings to their prewar charm, said the commission’s executive director Kate Daly. While property-owners will have to request permission from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission before initiating work on the exterior of a building, they are promised a short waiting period for approval, Daly said. She said she guarantees that work can commence quickly, as 95 percent of permits are issued on a staff level.
Cynthia Cox, a longtime resident of the Bronx and one of fewer than two dozen residents who attended the meeting, complained that little public notice was given about last night’s meeting. She said the commission should do a better job of sharing information in ways that are accessible to all residents and in languages other than English. Sam Goodman, an urban planner at the Bronx Borough President’s office who supports the landmark status, said that there would be further opportunities for the community to get involved in the decision.
Goodman, a resident of the concourse whose family saw the golden years of the neighborhood in the early 20th century, also expressed concerns over stores that have taken up space on ground-floor apartments and are an eyesore to the aesthetic elegance of a residential street. The shops are in breach of zoning laws established in the 1980s, which prohibit opening stores in many areas of the boulevard and limit signs to 12 square feet, said Goodman. Daly assured him that if the concourse became a historic district, these violations would be addressed. She advised that residents call 311 to report current zoning violations.
Originally designed by French engineer Louis Reiss to be the main road connecting Manhattan to the Bronx, the concourse enjoyed a period of growth as an influx of working-class immigrants, mostly European and Jewish, arrived in search of affordable housing. During the 1980s, economic hardships stripped away much of the luxury of the earlier part of the century.
Over the past 20 years the area around the concourse has seen renewed interest in its prewar architecture and renovations to its parks, streetlights and even its traffic patterns. Such renovation projects have heightened fears of increased rent for the thousands of Bronxites living in the proposed designated areas.
Marjo Benavides, an agent at Ariela Heilman Real Estate, agrees that the designation of the boulevard as a historic landmark would make the neighborhood more attractive. “People might become more interested,” she said.
Representatives of the N.Y.C. Landmarks Preservation Commission say that while they have no jurisdiction over the use or sale of buildings, they do not foresee an increase in taxes or rent. “There will be no direct impact on the residents,” Daly said.
Morgan Powell, a Bronx resident and history buff, is not completely sold on the idea yet. He said he feels that the neighborhood has seen an extensive evolution in the past 20 years alone with the development of co-ops and wealthier families moving in. A historical designation could exacerbate anxieties for residents in the middle-lower to lower income brackets who don’t want to get priced out.
Ed Garcia Conde, lifetime resident and self-declared Mayor of Melrose, praised the efforts of the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission. Garcia Conde, a blogger and real estate agent, believes that the grants could provide the financial incentive property owners need to fix buildings in a way that honors the history of the boulevard. Grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000, in addition to tax credits, will be made available to homeowners and landlords to make improvements, said commission representatives.
The Grand Concourse has already been recognized on a state and national level for its historical significance, and the N.Y.C. Landmarks Preservation Commission hopes to see it designated officially as a historic site by the end of the year, pending review by the City Council in June.
“We’re at an interesting point in our history,” he said of the neighborhood he calls home,“We’re going fittingly to the grandeur we once had.”