The new Bankside development on the Harlem River.
Photo: Marc Goldberg
The Bronx is rising. Look down Third Avenue from Manhattan, and instead of the little brown speck that was once the skyline across the Harlem River, you now see the giant ramparts of Bankside. One, two, three towers watch over the winding waterway – and they are only the beginning of the vertical perimeter of the borough. As Williamsburg and Long Island City go, so goes Mott Haven. And Mill Pond Park, where the first of Point of the Bronxtowers just ended. 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 Highway give way to an unbroken fence of high-rise apartment buildings, bordered by a thin strip of parkland at the Waterside. Each developer is responsible for their separate portion of the esplanade, so the public space is pieced together as a disjointed sequence of amenities for residents and sops for neighbours, rather than a contiguous public good. New York is developing its waterfront as if erecting borough walls were the only obvious option.
These last coastal skyscrapers have a specific local logic: isolated from the districts of the highlands by the highway, they aim to annex the waterfront of the Bronx to the real estate market of Manhattan. In Bankside, mega-developer Brookfield has more than 1,400 new homes on the market, a third of which are theoretically affordable (but not for most Bronx residents) and the rest are offered to customers who can pay $4,000 or more for a two bedroom apartment. Numbers like these usher in a category that would have seemed like a fever dream a generation ago: South Bronx luxury. If all goes as investors are betting, these developments will act as a vacuum pump of address stamp, sucking prestige from just above the water and irrigating new cafes, restaurants, grocery stores and other neighborhood treats. Also raising rents all around, creating new opportunities and new sources of pain.
The system is designed to produce these results, and for valid reasons. The Bronx needs housing, the waterfront is where the last spacious sites are, and the city allocates them to big developers because they’re the ones who can do big things. You can hardly blame them for packing every square foot allowed by the rules. 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, high-rise buildings with high rents are all that’s left on the table after all the battles have been fought, the protests filed, the votes won, and the builders too optimists cashed in and moved on.
Bankside, built on brownfield and disused industrial land that had been relegated to the parking lot, did not displace anyone directly. Will gentrification ensue? As night follows day. A slow housing boom has been been riding south bronx for years now. The familiar symptoms of acute gentritis are scattered among low-rise industrial blocks, thick infrastructure cords, a waste transfer station, and state corrections and parole offices. For now, however, only one side of a block of Alexander Avenue seems fully equipped for newcomers, with the Lit. Bar library, a smoking room, a chocolate bar, an artisan bakery and restaurant called Beatstro. How you rate these changes depends on whether you’re eager to get into the neighborhood, desperate to stay, or dying to get out.
A consortium of Somerset Partners and Chetrit first acquired the land, attempted to rebrand the area as the Piano districtand celebrated the upcoming development with a tasteless and heavily criticized sound”Bronx Burns Halloween Theme Party. Flipping a property is easier than building on it, however, and when their attempts to capitalize on squeaky chic sparked mockery and outrage, Somerset and Chetrit sold the site to Brookfield. The buyer also inherited zoning rules and the resort’s design firm, Hill West Architects.
It is a project defined by constraints. The first installment, Third at Bankside, appears to have been set in the middle of the landscaped waterfront, a long brick warehouse that was going nowhere (and not part of the development), and the Third Avenue Bridge. , which crosses the middle of the site. The architects connected the two halves by running a street under the raised causeway. A rugged tangle of concrete and steel hems in new buildings. Freight trains pass the gateway on their own offshore causeway. Upper floor windows overlook the century-old Madison Avenue Bridge truss and a more recent reconstruction of the Willis Avenue Bridge, which sometimes swing to let ships up and down the Harlem River. These are breathtaking vistas for infrastructure enthusiasts.
Hill West architects wisely embraced both the awkwardness and the strength of the site. To get away from the gnarly and noisy ground plane, they raised the tower on concrete pilings, so that you enter the cobbled courtyard under a structure that looks like a majestic portal crossed by a freeway overpass. The same negotiation between the gritty manufacturing past and the lavish domestic future also dictated the palette of raw concrete, marbled brick and exposed I-beams. These effective yet predictable and already clichéd choices deal industrial as an aesthetic rubric, whitewashing the dust, smell and sweat of the making of things, preserving only the sure signifiers of robustness. Buildings like this are the Carhartt of architecture, evocations of manual work for people who have never experienced it. Inside, a double-height basketball court alludes to the accidental harmony of heavy machinery and intense recreation. As John Durschinger, a Brookfield design manager, put it: “Cars go outside; people pass inside.
A few miles to the east, another South Bronx development, the Hunts Point Peninsula, takes a less valuable approach to manufacturing heritage. Instead of paying homage to the passage of industry, the peninsula promotes its future, linking a new complex of 100% affordable housing with a freshly built workspace. Even the hardest-working nostalgists don’t expect us to return to the days of massive piano factories, breweries, concrete batching plants and all their noxious effluents. But small, relatively clean manufacturing operations persist, and what better place for them than on the site of a demolished prison? Once, the legendary Spofford juvenile detention center stored children and murdered hopes; now the Mutual Housing Association of New York (MHANY) takes care of business and manages very nice homes.
The Hunts Point Peninsula.
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 the streets of New York), the trusses and concrete floors function not as stylistic flourishes but as essential elements. The jagged roof with skylights and solar panels not only evokes factory architecture; this is factory architecture. Not all potential tenants would benefit from natural light, so some high-ceilinged rooms were carved into the steep hillside of the site. You could probably test gongs there or host a rave without disturbing the neighbors.
Next door, a 14-storey building in what will eventually form a campus of 740 apartments welcomes its first tenants and demonstrates how negligible the gap is between well-designed affordable housing and so-called luxury housing. A wide, stepped street runs up the hill from Tiffany Street, crossing a landscaped plaza. On the facade, horizontal and vertical rows of hand-laid bricks, some flush, others slightly protruding, provide texture, shade and a sign that someone has cared enough to design a surface. interesting. Some apartments overlook a surprisingly bucolic scene: the manicured grounds of Corpus Christi Monastery, which was built in 1891 in the then-rustic highlands of Morrisania. Beyond the stone dormitory and monastery church, a medieval-looking tower crowns the 1908 printing press of the American Bank Note Company, which for much of the 20th century provided paper- currency to an assortment of nations, including Cuba and Brazil.
Bankside and Peninsula builders are navigating the same sea of dilemmas: the city can subsidize a few low-rent apartments or many more higher-rent apartments, but not both. A construction reserved for the most modest risks enclosing a monoculture of poverty. Yet any new housing, even affordable, can help freeze drugs, reduce crime, clean streets and improve public transit, and it will also help accelerate the forces of gentrification. New York’s flawed system and unchallenged local conventions offer no effective way to resolve these tensions, so nearly every new generation of housing demands some compromise.
Yet these two megadevelopments, one a luxury enclave built by a corporate juggernaut on prime waterfront land, the other an entirely and profoundly affordable resort erected by a black-led nonprofit, offer two different futures for the South Bronx. Architecturally similar, they are socially at odds. The former simply hopes 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-standing experiment in subsidized housing for the South Bronx that has produced nearly 14,000 affordable apartments during de Blasio’s years alone, he was nowhere near solving the region’s inequities. In Bankside, the market is picking up where the government left off, and solving social problems is not a priority. This bifurcated ecosystem produces decent buildings and a lot of suffering, in which a lucky few but many must choose between unlivable conditions and unaffordable costs. The madness is cooked.