A South Bronx Rail Yard Is Reborn

Mott Haven Rail Yard in 1951 and, covered by development, in 2010. (Click to enlarge.)

Much attention over the past decade has been given to two huge development projects that are underway to build above rail yards in the far west side of Manhattan and at Atlantic Yards in Brooklyn. In the midst of all of the excitement and controversy that these projects have generated, it is easy to overlook the fact that building on top of New York City rail yards has happened before. The construction of many skyscrapers in the east 40s above the rail yards leading to Grand Central Terminal is fairly well known. Much less known is a similar effort in the South Bronx’s civic district that has resulted in homes for 4,000 people, six public school buildings serving nearly 4,000 children, about 235,000 square feet of office space and 77,700 more coming soon, a supermarket, neighborhood stores, a food court, and at least 1,806 parking spaces. Let’s have a look at how this has come together.

The land in question was previously the site of the Mott Haven Rail Yard a/k/a the Melrose Yard, built by the New York Central Railroad c. 1873 and used to store and maintain freight cars, passenger coaches and locomotives. It is located south of East 161st Street between Morris Avenue to the east and Sheridan Avenue to the west, and as far south as the wye where Metro-North’s Harlem Line and the Hudson Line converge. The railroad graded the land to fit the nearby rail lines, making it 15 to 40 feet below the adjacent streets, a fact that greatly influenced the future development.

Mott Haven Rail Yard, looking northward from the 153rd Street bridge in 1937. (Click to enlarge.) Photo from the New York Public Library.

The yard helped support the New York Central’s mighty regional transportation network, with rail lines throughout the Northeast and deep into the Midwest. However, the yard was effectively a barrier between the Melrose neighborhood to the east and what today is the Grand Concourse area to the west, save for one bridge spanning the yard at 153rd Street. Starting in 1961 and continuing to today, five waves of development have thoroughly transformed this site, helping to weave together the previously sundered urban fabric. Today no trace of the rail yard remains, except for the outline it left behind in the form of the buildings that have replaced it, and the railroad’s Melrose Central Building at the southwest corner of Morris Avenue and East 161st Street, now occupied by city-run social service offices.

Wave 1: Concourse Village (1965)

Concourse Village co-op: Sun-filled balconies in modernist white-brick slabs.

The first development to take place above the rail yard was a middle-income housing development known as Concourse Village. It was originally intended to be an enormous housing development that would have blanketed the entire yards, all the way south to 150th Street, with 20 towers of each 25 stories tall. Ultimately, however, only about a quarter of that was built. An early report indicated that the railroad leased its air rights for $750,000 per year for 60 years, although later reports indicated that it was paid $7 million, presumably up front, by the project’s sponsor, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America. Either way, most of the construction financing came from the New York State Housing Finance Agency, which issued a $30 million loan (later rising to $36.2 million), at that time the state’s largest loan ever for housing restricted to middle-income households. The brick-and-mortar results of the ambitious transaction outlived either the railroad underneath, which merged out of existence a few years after the towers were complete, or the union, which merged in 1979 with another union to form the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, and has long since gotten out of the housing business.

The first phase of the housing, the only one to be built, was approved by the City Planning Commission in October 1960 and was projected to cost $31 million. The four phases were to begin construction every six months in 1961 and 1962. The fourth phase, to be underway as of the second half of 1962, was to be a shopping center. (As it happened, that section did get built, but decades later than originally conceived. More on that below.)

The part of Concourse Village that was built and survives to this day consists of six leviathan 25-story slab towers with 1,875 apartments, all clad in 1960s white brick and organized around a 470-space surface parking lot. This is the quintessential tower-in-the-parking-lot, cataclysmic-style development that fell way, way out of fashion after Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, which came out the same year that the concrete and iron stilts were hammered in between the still active rails for this development. It is built on a platform over what at that time was still an active rail yard. The platform was built by the Cauldwell-Wingate Company, which was simultaneously using similar techniques to build the 50-story tower, now occupied by JPMorganChase, at 277 Park Avenue, over the tracks leading to Grand Central.

The buildings started out as “integrated” housing – mixing white, black and Hispanic families. When it was first built, the Grand Concourse to the west was largely a white neighborhood, while Melrose to the east was African-American and Puerto Rican. As of 1967, the buildings were 68 percent white. But the buildings were built just at the moment that large scale white flight from the Bronx was beginning, including along the nearby Grand Concourse. By 2000, the buildings were 82% black, according to census data. Even from the beginning, whites’ allegiance to the buildings was tenuous, with some early depositors backing out when learning they’d be living in “integrated housing.” After the initial nervousness and slow co-op sales, the State declined to finance the second residential phase of the project.

There was also some early grumbling about lack of schools, which was soon to be remedied. One factor that helped fill out the buildings was the promise of new adjacent schools, completed in 1972.

Wave 2: Two Schools (1972)

One of two grade schools completed c. 1972.

There is less information available about the second wave of development, two school buildings on the south side of 156th Street. The two buildings have different shapes, but identical architecture, so I am assuming they were built at basically the same time. There is no certificate of occupancy on the Buildings Department website for the school on the east, but the school on the west, at 750 Concourse Village West (Sheridan Avenue) was completed in November 1972 according to its final certificate of occupancy, which is dated January 1978. The building on the west housed P.S. 156 (the Benjamin Banneker School) until the school closed in 2008. Today the building houses two elementary schools, the Performance School (605 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade) and the Global Learning Institute for Girls (154 students in kindergarten through fifth grade). The building on the east, at 250 East 156th Street, houses P.S. 31, the William Lloyd Garrison School (667 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade), and I.S. 151, the Henry Lou Gehrig School, (282 students in sixth grade through eighth). Together, these two buildings house four schools that enroll 1,708 students.

Many years went by before the next wave of development took place. In fact, it was 10 years after the ink dried on the certificate of occupancy for P.S. 156 that the new building permit for the next wave was filed. This wouldn’t surprise anyone even casually familiar with the history of the Bronx. This period involved the previously mentioned white flight. Notions of planned shrinkage. Redlining. Benign neglect. Every catch phrase for public-sector and private-sector policies that encouraged people to leave the Bronx for the suburbs. As a result, it was the decade the Fire Department knew as the War Years: abandonment, decay, and fires.

During these years, the area at the north end of the former rail yard was used as an 800-space parking lot for baseball fans attending games at Yankee Stadium, five blocks to the west – a hopelessly marginal use for such central land.

Wave 3: Concourse Plaza Shopping Center and Office Tower (1998)

Concourse Plaza Shopping Center

Enter Bernard J. Rosenshein, a developer who had grown up on Gerard Avenue between 164th and 165th Streets, a short walk from the site, who understood the retail potential in what was by now a woefully underserved neighborhood. In 1988, he began building the Concourse Plaza Shopping Center and a 10-story, 200,000-square-foot office tower at 198 East 161st Street that houses the Bronx District Attorney’s offices, offices for the Bronx Borough President, and others. The shopping center is anchored to the east by a large supermarket, originally Waldbaums and now Bogopa/Food Bazaar, that is tucked in behind the Melrose Central Building. The western anchor is a food court and 3,300-seat multiplex movie theater. All told, there are 32 businesses arrayed suburban-style around a surface parking lot for 251 cars (though most of the spaces are empty most of the time), and sitting atop two levels of parking below street level for another 957 cars. Up above the first floor of stores, there’s a second floor housing social security offices.

Concourse Plaza Office Tower I

Building all of this was a massive 10-year undertaking, requiring at least two levels of concrete and steel just to bring the “ground floor” up to the level of the adjacent ground. At least part of the shopping plaza opened for business in 1991 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring the Borough President. But the plaza was not completed, in the eyes of the Buildings Department, until February 1998. The tower serves as a nice counterpoint to the Melrose Central Building, with the each building anchoring one end of the plaza.

This shopping center represents a revival of plans initially laid out more than two decades earlier with the development of Concourse Village. It is now owned by the Feil Organization, New York City-based owner of suburban strip malls across the country and New York City apartment buildings.

So by the completion of Concourse Plaza, the former rail yards site now supports apartments, retail, offices, and schools. And in the next wave of development, it came to support even more schools. A lot more.

Wave 4: Mott Haven Campus (2010)

The newly completed Mott Haven Campus, seen from the rear.

In December 2004, Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to build the four new schools to serving 2,000 students at the southern end of the former rail yard. The goal was to reduce overcrowding in Bronx schools. Whereas the first three waves of development were elevated above the former rail yards through steel and concrete stilts, this is the first wave of development to be built directly on the former rail yards.

The city pledged $30 million to remediate the soil to eliminate toxins left by the former use as a rail yard, including: mercury, lead, benzene, and tetrachloroethylene. Two years later, the City Council stalled the plan over concerns about local autonomy in admissions and independent testing over the levels of toxins on site. In January 2007 the City Council allowed construction to proceed after the City agreed to the independent testing. But then in April 2007 a coalition sued the City, saying it wasn’t doing enough. The lawsuit, decided in October 2008, required the School Construction Authority to create a long-term environmental monitoring plan.

Ultimately that plan was created and the schools were built. Mayor Bloomberg and other elected officials visited the site on September 1, 2010, to cut the ribbon on the complex. Together, these schools are providing space for 1,938 students. They are the largest project ever undertaken by the New York City School Construction Authority. Just as the site’s second wave of schools expansion was wrapping up, its second wave of office expansion was beginning.

Wave 5: Concourse Plaza Office Tower II (Construction Underway)

Concourse Plaza Office Tower II

The office tower built in the 1990s at Concourse Plaza Shopping Center is reportedly completely filled to capacity, indicating unfilled demand for office space in this part of the Bronx. Reinforcing that reality is nearby Victorian style houses that have been converted into offices. In order to meet the demand for office space, Concourse Plaza’s new owners, Feil, are building a glassy second office tower with about 69,000 square feet of space at the site’s southwest corner. A construction consultant notes that the project has its own extra challenges because it is being built above utility lines that service the existing shopping center, of which it will soon be a part. At this writing, that construction is proceeding with an estimated completion date that is months away.

Superblock Review

One of the things that has always bothered me about most tower-in-the-park(ing lot) style developments is that they replaced perfectly good urban fabric that in many ways was superior to the towers. That’s not the case here. Nothing was demolished to make way for Concourse Village, since it was built in the air. So without the nagging desire to mourn what was demolished, does this instance of towers-in-the-park stand on its own as an improvement to what had come before it? Could it have been better? Answers to those subjective questions can only come from the beholder. In my opinion, the surface parking fronting 161st Street gets relatively little use. Had it been hidden behind the buildings, the retail would have been more attractive to the many pedestrians using 161st Street. I am glad to see that the Mott Haven Campus does not waste any space on parking, when there are ample subway and bus lines nearby, along with copious private parking lots and garages. In some ways, it is sad that there is no longer the demand for rail yard space at this location, but that is one small result of changes taking place at a much broader level. All in all, at the neighborhood scale, this has been a worthwhile multi-decade effort.

161st Street rezoning encourages development on Concourse Plaza surface parking. (Image: NYC Dept. of City Planning)

One wonders what the next wave of development for this site will be. With the recent up-zoning of 161st Street, one of the most attractive building parcels is the Concourse Plaza parking lot. I’d say that will be the first piece to be built upon in the next building boom.

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