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Two Upscale Developments Offer Two Divergent Futures for the South Bronx

The new Bankside development on the Harlem River.
The new Bankside development on the Harlem River. Photo: Marc Goldberg

The Bronx is rising. Look up Third Avenue from Manhattan, and instead of the low brown smudge that was once the skyline beyond the Harlem River, you now see the giant ramparts of Bankside. One, two, three towers watch over the bendy waterway — and they are only the start of the borough’s vertical perimeter. As go Williamsburg and Long Island City, so goes Mott Haven. And Mill Pond Park, where the first of Bronx Point’s towers has just topped out. And Fordham Landing, where a 40-acre megadevelopment is in the works. It won’t be long before the remaining storage warehouses and oily parking lots between the river and the Major Deegan Expressway give way to an unbroken fence of high-rise apartment blocks, fronted by a thin strip of waterfront parkland. Each developer is responsible for its separate chunk of esplanade, so the public space gets pieced together as a disjointed sequence of amenities for residents and sops to neighbors, rather than as a contiguous public good. New York develops its waterfront as if erecting borough border walls were the obvious and only option.

These latest coastal high-rises have a specific local logic: Buffered from the upland neighborhoods by the expressway, they aspire to annex the Bronx’s waterfront to Manhattan’s real-estate market. At Bankside, the megadeveloper Brookfield brings more than 1,400 new homes to the market, a third of them theoretically affordable (though not to most Bronx residents) and the rest pitched to customers who can pay $4,000 or more for a two-bedroom apartment. Figures like those inaugurate a category that would have seemed like a fever dream a generation ago: South Bronx luxury. If all goes as investors are betting it will, these developments will act as a vacuum pump of address cachet, sucking in prestige from just over the water and irrigating new cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, and other neighborhood goodies. Also raising rents all around, creating new opportunities and new sources of pain.

The system is engineered to produce these results, and for some valid reasons. The Bronx needs housing, the waterfront is where the last spacious sites are, and the city allocates them to big developers because that’s who can get big projects done. You can hardly blame them for packing in every square foot that the rules allow. Bankside and its cohort of towers exist because Mott Haven can accommodate many more people than it does. But in the absence of more imaginative or nuanced options, tall buildings with high rents are all that’s left on the table after all the battles have been waged, protests lodged, votes secured, and overly optimistic builders have cashed in and moved on.

Bankside, built on contaminated, disused industrial land that had been consigned to parking, displaced nobody directly. Will gentrification ensue? As night follows day. A slow-moving real-estate boom has been rolling toward the South Bronx for years now. Familiar symptoms of acute gentritis are scattered among low-rise industrial blocks, thick cords of infrastructure, a waste-transfer station, and state offices of corrections and parole. For now, though, only one side of one block of Alexander Avenue seems fully geared up for the new arrivals, with the Lit. Bar bookstore, a smokehouse, a chocobar, an artisanal bake shop, and a restaurant called Beatstro. How you assess these changes depends on whether you’re itching to get into the neighborhood, desperate to stay, or dying to get out.

A consortium of Somerset Partners and Chetrit initially acquired the land, tried to rebrand the area as the Piano District, and celebrated the coming development with a loudly tasteless, loudly criticized “Bronx is Burning” Halloween theme party. Flipping a property is easier than building on it, though, and when their attempts to leverage grit chic drew mockery and outrage, Somerset and Chetrit sold the site to Brookfield. The buyer also inherited the zoning rules and the complex’s design firm, Hill West Architects.

It’s a project defined by constraints. The first installment, Third at Bankside, looks like it’s been tweezered into place amid the landscaped waterfront, a long brick warehouse that wasn’t going anywhere (and isn’t part of the development), and the Third Avenue Bridge, which drives through the middle of the site. The architects connected the two halves by running a street beneath the elevated roadway. A heavy-duty tangle of concrete and steel hems in the new buildings. Freight trains run past the front door on their own offshore causeway. Upper-story windows look down on the century-old truss of the Madison Avenue Bridge and a more recent rebuilding of the Willis Avenue Bridge, both of which occasionally swing around to let ships chug up and down the Harlem River. These are heart-stopping vistas for infrastructure aficionados.

The architects at Hill West wisely embraced both the site’s awkwardness and its brawn. To get some distance from the knotty, noisy ground plane, they lifted the tower on concrete stilts, so you enter the paved court beneath a structure that feels like a majestic portal crossed with a highway viaduct. The same negotiation between gritty manufacturing past and palatial domestic future also dictated the palette of raw concrete, mottled brick, and exposed I-beams. Those effective but predictable and already clichéd choices treat industrial as an aesthetic rubric, bleaching out the dust and smell and sweat of making stuff, preserving only safe signifiers of ruggedness. Buildings like this are the Carhartts of architecture, evocations of manual labor for people who never experience it. Inside, a double-height basketball court alludes to the accidental harmony of heavy machinery and strenuous leisure. As a Brookfield design executive, John Durschinger, put it: “Cars whiz by outside; people whiz by inside.”

A few miles east, another South Bronx development, the Peninsula in Hunts Point, takes a less precious approach to the legacy of manufacturing. Instead of paying tribute to industry’s passing, the Peninsula fosters its future, binding a new, 100 percent affordable housing complex to freshly built workspace. Not even the hardest-working nostalgists expect us to return to the days of massive piano factories, breweries, concrete plants, and all their noxious effluents. But small, relatively clean manufacturing operations persist, and what better spot for them than on the site of a demolished jail? Once, the legendarily grim Spofford Juvenile Detention Center stored kids and murdered hopes; now, the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY), along with the Hudson Companies and Gilbane, nurture businesses and manage some very nice homes.

The Peninsula in Hunts Point. Photo: Albert Vecerka/Esto

In the low-rise structure, designed by Victor Body-Lawson and WXY (both of whom participated in Curbed’s project to redesign New York’s streets), trusses and concrete floors function not as stylistic flourishes but as essential elements. The sawtooth roof with skylights and solar panels doesn’t just evoke factory architecture; it is factory architecture. Not all prospective tenants would benefit from natural light, so some high-ceilinged rooms have been dug out of the site’s steep hill. You could probably test gongs or hold a rave in there without disturbing the neighbors.

Next door, a 14-story building in what will eventually form a campus of 740 apartments is receiving its first tenants and demonstrating just how negligible the gap is between well-designed affordable housing and the so-called luxury kind. A wide stair-street climbs the hill from Tiffany Street, crossing a landscaped plaza. On the façade, horizontal and vertical courses of hand-laid bricks, some flush, some slightly protruding, provide texture, shadow, and a sign that someone cared enough to design an interesting surface. Some apartments look over a startlingly bucolic scene: the manicured grounds of Corpus Christi Monastery, which was constructed in 1891 in the then-rustic uplands of Morrisania. Beyond the monastery’s stone dormitory and church, a medieval-looking tower crowns the American Bank Note Company’s 1908 printing plant, which, for much of the 20th century, supplied paper currency to an assortment of nations, including Cuba and Brazil.

The builders of Bankside and the Peninsula navigate the same sea of dilemmas: The city can subsidize a few apartments at low rents or many more apartments at higher rents, but not both. A building limited to the lowest earners risks locking in a monoculture of poverty. Yet any new housing, even the affordable kind, can help freeze out drugs, lower crime, clean up streets, and improve transit—and it will also help rev up the forces of gentrification. New York’s flawed system and unquestioned local conventions offer no neat ways to resolve these tensions, so just about every new crop of housing demands a tradeoff of some kind.

Still, these two megadevelopments, one a deluxe enclave built by a corporate juggernaut on prime waterfront land, the other a wholly and deeply affordable complex erected by a mission-driven, Black-run nonprofit, lay out two different futures for the South Bronx. Architecturally similar, they are socially at odds. The first hopes simply to inject prosperity into the neighborhood; the second aspires to keep the community intact, raising the local standard of living but not its costs. The Peninsula is part of a long-running experiment in subsidized housing for the South Bronx that produced nearly 14,000 affordable apartments during the de Blasio years alone yet hasn’t come close to solving the area’s inequities. At Bankside the market is picking up where the government leaves off, and addressing social problems is not high on the agenda. This bifurcated ecosystem yields some decent buildings and plenty of suffering, in which a few luck out but many must choose between unlivable conditions and unaffordable costs. The craziness is baked in.

Two Upscale Developments Present Two South Bronx Futures