By Courtney Vinopal
When New York real estate giants Somerset Partners and Chetrit Group first announced their joint investment in a multi-million dollar South Bronx waterfront development last year, Bronx locals were skeptical of the plan.
Referring to the neighborhood of Port Morris as “The Piano District” — a nod to its history as a hub for piano manufacturing — the developers unveiled plans to construct two 25-foot residential towers in the area, on Third Avenue and Lincoln Avenue, right along the Harlem River. The developments quickly drew pushback from many residents, who saw the renaming of the neighborhood as a symbol of impending gentrification.
Tensions reached a high point in August, after rapper Swizz Beatz, a Bronx native, hosted an art show in a property that had recently been bought by Keith Rubenstein, a founder of Somerset Partners. Residents took to the streets with signs bearing statements such as “Rappers Lending Their Street Cred to Developers?” “The Bronx is Not for Sale,” and “How Much Will a Gallon of Milk Cost in the Piano District?”
Many community members have remained adamant in their protest of such changes to the borough since they were first announced. Mychal Johnson is one such resident. He is a co-founder of South Bronx Unite, a coalition seeking to protect the future of the South Bronx.
“This looks like a whole new Bronx…and I think it’s going to price out a lot of us,” he said at a community gathering in the neighborhood of Mott Haven Thursday evening. Johnson said his organization had mapped out about 22 developments in planning stages, none of which were anywhere near the scale of those in the Port Morris district.
Local business owners in the South Bronx, on the other hand, have complex feelings about the developments. While they recognize longtime residents’ fears that the development of attractive waterfront properties will price out other members of the community, these business owners also know that such developments will bring in new customers.
Robert Zimmerman, 42, vice-president of the family-owned business Smith Electric on Third Avenue, understands why talk of renaming the area “The Piano District” ignited controversy. Zimmerman said he feels that the name change is a threat to the long-established neighborhood.
“Do what you have to do to attract people, but you don’t have to go changing the name,” he said.
But Zimmerman, like many local business owners, remains generally hopeful. His grandfather purchased the electrical supplies company in 1969, and moved to Third Avenue in 1977. Zimmerman said his family saw many manufacturing companies leave the area during the 1960s and 1970s, but they managed to weather the changes.
“We put our time in, we bought here when no one else was buying,” he said, “And we stayed.”
Zimmerman first noticed changes in the area about four years ago, when construction on a Comfort Inn began across the street. After years of watching buildings be abandoned, he said he is eager to finally see the area developing.
“It’s time — the Bronx has always been the stepchild of the five boroughs.”
Guarionex Marte, 37, hopes the new waterfront developments will bring more customers to his new business. He opened Sock Monster, a laundromat on Bruckner Boulevard, six months ago, with two of his fraternity brothers.
Marte, who is a state trooper by day, grew up in the area and remembers a time when crack vials littered the sidewalks of the South Bronx. But today, overall crime has dropped and businesses have set up shop in many buildings that were once abandoned. Marte has seen a lot of new people gravitate toward the South Bronx in the past few years, but he doesn’t see this as a negative change.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he said of new faces in the community. “I like the diversity, I think it will help out the business — it will grow as the area develops.”
For other business owners, the relatively affordable real estate prices in the South Bronx are a draw — according to a report from real estate website Trulia, the average price per square foot for property in the neighborhood of Mott Haven is $247. Compared with the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, for example, where the average price per square foot is $846, this is appealing to business owners.
Alana Guglielmo, 34, of Colorado, runs Mixed Greens Event Design, which works with media companies to host branding events. When she saw a space on Third Avenue open, she snatched it up quickly.
“We stumbled upon this space — it was the right price, the right size…so we took it right away,” she said.
Not all business owners are confident that new developments will be good for them, however. Andres Martel, 42, of Mexico, has had a tattoo shop on the corner of Bruckner Boulevard and Alexander Avenue for six years. Just off the waterfront, it is a prime target for developers.
“For businesses like mine, it’s a challenge to stay profitable,” Martel said.
The tattoo artist has heard talk of rising rents in recent months — he said he knows a man down the street, for example, whose monthly rent nearly doubled since he first moved in, and is now at $3,000. While Martel currently pays $1,750, he worries that if his rent goes up, he will have to move his space.
Keith Rubenstein, a co-founder of Somerset Partners, insists that the waterfront developments will bring positive change to the area. He said he’s even invested in other businesses to build up the South Bronx: a coffee shop, Filtered, on Third Avenue, and a new pizzeria, La Grata, on Alexander Avenue.
“The waterfront and the area we’re developing is a special place,” Rubenstein said. “We’re opening quality places and venues and providing places with more choices for the community.”
But with these new restaurants and cafes, Martel can’t help but notice the South Bronx is evolving in a certain type of way.
“It’s kind of funny,” he said, “this neighborhood is starting to look like Manhattan.”