A plan to redevelop two vacant lots and a Super Foodtown supermarket in the East Bronx neighborhood of Throggs Neck has ignited outrage among longtime residents, sparked allegations of racism and triggered threats to various parties involved.
The proposal is serving as an early litmus test on how the city will weigh grassroots community opposition with the dire need for affordable housing development under Mayor Eric Adams and a recently installed City Council.
On Tuesday night, dozens of Throggs Neck residents chartered a bus to a public hearing before Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, at her offices off of Grand Concourse, to rail against the proposal.
“They will build monstrosities that will destroy our way of life,” resident Marianne Luzano said at Tuesday night’s hearing. “Developers will descend on our community like locusts.”
She called the status quo a, “planned slice of suburbia that all can enjoy,” describing the single-family homes, backyards and ample parking current residents treasure. Another resident, Judith Passarelli, outlined concerns about crime, traffic, overcrowded schools and hospitals.
“These developers should leave us alone and build this monstrosity where they live,” she said.
These developers should leave us alone and build this monstrosity where they live.
The plans aim to rezone a four-block swath of land along the north side of the Bruckner Expressway. The longtime owner of the Foodtown supermarket, Peter Bivona, and other landowners along the strip want to build two eight-story buildings, a five-story building and a three-story building, spread across four parcels, for a total of 314 new apartments.
The redevelopment would include 159 market-rate units, 99 units of senior housing, 22 apartments for veterans, and 69 additional subsidized apartments. All told, the proposal would bring more new subsidized apartments to the area than have been built in nearly a decade.
Hoping to rebuff the NIMBY outrage Tuesday night, the pro-affordable housing development group Open New York, called on its supporters to testify on behalf of the project.
“An apartment building, it will hardly overwhelm or destroy the neighborhood,” the group’s executive director William Thomas testified. “The Bronx needs affordable housing. It is unlikely we'll be able to meet these needs if whole community boards or Council districts just decide they won’t allow it. Not their problem, but it is their problem. It's all our problem.”
During former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s tenure, just 58 units of subsidized housing were built in the community district, the fifth lowest number of any district in the city, according to a May report from the New York Housing Conference. The report found that de Blasio’s housing plan furthered racial segregation across the city, with predominantly Black and Latino communities seeing the vast majority of new affordable housing construction. A third of residents in the Bronx community district where the current project is planned are white, according to census estimates.
The local community board voted against the project in May, citing the need for “diversity of our city’s housing stock,” according to a letter by board chair Joseph Russ, though the board’s role is advisory. Local elected officials have lined up to block the development, including Assemblymember Michael Benedetto, who has no formal role in the land use rezoning process. He called on Gibson to honor the 2003 downzoning of the area passed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“To upzone this area would be a stab in the back to those people who invested their savings in these houses and in the atmosphere that they have chosen to live in,” Benedetto said. “People came here and they wanted a particular feel about a community … They wanted something calmer.”
Councilmember Marjorie Velazquez also voiced opposition to the project saying she was worried about school overcrowding and parking. The Council typically defers to the local member on whether or not to approve rezonings so Velazquez’s opposition could doom the project when it makes it to the final hurdle of the city’s multi-tiered land use process. Past attempts to change the unwritten “member deference” rule have gone nowhere and city lawmakers have a long history of scuttling projects in their districts even over objections from fellow Council members.
Neighborhood residents have met the Throggs Neck plan with opposition at every turn. They launched a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the “existing beautiful suburban feel” of the neighborhood. A crowdfunding campaign that has raked in more than $36,000 for legal fees warns residents, “If we do not put a stop to this before it begins, our community and our way of life will never be the same.”
There have been raucous public meetings, where residents compared the rezoning to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Velazquez skipped a recent community board meeting citing several threats she’d received, the Bronx Times reported.
In a private Facebook group for Throggs Neck residents, comments on the project veered into explicitly racist territory, according to screenshots provided by Bivona, the longtime owner of the supermarket who is trying to redevelop the property. One resident wrote there were enough, ‘animals’ that moved in,” and another said the area would become a “warzone” if more subsidized housing was built, among other comments about the development.
“It's regrettable that opponents of this project have resorted to fearmongering about the supposed 'dangers of affordable housing' and using dog whistle terms on social media and beyond to stop a project that aims to benefit this community," Bivona said. "What are they afraid of? Seniors and veterans? Families with children?”
At a protest outside the Super Foodtown earlier this month, residents heckled people entering the supermarket, with one shouting the plan would bring, “low-income drug houses.”
Tuesday night’s hearing was tamer than recent meetings and protests, though demonstrators occasionally interrupted the testimony with boos and chanting. Those who turned out to support the rezoning were not dissuaded.
“I'm a person that was fortunate enough to win a housing lottery here in the East Bronx and it has changed my life,” Luke Szabados, 29, told the crowd. “We don't build enough housing. When people grow up in the East Bronx, they have to move away.”
A second public hearing, this one virtual, is slated for Wednesday night. Borough President Gibson has until June 27th to weigh in on the project, at which point it heads to the City Planning Commission, followed by the City Council for review, which will ultimately vote on whether or not to allow zoning changes.
Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Peter Bivona and to clarify that the rezoning plans involve four blocks of land.