Jerome Avenue in the West Bronx is lined by over 100 busy car repair shops. Metallic noise bounces off the cluttered walls as workers fix engines, touch up paint, or sell spare parts.
It is clear that most of these shops may have to shut if the city goes ahead with a proposed rezoning of Jerome Avenue, a 73-block plan to build thousands of new affordable rental units. What is much less clear is whether some might be able to relocate, and if so where this new home could be.
Pedro Estevez is the President of the United Auto Merchants Association (UAMA), an industry group representing auto shop owners and workers. He wants to relocate the Jerome Avenue car repair shops to a state of the art “auto mall.” His favored destination for this facility would be Hunts Point, an existing car industry hub in the Southeast Bronx.
Although the Department for City Planning points to other rezoned areas of New York where auto businesses have been able to stay put, Estevez increasingly sees relocation as their only viable option.
“The automotive industry has zero opportunity to survive on Jerome,” he said. “The city is trying to put an elephant through the eye of a needle if it thinks some shops can stay.”
The Hunts Point auto mall would be built up, rather than across. “You have two and a half miles inhabited by these businesses on Jerome. With this type of building you could put them all in four blocks,” said Estevez.
He describes a five-story leviathan, replete with car elevators and an efficient circulation flow between floors grouping businesses by the services they offer. The transition would be facilitated by ownership rights for businesses that currently rent their shop space, and up-to-the-minute technical training for employees.
The auto mall project is, however, just a vision for the time being. Estevez says he has talked to the offices of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and said that the latter seemed receptive to his idea. The city, however, says that discussions remain at a very early stage.
“Every single business owner has agreed with the plan that we have. They would love the opportunity to have their own space,” said Estevez of the auto mall proposal. A recent survey conducted by UAMA found that 86 percent of owners would move, as long as they had no alternative and the city agreed to help them with the transition.
“I think our clients would move with us, because if they can’t get their cars repaired here they’ll have to look for another place to go,” said Naftali Fuerte, who runs C3R Mega Auto Diagnostic, Inc on West 169th Street just off Jerome Avenue. “If this mall project happens it’ll come with a big publicity campaign so that people will know where we’re going to be located.”
Some bosses, however, do not agree that relocating to Hunts Point is a feasible suggestion. “There’s a lot of competition here as it is, and Hunts Point will be competitive too. How are we going to survive?” asked Roberto Vazquez, owner of Vazquez Muffler on Jerome and West 169th Street.
Many auto employees do not seem prepared to leave the area either. “People don’t want to move, they live here,” said Wascar Gonzalez. He is worried that the rezoning will put car shop workers in a double bind: unemployed and stuck in buildings where rents are being jacked up by speculation around the adjacent redevelopment.
If opinion about a possible move is divided along Jerome Avenue, those who already have established auto repair businesses in Hunts Point also have conflicting views on whether they could manage an influx of suddenly displaced competitors.
“Imagine there are four or five pizza restaurants next door to each other. You choose the cheapest at first but you can easily try them all,” said Eddie Runo, who has been in Hunts Point for more than 30 years. “How often do you need your car fixed? Once a year? You’ll just go back to the cheapest guy.”
If Runo thinks that greater competition will drive down prices, however, Fred Donnelly counters that it could be a boon for his Hunts Point Auto business.
“I can’t fix every car in New York,” he said. “If I do my job right, I don’t have to worry about competition.” Donnelly claimed that when a new car shop moved in across the road a few years ago he actually got busier, mopping up some of his new competitor’s customer base.
The Jerome car shops are not the only ones to have eyed an escape to Hunts Point. Sunrise Co-op, a collective of 45 auto repair businesses kicked out of Willets Point, Queens by plans to build a mall next to the New York Mets’ Citi Field, is currently in the process of relocating to a huge warehouse at 1080 Leggett Avenue in the Bronx.
The new facility is a hulking hangar. Even if it doesn’t seem quite as space age as Estevez’s skyscraper car mall idea, it is retrofitted with booths framed by gleaming frames and dropdown grates. At present, however, it stands eerily empty. A handful of workers putter around with various auto parts. Mainly, however, they sit, drink coffee, and wait.
It is not hard to see what Victor Pichardo, a state assembly member for a district on Jerome Avenue, means when he says that the Jerome workers’ story cannot be “a second Willets Point.” To begin with, hundreds of Queens workers have not been able to relocate, with many going out of business altogether.
Those who did get to make the move have seen their transition beset by problems. Having originally identified the facility in 2013, Sunrise says that it still hasn’t received a certificate of occupancy from the City’s Economic Development Corporation, which in 2015 was mandated to pay out nearly $5 million to help with relocation costs.
“We are ready to move in immediately,” said Sergio Aguirre, organizer of Sunrise co-op. “We could have moved in four months ago.”
Aguirre remains hopeful that the move-in date will come sooner rather than later. Although not yet a formal part of the Hunts Point automotive scene, he said that he would also be more than happy to welcome any businesses who did come to the area from Jerome Avenue.
“We are in total favor of the Jerome businesses being relocated anywhere they need to go,” he said. “I pray to God that they will not live through the same bitter time that we went through. We’ll be brothers and sisters working hand in hand together.”
A spokesperson for the Department of City Planning said that he expects any effect of the rezoning on Jerome Avenue’s car shops to be natural and gradual. He pointed out that, unlike in Willets Point, the city has not threatened these businesses with eminent domain, the state’s right to seize property from private owners.
In the event of an uprooting conversations with businessmen like Aguirre and Donnelly paint Hunts Point as a potentially thriving home-from-home for New York’s vagrant car repair industry: a crossroads between Queens and the West Bronx that sings with a spirit of solidarity and imaginatively high-tech potential. The reality, however, seems likely to be beset by bureaucratic delays and a lack of enthusiastic will.
For the time being, Jerome Avenue’s car shops just want an end to the uncertainty. With the redevelopment of the area still in its early stages the city does not yet have a concrete plan to offer worried owners, who know only that they are unlikely to be able to stay.
“They are already distributing the spaces where the automotive industry is right now, before the rezoning even takes place,” said Estevez, waving the city’s recent Jerome Avenue environmental impact report in his hand. He pointed out a row of zeroes signifying the projected square footage the auto industry would occupy on a rezoned Jerome.
Right now, these zeroes are all the Jerome Avenue auto industry has. They do not have guarantees about their future, and they certainly do not have an auto mall in Hunts Point ready and waiting for them to move in.
“We are not against any development for affordable housing,” said Estevez. “But we have to have a plan so that all the auto businesses that are on Jerome can carry on being effective.”
And Estevez has stern words of warning should the city drag its feet.
“I don’t think the city will be prepared to confront the reaction of the automotive community. It could be very nasty,” said Estevez. “The South Bronx has a very noticeable reputation. You don’t mess with the people of the South Bronx”.
Additional reporting and translation by Sarah Blaskey.
Read more about the Jerome Avenue rezoning here:
Jerome Draft Publication Brings Affordable Housing Battle to Bronx
Jerome Avenue Auto Workers Featured in Photoville Exhibition
Jerome Rezoning Plans Slammed at a Spirited Public Hearing