At a Bronx Is Burning–themed Halloween party last year, Carmelo Anthony and John Varvatos toasted the site of two new 25-story luxury apartment towers in “SoBro,” next to sculptures of flaming trash cans and a bullet-riddled car. The Bronx is in fact scorching hot. Just last year the borough saw $2.4 billion in new investment, over 95 percent of which was in new residential projects. The South Bronx alone has seen $2.2 billion in new capital investments since 2009. Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Netflix series, The Get Down, promises to fetishize the borough’s grittier years into binge-worthy TV.
No one is more poised to cash in on the boom than Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who partied with Melo and company last Halloween, and who seems to be emerging as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s preferred candidate in the 2017 mayoral race. (“I’m a fan of his,” Cuomo gushed at a recent event the two appeared at in the Bronx, calling Diaz a “rising star.”)
“I don’t want the Bronx to be the ‘new Brooklyn,’ ” Diaz tells the Voice. “I want the Boogie Down to be better.”
Yet some critics wonder whether he’s too cozy with the real estate sharks circling the borough. A massive rezoning along Jerome Avenue may put Diaz’s priorities to the test.
Announced in the fall of 2014, the proposed rezoning covers a 73-block stretch along Jerome, running under the 4 tracks just north of Yankee Stadium to Fordham Road, which is home to roughly two hundred auto shops that employ around two thousand workers.
City Planning is expected to provide the full scope of the initiative by September, but the de Blasio administration’s goal is to convert Jerome into a largely residential corridor by altering the land-use designations of much of the area. The current outline of the rezoning allows for very small pockets of continued industrial presence, with the majority of the blocks set up for medium-size apartment buildings with supermarkets or other ground-floor retail.
“Not all the auto shops will be able to stay,” notes the 43-year-old Diaz, heir to the Puerto Rican political base amassed in the borough by his father, State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. Jerome Avenue “looks the same way it did when I was a teenager. It’s time to brighten up the corridor.”
According to Pedro Estevez, founder of the United Auto Merchants Association, the city’s working blueprint allows for only twenty shops or so to remain, and more than 1,500 jobs will be lost. Estevez also points out that almost all of the businesses are renters, with over 80 percent currently holding leases of less than three years.
Despite Diaz’s assertion that “Nobody has been more visible on the streets of the Bronx than me,” many want to see more outreach from the Bronx’s leading elected official, and Estevez says Diaz has not met with UAMA directly regarding the rezoning. “I’ve never seen Diaz on Jerome Avenue,” he says.
When Robert Moses built the Cross Bronx Expressway, the borough became car-centric, which led to the growth of the auto-parts and -repair industry. Like the thousands of tenants uprooted by Moses to build his highway, the auto shops now stand to receive nothing as they are displaced.
On a recent Monday evening, the strip of auto shops struck me as anything but run-down. As the 4 train rumbled overhead, Dominican men played dominoes between shifts and West African locals looked over a new shipment of traditional clothing.
The Bronx Coalition for a Community Vision consists of two thousand area residents and has been holding monthly meetings about the rezoning that regularly bring out hundreds of people. Organizers have also been conducting weekly small-group sessions in the auto shops to discuss the plan’s likely fallout.
At one of the weekly gatherings recently, Miguel Jimenez, owner of El Mundo Auto Repair on Jerome Avenue, told the Voice that he “would love to see more of Diaz so he can answer questions” about the autoworkers’ future. Among other things, Jimenez is not certain about where El Mundo — which employs eleven people, nine of whom live in the area — would relocate. “When you move to a different place, it’s like starting over” in terms of building clientele, Jimenez explains. “But Diaz could be our ally in helping us relocate.”
Susanna Blankley, director of the tenants’ rights group CASA, has been helping facilitate the auto shop organizing. Her group has also been trying to counteract the rising number of incidents of landlord harassment of low-income tenants in the neighborhoods surrounding Jerome. “We want Diaz to be a champion on these issues,” Blankley says.
The Jerome area remains one of the cheapest high-density residential neighborhoods in the city, and in recent years it has seen an influx of newcomers priced out of other gentrifying areas, including Harlem, Washington Heights, and Bushwick. Yet CASA organizer Fitzroy Christian, who’s lived near Jerome since the smoldering Seventies, says he’s seen a steady stream of local cases at Bronx Housing Court over the past few years, meaning that the migrants are not escaping the displacement pressures they might have thought they’d left behind.
Diaz has sounded the right notes about tenant protection, penning an op-ed for NY Slant in May in support of City Council legislation that would provide legal services for tenants in housing court. However, when asked for evidence that Diaz’s office was playing an active role in combating landlord harassment, a spokesman stated that the work was done “one constituent at a time” through the borough president’s Constituent Services Unit. Meanwhile, since Diaz took office, the Bronx, the fourth most populous borough, has continued to lead the city in the total number of evictions, which should highlight the need for the borough president to take bolder action.
Diaz also has a mixed record as an advocate for job creation. Since 2012, he has fought to convert the Kingsbridge Armory (located just north of the Jerome rezoning area) into an ice rink that would provide living-wage jobs. While that project remains in limbo, Diaz has fully supported FreshDirect coming to the South Bronx. Backed by over $130 million in city subsidies, the company has not adhered to the city’s living-wage law, because its deal was negotiated before the 2012 legislation took effect. Diaz has exerted no pressure on FreshDirect to voluntarily comply. Meanwhile, most of the new retail jobs coming to the borough are entry-level and nonunion.
Amid the boom, Diaz has done little to downplay speculation about a possible mayoral run. At a City Hall press conference in May, he declined to endorse de Blasio for re-election, saying “we’ll see what happens” with the mayor’s mounting scandals involving fundraising, NYPD corruption, and the removal of deed restrictions, to name just a few.
Since those controversies surfaced in March, Diaz’s 2017 campaign coffers have grown by nearly $300,000, with contributions from political insiders including Al D’Amato and Betsy Gotbaum and leading real estate families Silverstein and Barnett. The latter owns Extell, the high-rise developer with close ties to Cuomo that recently purchased a large Bronx commercial site near the Whitestone Bridge.
Diaz’s allies also include charter school empress Eva Moskowitz (who has bundled $15,000 from her hedge fund crowd for him). And he has cut recent deals with powerhouse developers including Hudson Companies and the Chetrit Group, co-owner of the Bronx Is Burning party site.
Diaz touts his administration’s work in building new housing, with more than 23,000 units created since he took office in 2009. And recently initiated large projects, such as the Hudson Companies’ La Central in the Melrose section of the South Bronx, will contain several hundred affordable units, along with a YMCA and a large amount of retail space.
“We are creating a new narrative for the Bronx,” Diaz says, “turning around our image and economy in a way that benefits the majority of Bronxites.”
Like Diaz, City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, whose district includes the northern portion of the rezoning, has not been advocating on behalf of the Jerome autoworkers. Estevez and Blankley say that their strongest ally among elected officials is Vanessa Gibson, the first-term African-American councilwoman whose district includes most of the proposed rezoned area. “My absolute goal is to maintain as many auto shops as I can,” Gibson tells the Voice, adding that retaining only twenty such businesses is “definitely too low.”
Although the City Council typically defers to local members’ preferences on rezoning matters, there will be considerable pressure from the de Blasio administration to push through the shift toward residential growth. A vast expansion of housing there would help the mayor reach his goal of creating eighty thousand new affordable units — yet at this point, no one knows what the ballpark number of new units might be. A City Planning spokesperson wouldn’t even commit to calling it “a significant number” and in a statement to the Voice issued only a blanket assurance that “protecting the community’s affordability is a top priority.”
Even so, any sizable increase in residential zoning would almost certainly wipe out most of the auto businesses. Estevez has been proposing the creation of a new auto mall that could house the displaced businesses, perhaps in Hunts Point. Over the past year, about 45 (or roughly 20 percent) of the auto businesses displaced from Willets Point have moved there. Says Diaz, somewhat vaguely, “We can have a conversation about helping some of the Jerome shops move.”
Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University, explains that given his designs on higher office, it’s understandable why Diaz would forge certain alliances. “He is showing the city that he’s building up the Bronx,” she says. “You don’t get far if you’re not on friendly terms with the real estate elite.”
Yet Greer cautions that at the same time, “Diaz needs to be really careful, because development projects always work well for some people more than others. He represents himself as ‘of the people, for the people,’ but I’m not sure that mantra holds up if poor people continue to get pushed out.”