South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp.

SoBroSoBRO takes a socially minded approach to developing housing projects in New York’s South Bronx neighborhood.

By Tim O’Connor

The 1970s were a difficult period for the Bronx. The New York City borough suffered from economic decline and high crime. Landowners took to burning their own properties to collect insurance money and more than 21 percent of residents fled the Bronx during this decade.

The mass exodus only accelerated the social problems and drained the customer base needed to support local businesses. “It looked like it was the end of the world,” Phillip Morrow recalls of the time.South Bronx Overall Economic Development

In 1972, a group of local Bronx business leaders recognized the problem and created the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp., to stem the tide and turn around the borough’s economy. The organization, now known as SoBRO, received a $25,000 grant to cover initial funding and local bankers contributed additional money. Today, the funding that supports SoBRO comes from a mix of city, state and federal grants and money raised from private organizations and businesses.

For its first two decades, SoBRO focused primarily on developing strategies to retain existing businesses and bring others into the Bronx. The organization worked with commercial developers, acquired commercial properties for redevelopment and provided input on economic development zones such as the HUB, an eight-block shopping district in the South Bronx.

People began returning to the Bronx. The area recovered about 40,000 residents by 1990, according to U.S. Census data, prompting the city and local leaders to set up programs to encourage housing projects. Old buildings were demolished and new ones took their places. Subsidies were made available to owners who renovated their properties.

“Since that time, hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested in rebuilding the housing stock,” says Morrow, the president and CEO of SoBRO. “That has made [the South Bronx] look like a whole different neighborhood than it did in 1972.”

SoBRO has been integral to that redevelopment effort. The organization collaborates with developers – identifying potential sites, providing feedback on some projects and joint-venturing on others, to bring affordable housing to the South Bronx. In the past few decades, SoBRO has developed between 700 and 900 units of housing in the area. Morrow expects that to increase in the coming years as the non-profit is planning another 500 units.

The organization has five buildings in various stages of construction, each of which will have about 100 housing units. Another project closed in December that will add 40 units to the area. All are joint ventures with other developers.

The turnaround of the South Bronx is actually creating a challenge to future development. “So much has been built that sites are disappearing,” Morrow explains. “We’re running out of land. We’re running out of places to build in the Bronx.”

The plots that are currently available tend to be brownfields – former industrial facilities on toxic land. To make those sites useable, SoBRO works with New York city and state in the brownfield remediation program that helps clean up contamination. At the same time it primes those former industrial areas for reuse, the organization works with existing manufacturers to help them remain in the South Bronx. “We have a lot of low-income residents who need jobs nearby,” Morrow says.

Reimagining the Waterfront

One of the most promising areas for redevelopment in the South Bronx is the stretch of land along the Harlem River waterfront. The 96-acre section is mostly brownfields and includes a rail facility, distribution center, printing facility and solid waste transfer station. Other properties along the waterfront are underutilized, serving as parking lots or empty buildings.

New York State is seeking developers for the area and SoBRO submitted a plan for mixed-use buildings with 200 apartment units overlooking Manhattan. “There are a lot of low-level uses and not a lot of job opportunities,” Morrow says. “We are trying to find a way to convert that property into mixed-use commercial residences.”

In addition to new buildings, SoBRO’s proposal calls for an elevated walkway to connect the structures and a public park, in accordance with zoning rules. Morrow envisions the development will include supportive facilities and businesses, such as schools and doctors offices. A ferry terminal could better tie the neighborhood to the rest of the city, but a nearby commuter rail line poses some logistical challenges that must first be resolved.

As a nonprofit organization, SoBRO would have to work with other developers to realize its vision for the waterfront. “We would use what we know and our resources, and would rely on private sector resources to make it happen,” Morrow says of the organization’s approach.

“There seems to be a lot of investors with money looking for opportunities here,” he adds. Several developments are already occurring in the area around the waterfront site. A new hotel is nearing completion, a 300-unit building is under construction and three other projects with 100-units each are going into the neighborhood.

Balancing Progress

Some of those developers are working with SoBRO to ensure their projects integrate with and benefit the existing neighborhood, but others are choosing to go it alone. That has led to concerns from existing residents that the area is becoming gentrified and they will soon be priced out of their longtime homes.

"SoBRO shares that concern and stresses to private developers the need to accommodate a diverse range of incomes in their projects." Morrow continues, “The reality is that the neighborhood needs more middle and higher-income residents. But we don’t want that to be at the expense of people who have been here a long time.”

SoBRO provides resources for developers to become aware of and apply for programs that encourage the inclusion of affordable housing in their proposed projects. New York offers tax abatements and incentives that subsidize real estate taxes on properties that set aside units for lower-income residents. “We can help developers maneuver through the bureaucracy to help them with state and city opportunities that support their projects. This is a benefit of partnering with us,” Morrow says, “Because we are familiar with the process.”

“An integrated neighborhood that serves all income levels attracts people into the area,” Morrow says. He points to the success in redeveloping nearby Harlem into a thriving area filled with residents from diverse racial and economic backgrounds. “We want something that’s more integrated, family-oriented and has opportunities for people who currently live here,” he adds.

Most of SoBRO’s projects have targeted low-income tenants, but as the South Bronx evolves, the organization is planning more apartments and condominiums for moderate-income residents who earn 80 to 120 percent of the area median wage. Those moderate-income projects are an example of how SoBRO works to promote a balanced approach to housing, but it has been difficult for longtime locals to separate SoBRO’s efforts from the more luxurious projects they see sprouting up. “The fears of gentrification in the South Bronx today are widespread,” Morrow says. “We try to facilitate platforms to discuss it in a rational way because there are extremes in the views on it that can lend to misunderstandings. Our core goal is to be a true community partner and genuine participant in the social and economic foundation of the community.”

Some blame SoBRO for perpetuating those projects by talking to developers. “We would counter that by saying our efforts are designed to engage with people [developers] who are going to be here whether we are or not,” Morrow says. “Our conversations are always based on protecting and improving opportunities for the indigenous community. We’re encouraging them [luxury developers] to be inclusive as doing so is in the best interest of existing residents who are also seeking a chance to move up affordably,” he says.

“SoBROs objective is to increase the supply of moderate and low-income housing and we’ll use whatever strategy at our disposal to achieve that end,” he adds.

Social Responsibility

Commercial and housing development is ultimately the path toward SoBRO’s primary mission, not the end goal. The organization’s purpose is to improve the lives of the people living and doing business in the South Bronx. To that end, SoBRO offers programs to help certify businesses as minority-owned, integrate immigrants into the neighborhood and develop the local workforce.

For youths, SoBRO offers after-school programs that teach leadership and life skills. A federally backed learn-to-work program, called Youth Build, targets disconnected young people, age 18 to 24, reconnects them to the job market and sets them on a career path. Participants might work with Starbucks to learn how to become a barista or learn how to build a greenhouse to produce healthy foods.

Most of the positions through Youth Build are in the construction industry and youths work with journeymen to learn a trade and hopefully a permanent job with a contractor. About 40 people participate during each program cycle, which occurs twice a year. “We take people who have hidden skills and talents and help push them through the system to establish or in some cases, regain their footing,” Morrow says.

A community like the South Bronx needs an organization that can fill those social roles. Morrow sees the neighborhood as a port of entry, a place that continuously welcomes new people who can benefit from the support structures SoBRO has in place.

After 21 years at SoBRO, Morrow hopes that the future of the organization includes an expanded portfolio for all programs that evolve with the needs of the overall community. “The goals set forth in our mission statement require work for years into the future,” Morrow says. “However, if we succeed we’ll put ourselves of business, which sounds bad, but will ultimately be a good thing for the South Bronx."

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