Ceetay´s kitchen, the only Japanese restaurant in Mott Haven, bustles with activity before noon. Half a dozen cooks chop, fry and roll the food, before the start of the work day. There are no customers yet, but the six wooden tables and the bar are ready for lunch time, the chopsticks resting on top of napkins.
Through the restaurant’s windows, the silhouette of the nearly finished 91-unit Bridgeline building with its 12 stories towers over the neighborhood. The building is one of the first ground-up new developments in the area intended to bring new residents with higher purchasing power to this area, dubbed the Piano District. Located between the Major Deegan Expressway and the Harlem River, new buildings are rising above old factories, waste management plants, and railroad tracks in the area. The arrival of upscale restaurants such as Ceetay and the development of other commercial spaces in the South Bronx are poised to reap the benefits of these new real estate investments.
“Three thousand people will be coming in the next two to three years,” says Amir Chayon, 40, the owner of Ceetay. Chayon, who moved to Mott Haven a decade ago as a resident, expects the Bridgeline condominium to be ready in August. Ceetay is in the know because many of his current customers are real estate investors. He hopes to increase and diversify his clientele with the forecasted newcomers. The restaurant has been “growing more and more,” he says. “And we will grow even more.”
Chayon´s confidence is not an exception. Many residents, business owners, and workers in the South Bronx are capitalizing on the surge in real estate activity. With real estate developers flocking to the waterfront areas, shops and innovative food spaces are emerging, and new services such medical clinics are opening. But the pace of development is slower than expected.
“Everyone seems to be gambling,” says Jeff Fox, executive vice president of Foxy Management, a real estate company that works with affordable housing and operates in the Bronx. Investors “seem to be gambling at what will come to fruition in years.”
“I see all the fundamentals, [but] I just don´t see it happening yet,” Fox added.
For years now, real estate investors have poured money into what they perceive as the last area next to Manhattan to be developed. Midtown is only a 20-minute subway ride away. New buildings are under construction and older ones are being renovated. All of the changes are intended to create an attractive environment for future residents. Of course, these kinds of changes prompt fears that the increase in the cost of life might expel many of the long-term residents from this low-income area. Others, though, are willing to ride the wave of change in the name of economic profitability—and indeed, many are already reeling in the cash.
“Listen, if you open up a nice restaurant in this area, you are gonna make money,” says Nelson Ozel, a lifetime Bronx resident who restores old buildings, lightening up a cigarette on the street, minutes before ordering lunch at a fast food chain. “They need to come in, restaurant owners, and start investing here.”
Ozel lives in the Executive Towers, a 23-stories building on Grand Concourse and 165th Street—and his restoration business is thriving.
As Ozel walks through one of the apartments he is restoring, he smiles before reaching the balcony. Messy construction debris fills the living room, but Ozel, 50, says it’s “the best building in the Bronx.” For a budget of $200,000, he’s in charge of renovating this 1,200 square foot unit, which used to be two separate apartments.
The view is stellar, extending 180-degrees in either direction. The flatness of White Plains and the Hudson River extend to the north; to the east, the on-the-ground subway crosses in front of Yankee Stadium and, farther, New Jersey’s glass buildings emerge; to the south, One World Trade Center in the distance dominates Manhattan’s skyline.
A former resident of Miami, Ozel moved back to the city a decade ago when the housing crisis hit the country. After years of commuting to Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan, he now spends most of his time in the Bronx. “It´s been up and coming,” says Ozel.
Once Ozel finishes checking the progress of the construction on the Grand Concourse, he will walk three blocks towards the county´s Supreme Court In front of the that building, Ozel will supervise the work done by two of his employees, all Hispanic, in a small one-bedroom unit in a prewar building construction. “The majority of my work is actually from people who are moving in, from Manhattan,” he says.
When money comes to the borough, of course, work increases. But so do rents. And that has its downside for those that are there already. “[Rents] are at a peak,” says Chayon, who mentions that he now pays $2,400 for a studio, three times what he paid when he moved in a decade ago.
Real estate figures back him up. A report by Zumper, a rental website, listed four neighborhoods in the Bronx as the ones with the highest rent increases in 2017 for a one-bedroom apartment: 22 percent in Highbridge, 15 percent in Mott Haven and Woodstock. On average, the rent prices in New York City, however, decreased by 3,7% for the same period.
Despite the increases, rent prices remain low compared to most neighborhoods in Manhattan or Brooklyn. But an affordable cost of life, it seems, is not yet enough to draw potential newcomers. So the pace of change has been slower than some real estate developers would like.
Construction and renovation permits issued by the Departments of Buildings, in fact, are dropping not rising, as one might expect. In 2017, 11,000 projects were started in construction in the Bronx, a decrease of over 15 percent, compared to two years earlier.
That data is reinforced on the street level. While it seems easy enough to walk into a well-designed café or an innovative gourmet space in Mott Haven these days, city data shows that the number of openings in commercial spaces has actually stalled. Out of 340 business licenses issued this year in the neighborhood, according to New York City data, none of them are for businesses traditionally associated with gentrification such as cafes or clothing. Those licenses, instead, went to street vendors, laundries, tow truck drivers or general vendors in public spaces.
Meanwhile, restaurants like Ceetay try to keep their business hopping until the day when the inevitable flood of new customers will arrive. As the delivery guys came in and out to pick up the orders a few weeks ago in Ceetay, which employs 12 people, its owner talked about how the area has changed in the last 10 years.
Resting on the bar, Chayoon pointed to the top floors of an old building across the street, which is slated for renovation. Most of it is empty. A well-designed piece of graffiti and a motivational sentence has been carefully drawn on its walls with clean calligraphy. It’s a sharp contrast with the messy, improvised graffiti that are typically associated with the Bronx.
“The people living there left because the owners increased the price,” says Chayoon. “Change can be good, but not for everyone.”