Walking Webster Avenue, Still Under Construction

(Photo by David Cruz for Voices of NY)

(Photo by David Cruz for Voices of NY)

In the last days of December, New York City Council members Andrew Cohen and Ritchie Torres toured Webster Avenue with a burning question in mind: What will it take to spur more commercial development along the avenue?

It has been seven years since a major push by community stakeholders resulted in the official rezoning of 80 blocks of Webster Avenue between E. Gun Hill Road and Fordham Road, considered a key but underutilized artery of the Bronx.

New zoning laws offer tax credits to developers who build affordable housing with a first floor storefront. The intent was a rebranding of Webster Avenue from a largely desolate area with pockets of automotive and small businesses into an eclectic neighborhood that builds upon the community’s economy and character.

Yet, since rezoning began, the pace of Webster Avenue’s new vision hasn’t arrived as fast as its promoters would like. That may be because planners and politicians don’t seem to know what to push for first: higher-income residents who’ll flock to high-end stores? Or high-end stores that’ll draw more higher-income residents?

Cohen and Torres, whose council districts jointly cover Webster Avenue, scheduled the stroll at the behest of community leaders eager to see more progress. The expedition became a fact-finding mission for the council members, and provided the impetus for them to try to get the rezoning effort moving again.

“This was a bit of a survey and temperature taking,” said Cohen, who snapped photos of some blighted parts of Webster Avenue during his walk. “Getting development there is going to take a push, but there are a lot of signs of interest there.”

Since the tour, Cohen and Torres have begun plans for a public meeting with representatives from New York City Small Business Services and the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which championed Webster Avenue under its Vision Plan in 2009. The objective: To get various stakeholders in the area, including the Four Bronx Institutions Alliance (FBIA), made up of Montefiore Medical Center, Fordham University, the New York Botanical Garden and the Bronx Zoo, to weigh in on what they see as the commercial needs of the neighborhood.

Development often moves at a snail’s pace, as investors weigh multi-million dollar deals, taking into account demographics, demand and construction costs.

“If you look at when Long Island City, Williamsburg, Hudson Yards, when you look at these places when they were rezoned, it doesn’t happen overnight, it takes time. There’s a lot of things that have to fall into place for the domino effect to sort of materialize,” said Scot Hirschfield, a vice president with Ariel Property Advisors, which monitors real estate trends in the Bronx.

So far, residential development has been led commercial development, with the construction of the Bedford Park Manor, an eight-story mixed-income residence at 2985-2987 Webster Ave., by the Stagg Group, a major real estate developer with properties across the Bronx. Its number units are nearly all rented, with at least 50,000 people signing up for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s housing lottery system.

Meanwhile, supportive housing properties from developers The Doe Fund and Concern for Independent Living are under construction Community Board 7 members aren’t pleased, arguing that the neighborhood is oversaturated with such housing, which in turn may discourage future commercial development. Moreover, supportive housing sites are not required to build storefronts.

That deterrent notwithstanding, property owners figure that Webster Avenue is beginning to turn. They’ve raised prices per square foot – with average price per square foot for multifamily properties in the Bronx rising from $116 in 2014 to $148, a 21 percent increase – but perhaps have been a tad greedy, because sales aren’t keeping up.

“The sellers of properties are asking higher prices so there is upward pressure, which of course creates a little bit of pause on the buying side,” said Adolfo Carrion. “So the developer will say, ‘Wait a minute I have to negotiate harder.’”

Webster Avenue’s appeal lies in part in the widely available lots and the tax credits under New York state’s 421-a program, which requires developers to designate 20 percent of its units as affordable in exchange for property tax breaks. The Stagg Group, with sites scattered throughout the Bronx, took advantage of the program. The Stagg Group now has another project in the early stages, Norwood Gardens, which would be built near 201st Street.

But the banks, cafes and other high-end shops are still a missing part of the equation.

A report by Larisa Ortiz Associates, a commercial real estate think tank group, said Webster Avenue is losing $142 million in so-called “retail leakage” – money for commercial goods that’s being spent elsewhere. The 2014 report concluded that Webster Avenue is a corridor that should be known for its convenience shopping, allowing residents to buy general merchandise and frequent sit-down restaurants and bars.

At a recent Bedford Mosholu Community Association meeting, Daniel Cheveyo, a resident, suggested a strategy of pulling in prominent retail anchors. “[S]omething that’s going to attract a lot of people and then they’ll patronize all the small businesses around. Like a movie theater or a Trader Joe’s, can be more attractive.” Getting those anchor businesses on board, however, may be a tall order, in a neighborhood where the median household income rests at $28,006.

Cohen, like Hirschfield, thinks it will take time and a constellation of factors, to truly make over the neighborhood.

“I don’t think there’s one single magic bullet that’s going to transform suddenly Webster Avenue into the next Champs-Élysées of the Bronx here in terms of making it into a shopping corridor,” said Cohen. “But I think it’s kind of a steady commitment to do whatever we can, when we can to spur in the right direction.”

David Cruz is editor of Norwood News. This article was written as part of the Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. 

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