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World Resources 1996-97 (A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development Programme, and the World Bank) (Data edited by Dr. Róbinson Rojas)
6. City and Community: Toward Environmental Sustainability Box 6.4 Citizen Participation Leads to Better Plan for the Bronx, New York
In the summer of 1992, residents of the downtrodden Melrose Commons neighborhood in New York City's South Bronx discovered that the city was planning to revitalize the neighborhood and that many homes were slated for demolition.
As it turned out, the City Planning Department had been working on the plan since 1985, but with little community participation. Like so many other such plans, the "revitalization" would displace many community residents from their homes, apartments, and businesses.
A few residents were outraged that members of the community who had stayed through thick and thin would be rewarded for their fortitude with the loss of their homes. They were also frustrated that the plan was developed by people who did not live in or know the neighborhood.
At a series of public forums held by the Bronx Center, a community-based volunteer planning effort for a 300-block section of the Bronx that encompasses Melrose Commons, long-time residents angrily denounced the plan.
Stung by the public reaction, the leaders of the Bronx Center and the Bronx borough president actively encouraged Melrose Commons residents to get organized and involved in the revision of the plan. The Bronx Center provided the services of two community organizers, and a longtime resident provided office space. Two architects donated their services to the group, known as the Nos Quedamos (We're Staying) Committee. (1).
In 1 year, the group had 168 meetings and each week sent out about 250 faxes to city officials. The original plan was withdrawn by the city, and the Nos Quedamos Committee became the focal point of a revised plan.
The residents' insights produced many significant changes. City planners had envisioned the center of the community as being in the south, but residents said the center was actually in the northeast quadrant, where many people lived. The original plan called for an 8,000-square- meter park in the middle of the project, but residents thought that such a park would be indefensible and would immediately become a haven for drug addicts and criminals. The revised plan includes a variety of more defensible spaces for different ages and different purposes (2).
The original city plan proposed a middle-income community with 4,000 units of small, attached houses over 30 blocks. The plan developed by the Nos Quedamos Committee envisioned a low- to mid-rise mixed-income residential community with about 1,500 new dwelling units, 80 rehabilitated units, 16,250 square meters of commercial retail and office space, and 18,600 square meters of space in community structures.
One key to the plan was the use of six- to eight-story mixed-use buildings with stores at the street level and apartments above. Residents felt that such buildings would provide enough people on the streets and in the stores to help make the neighborhood safe (3).
Another key was to minimize the displacement of residents. Under the original plan, about 78 families and 80 businesses were to be moved out of the area; under the new plan, about 55 families and 51 businesses would have to move, but most would be given top priority for new homes and stores within the community.
By mid-1994, the new plan had been approved by two local community boards, the Bronx borough president's office, the New York City Planning Commission and various other city agencies, and the City Council. But many of the designs for housing developments in the proposal do not fit into any current government housing programs, so it could take a decade or more for the entire project to be completed.
The Nos Quedamos Committee has identified a first phase of the project that encompasses an eight-block area. The development includes proposed six- to eight-story mixed-use buildings, four-story townhouses, two-family homes, restoration of existing residential buildings, off- street parking, a 4,000-square-meter park, and various other open spaces for community gardens and children's recreation. The area includes all of the building types proposed for the larger development and can thus serve as a model for subsequent development. Most of the land is city owned, which will minimize the need to acquire privately owned sites.
The work of the Bronx Center has attracted the attention of community activists, public officials, business leaders, professionals and academics from many cities in the United States and abroad, and international institutions such as the World Bank.
References and Notes
1. David Gonzalez, "Revolution of People Power Wells Up in the Bronx," New York Times (July 8, 1993), p. B1.
2. Mervyn Rothstein, "A Renewal Plan in the Bronx Advances," New York Times (July 10, 1994), p. 1R.