Olympics Coverage Catch-22

By way of introduction, my wife and I don’t have a TV. If we want to watch the Yankees, we just walk four blocks over to the stadium. If we want to watch other major sporting events, we usually just go to a bar. By and large, not having a TV is a quiet lifestyle we enjoy, except for the two weeks every two years when I am suddenly consumed with an all-encompassing desire to watch the Olympics. Here’s the woeful tale of what happened when I tried to watch the 2012 Summer Games without the benefit of a television. All of the quotes below are paraphrased as best as I can remember them from a month ago.

NBC: Get our great free app, Live Extra, to watch the Olympics!

Me: Awesome! Now I’ll be able to watch the Olympics on my iPad. This is exactly what I wanted! [Downloads app. Attempts to activate.]

NBC Live Extra app: To activate this app, click on your cable provider. [Provides a list of links to many cable providers: Comcast, Cablevision, Verizon, Time Warner, etc. etc. etc.]

Me: Uh-oh. I don’t have cable, which is exactly why I want to download this app. But then again, I am a Cablevision subscriber for Internet. Maybe that will work. [Clicks on Cablevision link.]

NBC Live Extra app, after a pause: Sorry, you’re not authorized to use this app. Call your cable provider at this number for assistance.

Me: [Dials the number.]

Cablevision: Thank you for calling Cablevision! To order our services, press 1. For help with your existing account, press 2.

Me: Hmm, I might need to order cable AND I need help with my existing account. Both of these choices seem like they could help me. [Presses 1.]

Cablevision, after being on hold: Hello and welcome to Cablevision. How may we help you?

Me: Uh, hi. I want to activate the NBC’s Olympics complete coverage app. But it wouldn’t let me activate it, and said I should call this number.

Cablevision, after 20 minutes of back-and-forth, being on hold, multiple pronouncements of my Cablevision account number, transferring to new representatives, and confusion about what I was trying to do: You need to upgrade to a cable subscription in order to use this app. You can add cable to your existing Internet subscription for an additional $64.95 a month. Or you can order Optimum Triple Play which gives you cable plus phone plus Internet for $89.85 a month.

Me: Thanks but I don’t need the Triple Play since my wife and I just use our cellphones and we don’t really need a landline. I’ll take the minimum package possible as long as it has CNBC and MSNBC. Is there some sort of minimum number of months I need to agree to for this?

Cablevision: No. There’s no contract. You can cancel at any time.

Me: That’s cool. But still, in order to watch the Olympics on this free app, I need to pay you $64.95 for one month and then cancel my cable subscription? That seems like a lot of money to pay for a free app, but hell, I love the Olympics and I’m willing to do it.

Cablevision: OK, when do you want us to come over to install the cable?

Me: Oh, don’t worry about that. As long as I can use the app, I’m good.

Cablevision: We can’t give you a cable subscription without physically installing the cable box and hookup.

Me: You mean you need to come to my apartment and actually install cable? I just want the account.

Cablevision: That’s right. For you to have cable, we need to come over and install the cables.

Me: Are you completely certain that I can’t just get an account, enter the account number into the app, and watch on my iPad?

Cablevision, after checking with supervisor: Yes, that’s right. You need to have a cable hookup, including the cable box.

Me: Okay, when can you come to set it up?

Cablevision: We can be there next Tuesday between 8 a.m. and noon, or 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Me: Well, luckily my wife is home for summer break and she’ll be around during those times. I’ll miss the first few days of the Olympics, but I’ll still be able to catch most of it. There’s one thing I should tell you since you’re going to be installing cable television in our apartment. We don’t have a television.

Cablevision: In order to have a cable hookup, you have to have a physical TV.

Me: In order to “have cable TV” for the purposes of activating an app, I have to have an actual TV set? All I want to do is watch the app on my iPad.

Cablevision: Yes, you have to have a physical TV to have cable. [I'm sure she's stifling laughter at this point, stating the obvious to such an idiot as myself.]

Me: What’s a TV going to run me? Probably hundreds of dollars, right? This free app is starting to get expensive.

Cablevision: Maybe you can borrow a friend’s TV?

Me: This is getting complicated. Let me figure this out. Thanks for your help. I’ll call you back if we decide to go forward.

So all I wanted to do was watch the Olympics in an age of ubiquitous broadband and streaming content. NBC has created a free app specifically for that purpose. But in order to use the app, I already had to have cable. If I’d have had cable, I could just as well have watched most of the events I wanted to watch right on TV, without the need for the app!

It’s a Catch-22: Because I don’t have a TV, I want to watch the Olympics on my iPad. In order to watch the Olympics on my iPad, I need to subscribe to cable. In order to subscribe to cable, I need to have a cable box and hookup installed. In order to get the box and hookup, I need to have a TV. This is ridiculous! Why can’t NBC just offer a paid iPad app where I wouldn’t need to go through all this?

In the end, we watched the Olympics at my folks’ house an hour away and at a hotel. And, since we were booked on a cruise anyway, we watched on a cruise ship, soaking in a hot tub in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by the sea, the stars, and scores of cheering USA fans. From now on, we’re not even messing around with free apps or cable. We’re booking cruises every two years to watch the Olympics.

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A Field Guide to South Bronx Bike Racks

I have now completed my initial survey of bike racks in the South Bronx – the area south of Fordham Road, from the Harlem River to the Bronx River. Since the “My Maps” feature in Google Maps allows only up to 200 placemarks, I’ve divided the map up into two sections, a northern section and a southern section. Throughout the course of this survey, I’ve found 476 bike racks at 305 locations, which together can comfortably provide parking for 1,191 bicycles. Are there other bike racks out there that I haven’t found? Almost certainly. That fact, given that bike racks are always being added and subtracted, means that these maps will be continuously updated or will be a snapshot in time – Winter 2012. Here is a summary of the nine types of bike racks I found.

Bollard Racks

Two bollard racks in Crotona Park.

I found two bollard racks inside Crotona Park, at the northeast corner of Crotona Avenue and Claremont Parkway. These are the only two racks of this type I’ve been able to find in the survey area. These look sturdy and secure. They are a nice find tucked in behind a bush at a fairly busy intersection. There’s not much else I can say about them other than that their existence helps provide a little diversity to the overall universe of bike racks in the survey. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more of them sprinkled around. People need to know that there are various designs of bike racks, and that there isn’t necessarily one “best” design.

Grid Rack

Grid rack at the Bronx Zoo.

In all of the South Bronx, I found just one grid rack. It is in the Fordham Road Gate to the Bronx Zoo. This is an older type of bike rack that has fallen out of favor. The idea of the grid rack is that a cyclist inserts his or her front tire in between the vertical slats, and walks away. The bike stands up by itself without the need for a kickstand. Unfortunately, there is no way to lock a bike frame under that type of usage, so using a grid rack in the manner it was designed does not lead to a secure situation. However, this type of rack is nevertheless fully functional – if you know how to use it. One can lock the bike securely at either end of the rack. If both of those attractive spots are taken, you can still lock your bike securely by hoisting your front tire up over the rack, then locking front tire and bike frame to the rack.

Hoop Racks

Hoop rack at South Bronx Preparatory School, 360 East 145th Street.

I found 63 hoop racks in the survey area, mostly in a couple of clusters just south of Fordham Road along University Avenue, Webster Avenue, and Valentine Avenue. There are also a few sprinkled in the East 160s and East 140s, including the one in the attached photo.

The Hoop rack is the current design used by the City of New York, through the DOT’s CityRacks program. It was selected through a design competition the DOT undertook in 2008 that attracted more than 200 entrants from around the world. This design is by Ian Mahaffy and Maarten De Greeve of the firm Bettlelab in one of the world’s foremost cycling cities, Copenhagen. In announcing the winning design on its blog, the City’s DOT wrote:

Mahaffy and De Greeve’s design reflects a modern simplicity that will greatly enhance the City’s streetscape. The rack is round with a horizontal crossbar, evoking an abstracted bicycle tire. Constructed of cast-metal, the design is elegant yet sturdy enough to withstand the harshest street environments.

Inverted-U-Type Racks

The ubiquitous inverted-U type bike rack.

The inverted-U rack is the workhorse of South Bronx on-street bike racks. I found 288 of them in the survey area – often in huge clusters. (East 149th Street at The Hub, Southern Boulevard, and East 167th Street all have huge numbers of them.)

The design is simple. Two vertical posts that merge in with one another at the top make for a secure, if aesthetically underwhelming, place to lock a bike. This is the former staple of the NYC DOT’s CityRacks program before the Hoop rack arrived.

The funny thing about the Inverted U rack is that nearly all of them are oriented incorrectly, and used incorrectly by cyclists. Technically, in theory, one should lock one’s bike perpendicularly to the rack, as if it were just one hump in a wave rack (see below) or one half of an M-type rack (see below). Thus, they should be installed perpendicular with the curb, so that when one locked up his or her bike, it would be parallel with the curb, and thus, not blocking pedestrians. Instead, the racks are parked parallel with the curb (which minimizes obstacles to pedestrians from the rack itself), and cyclists all lock up parallel to the rack, which can entangle bikes with one another. If they were used properly, they would put each of the bikes far enough away from each other that two could park comfortably out of each other’s way. There are some cyclists out there who like to be able to lock both the front wheel and the rear wheel to the rack, and thus, parking parallel to the rack is required for them.

The City must have resigned itself to this practice, because the Hoop rack seems designed so that you would lock up parallel to it. The funny thing, though, is that M-type racks, below, are installed “correctly.”

Most of the inverted-U racks in the study area are made of square heavy steel tubing covered with black paint, as seen in the photo. The most heavily used ones tend to have sections of paint chipped off. Some use unpainted galvanized cylindrical metal tubing but have roughly similar dimensions. Three of them, such as this one at Fordham Rd. & Southern Blvd., are narrower.

M-Type Racks

Galvanized M-type rack.

The M-type rack is or was also part of the stable of racks deployed through the DOT’s CityRacks program. It is listed as the “large” type rack, compared with the “small” inverted-U racks. The M-type rack is simply two inverted-U racks merged as one. As noted above, even though they take up more space than inverted-U racks, these M-racks are generally installed “correctly,” perpendicular to the curb, as seen in this photo. This means you could securely lock four bikes up to the rack, one against each vertical post. This type of rack also comes in either galvanized cylindrical tubing, as seen here, or as square heavy steel tubing painted black. In either case, the dimensions of the rack are roughly the same. The Yankee Stadium parking garages turned to the M rack in a big way – adding 134 of them right across the street from the stadium.


Swerve-style bike rack at the Bruckner Bar & Grill, Mott Haven.

The “swerve”-style bike rack is a modified form of an inverted U. It bends one leg of the rack 135o, then gives it another 90o bend. This form probably provides more locking options than the simple inverted-U rack. Like the Hoop rack, it essentially acknowledges that cyclists are going to lock up alongside it rather than perpendicular to it.

Right now, there are only two locations that have swerve-style racks so far. There are three at the Bruckner Bar & Grill (one is shown here), my favorite bar in the South Bronx, in Mott Haven. And the new PATH center, a homeless family intake center at 151st and Walton, has eight stainless steel swerve-style racks that were built as part of the building. They are underneath an overhang and are partially weather protected.

Triple-Triangle Racks

Triple-triangle bike rack at Macombs Dam Park.

I’m not sure what the real name of this type of rack is, but it consists of three connected vertical triangles (the third leg of the triangle is the ground), so I’m calling it a triple-triangle rack for now. In brand new parks near Yankee Stadium, 16 of these racks have been installed. Four are installed at the four corners of the elevated part of Macombs Dam Park, the part of the park that is atop the parking garage. This means that you might have to carry your bike up a set of stairs to reach this rack. They are going to be less used for that reason.

Nearby, in Mill Pond Park, there are three sets of these racks. In each set, four racks have been set up end to end, forming what looks like one large bike rack. One is in a bar-b-que area, one is tucked away behind a tennis center, and one is in the middle of the park. Hopefully, more people will use these racks as more people discover them.

These triple-triangle racks are also popular in downtown Brooklyn, where they are made of stainless steel and line the Fulton Mall.

Twin-Post Racks

Twin-post style racks at the Bronx County Hall of Justice.

Here is another type of bike rack that I really don’t know the name of. These racks consist of two vertical posts joined at the top by a horizontal bar that is reminiscent of bull’s horns. These racks comfortably hold two bikes each. You can simply lock your bike up to the vertical post as you would to any rack, or you have the option of hoisting your frame over the top bar to get more of the frame closer to the rack. There are seven of these racks in the survey area, all installed at the new Bronx County Hall of Justice. Inside a public plaza underneath the building, they are fully weather protected. This type of rack can also be found in Midtown Manhattan, for example, in the plaza behind 1166 Avenue of the Americas.

Wave Racks

Wave rack at Tremont Park.

The M-type and inverted-U racks noted above are really just sub-types of the wave rack. Besides those, I’ve found 26 wave racks in the survey area. Most have three humps, like the one in this photo from Tremont Park. There are a few with three humps, including the shiny new weather protected stainless steel one at the Yankees-E. 153rd Street Metro-North Railroad Station, or the aging yellow painted, slightly rusting one at Roberto Clemente State Park. I don’t think I found any with more than four humps. These wave racks are most often installed in parks. They may be the basic rack used by the Parks Department.

Addendum: Sheltered Bike Parking

NYC DOT bike parking shelter at Tremont Avenue and the Grand Concourse.

The NYC DOT has also installed bike parking shelters around the city, including one in the survey area at Tremont Avenue and the Grand Concourse. These shelters make parking one’s bike on the sidewalk a bit more respectable. The shelter at Tremont and the Concourse has three stainless steel inverted-U racks as well as an NYC bike map. Getting points for intermodal connectivity, the shelter is located right at the Tremont Avenue subway station on the B & D line. I would say it does get better usage than your average run-of-the-mill unsheltered bike rack.

Then there is the ultimate in bike shelters. The DOT runs a series of municipal parking garages. There are two in the survey area, and the one at 315 East 149th Street has free parking for bikes, with the help of one wave-rack. Of all the racks surveyed, this one was the one that was most oversubscribed. People really appreciate protection from the elements, but also, since this rack is located within sight of the garage attendant, at least the perception of protection from would-be bike thieves.

Free bike parking in NYC DOT municipal garage, East 149th Street, South Bronx.

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Why Not Ride a Bike to the Bronx Zoo?

Map: Bicycle Parking at the Bronx Zoo

I Googled around for information on bicycle parking at the Bronx Zoo, but I didn’t find very much. The zoo’s official directions page, which does a great job explaining the subway and bus routes to the zoo, doesn’t mention bike parking. I did, however, find a comment from a cyclist on this forum who said, somewhat tantalizingly, that he rode to the zoo and found “a serpent-shaped bike rack.” And the NYC Dept. of Transportation bike parking page lists six “large” racks at the zoo’s official address, 2300 Southern Boulevard. So I emailed the zoo and asked about bike parking. They emailed back to confirm that there were, indeed, bike racks at the zoo’s entrances.

But I was still curious for more info. Were the racks deep inside the zoo? Would I have to pay first then walk the bike to the rack? Should I ride through the pedestrian walkways or the car lanes? How many racks were there? What kind were they? Etc.

So as part of my South Bronx bike rack map (northern half), I surveyed the bike parking at the zoo. Armed with the information I’ve obtained, I’m writing this blog post so that if anyone else wonders about bike parking at the Bronx Zoo, hopefully this page will come up in Google.

Bicycle Parking at the Bronx Zoo

The zoo has placed bike parking at three of its four entrances as shown in this map: Bike Parking at the Bronx Zoo. Here are details.

Southern Boulevard Gate

Wave-type bike rack at the Bronx Zoo's Southern Boulevard Gate.

The Southern Boulevard Gate has two entrances. One for buses and cars at Garden Street and Crotona Parkway, and one for pedestrians at 2300 Southern Boulevard (between 183rd Street and 185th). Cyclists should enter through the pedestrian entrance, while being careful not to freak out or antagonize any of the actual pedestrians.

About 340 feet in from the street’s curb, you’ll find the galvanized wave-type bike rack pictured here. This is probably the “serpent-shaped” rack the cyclist above had mentioned. (And I’d been envisioning a fancy rack, intricately shaped into a sea serpent in honor of the zoo’s mission of promoting animal life. Oh well.)

The rack has a comfortable capacity of six bikes. After locking up, the zoo’s entrance is directly ahead of you about 30 feet.

Fordham Road Gate

Grid-type bike rack at the Bronx Zoo's Fordham Road Gate.

At the Fordham Road Gate, there is a grid-type rack to your right just after start down the entrance. You will see it before you get to the guard booth. I would guess there is a comfortable capacity of about eight to ten bikes at this rack. With these kind of racks, the most attractive spots are at either end. If they are taken, you can still securely lock your bike in the center part of the rack if you hoist your front wheel up over the top, then lock front wheel and frame to the grid posts.

Once you’ve locked up, you’ll walk on the sidewalk past the guard booth, then continue on the sidewalk into the zoo’s most majestic entrance, with a grand drive and stairway.

Bronx River Gate

M-type bike rack at the Bronx Zoo's Bronx River Gate.

Getting to the Bronx River Gate on a bike is tricky. To approach the entrance, turn onto Boston Road from Bronx Park East between Pelham Parkway and Lydig Avenue. This short section of Boston Road is fairly busy with traffic heading to and from Exit 6 of the Bronx River Parkway. Still, it’s just a two-lane road, so it isn’t terrible. Once you go under the parkway overpass, you’ll see the zoo entrance ahead of you. Go through the pedestrian sidewalk on the right. As soon as you pass through, you’ll see a sturdy galvanized M-type rack on your right. This rack can comfortably hold four bicycles.

Asia Gate

The Asia Gate is the gate you use when you arrive at the zoo by subway. (Take the 2 or the 5 to West Farms Square / E. Tremont Av.) Unfortunately, there is no bike parking at this gate.

All in all, cycling to the Bronx Zoo is probably easier than you think. And while parking a car at the zoo will cost you $13, parking a bike is completely free. So next time you’re heading to the zoo, consider the option of cycling. And once you’re in the zoo, make sure you see the best animal, the tapir.

The Tapir

Sleeping tapir at the Bronx Zoo. Photo by Aaron Donovan, June 17, 2006.

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Introducing My South Bronx Bike Rack Map

I’ve got sort of an unhealthy fascination with officially designated, purpose-built bike parking. Sure, most people probably just lock their bikes up to the nearest “no parking” sign. But I try to park at actual bike racks whenever possible, under the philosophy that if someone took the time to think about, plan for and install parking for my benefit, I might as well use it.

With that in mind, I’ve created a map of all the bike racks I’ve noticed here in the South Bronx. The map covers The Hub to the Yankee Stadium area for now, and I’ll try to expand it over time. You can click on the icons to pull up photos and details about the racks. In the headings, the numbers in parentheses indicate how many bikes could easily be parked at each location.

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2011: My Year in Very Casual Bike Commuting

My bike commute route

I live four blocks from Yankee Stadium and work in Midtown Manhattan. That means I have a lot of commuting options: the subway, Metro-North, and the express bus. I ride the train or the bus four days a week. It’s a six-mile walk, and I’ve done that once too. But ever since National Bike to Work Day a couple of years ago, I’ve been trying to bike to work on Fridays, when office dress-down policy and culture means I usually don’t have to wear a suit.

My ride has four distinct segments: The Bronx, Harlem, Midtown, and the longest piece, the full length of Central Park. The exact route is shown in the map. Red lines are streets where I’m riding with general car traffic. The light blue lines show streets that have a bike lane. This is what traffic engineers might call a “Class II” bike lane, in that the only thing separating the bike lane from the car lane is a strip of paint. On my route, these are on Gerard Avenue and Walton Avenue in the Bronx, Seventh Ave./A.C. Powell Blvd. and 119th & 120th Streets in Harlem, and most of Central Park. Cars are prohibited from Central Park’s loop drive most of the time, but they are allowed in during rush hours in the peak direction. In other words, exactly when I commute. The green lines show streets and pathways that are fully separated from car traffic. These are the pedestrian walkways on both sides of the Madison Avenue Bridge, and the southern end of Central Park’s East Drive. The short purple line signifies a small section that has “sharrows” for bikes but no separate lane. This “Class III” bike route is on W. 120th Street, between Mt. Morris Park W. and Fifth Avenue.

The route is not very strenuous. It’s 7.32 miles in the morning and 6.96 miles in the evening. The most difficult traffic is on the Bronx approach to the bridge, but the hardest part of the ride is in the morning, climbing the hill right after entering the park.

This year I made a commitment to try to bike every Friday as long as it wasn’t too cold, too hot, or raining. There were 52 Fridays in 2011, but on two of them I was on vacation, and two of them were non-working holidays, Veterans Day, Nov. 11, and the day after Thanksgiving. So that leaves 48 Fridays where I would have ridden in an ideal world. How did I do?

On nine days, it was too cold and/or the streets had snow and ice on them; all of January, two days each in February and March and one day in November. The coldest of these was Jan. 14 at 21oF. The warmest was Nov. 18 at 37oF. On one day, it was too hot. On July 22 it was already 88oF by 8 a.m.

Rain kept my bike at home on two days, Feb. 25 and April 1. And there were three days when I rode into work but it started raining while I was there, forcing me to leave the bike in the garage and take transit home. That left the problem of what to do with the bike. On June 17, I left it in the garage for a week and rode it home the following Friday. On July 8 and Sept. 23, I went down to the office over the weekend and rode the bike home so it would be ready to go the following week.

There were two days where I set out to ride but didn’t make it all the way because of mechanical problems. On March 11, I got a flat tire in Harlem, locked the bike up on the street and caught the subway. The next day, I walked the bike to local bike shop and had the flat fixed. The following week, March 18, everything was fine in the morning. But in the evening, I felt a kink in the rear tire’s inner tube, but was still able to make it home. I then took the rear wheel off the bike to smooth out the kink. Upon reattaching the wheel to the frame, I didn’t tighten the wheel on tightly enough. So the next time I rode, April 8, I was a victim of this botched do-it-yourself effort. As soon as I put pressure on the pedals, the wheel became misaligned and began scraping against the frame, halting my forward motion. I’d made it five blocks before once again locking up on the street and aborting to the subway.

There were a six oddball days when the weather was fine but I opted not to ride for work-related or personal reasons. On April 29, we were leaving straight from the office to go to Boston, and I was focused on the trip and not in a mood to leave the bike in the work garage for a few days. On August 26, Hurricane Irene was approaching, and while the weather was actually fine that morning, I was too focused on work to worry about riding. In December, there were two days when I had to come in before sunrise and was just too wrapped up in work stuff to worry about biking, a day when I wore a suit, and a day I had to report to work extra early in the Financial District and it was just easier to take the subway the whole way.

That means that were were 24 days, exactly half of all possible riding days, that I managed to ride both ways on the same day. The coldest was Oct. 28 at 37oF. The warmest was 72oF on June 10 and July 29, or 75oF if you want to count July 8, when thunderstorms prevented my return trip. My best time on a morning ride was 37 minutes, 49 seconds on Oct. 21. My worst morning time was on my first ride of the year, 47:58 on Feb. 18. My best time in the evening was 34:58 on Sept. 30. My worst evening time was 43:20, on March 18, the day of the above-noted kink in the innertube.

So all in all I consider this a casual success. Despite the ever-present temptation to just hop on the train or bus, I managed to bike commute for essentially a whole month’s worth of work days. Hopefully I’ll be able to do more next year.

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South Bronx Resurgence: St. Ann’s Terrace

When the 2010 census figures came out, they showed that the Bronx had gained 52,458 people over the prior decade, more than any other New York City borough, and more than any other county in New York State except for Suffolk County, on Long Island, which has 22 times more land area. How is the Bronx growing so rapidly? One reason is the phenomenal growth of affordable housing construction made possible by two factors, first, the dwindling availability of large lots left over from a generation ago when the Bronx was burning, and second, in the South Bronx, very little of the anti-development NIMBYism that stifles progress in many parts of the city.

This series of photos shows the rebirth of the South Bronx through one new affordable housing development that fills an entire block. This is the construction of St. Ann’s Terrace, which has 641 apartments reserved for households with a mixture of incomes, plus ground floor retail space and underground parking. The complex, which fills the block bounded by St. Ann’s and Eagle Avenues and E. 156th and 159th Streets, officially opened on Oct. 26, 2011. Since it opened too late for the 2010 census, the new residents of this block will help buoy the Bronx population figures nine years from now, in 2020.

July 19, 2009

October 18, 2009

November 14, 2009

April 10, 2010

August 13, 2010

May 15, 2011

November 20, 2011

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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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Welcome to Starts & Fits 2.0

Hi everyone. So, like, eight months ago Blogger stopped allowing FTP publishing, effectively ending the way I used publish this website since it stared in November 2004. So I’ve migrated this website into WordPress. Now it has a new look, as you can see. I’ll try to mess around and restore some of the old look and features.

I want to give a special thank you to Futurebird, who handled all of the unseen technical aspects of this transition.

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Yankees Add Huge Amount of Bike Parking

Does someone at the Yankees read Streetsblog? Maybe someone at the NYC Parks Department? Either way, Streetsblog followed Sports Illustrated in pointing out that there was no official bike parking at Yankee Stadium, but CitiField had 10 racks. Now, bike parking has been added at Yankee Stadium — in a big way. Before I get to the big reveal, a bit of history.

Previously, the closest place to lock up a bike was on the Walton Avenue side of the Bronx County Courthouse between 161st and 158th Streets, as seen here while the Bronx was mopping up from the last snowstorm in February:

That rack is two blocks east of the stadium. It offers the capacity basically for four bikes comfortably. (You could squeeze two more in there using the Hunter College Method, which involves hoisting the front tire up over the top of the loop.)

Now, baseball fans who ride to the game will get better parking spaces than any motorist. Bike parking has been installed in the most prime spaces in the garage that has been built directly across 161st Street from the New Yankee Stadium’s main entrance. The arrow in this photo below, taken from the 4-train platform at 161st & River, points to where the bike parking is located.

Here’s a closer view of the garage, which has a park on its roof.

How much bike parking is in there? What form does it take? We’re talking about more than a couple of racks. Here’s are the best two photos I could get through the fence:

I counted 34 bike racks in the front, and another six around the corner, for a total of 40 racks. Each rack should hold four bikes comfortably, so the Yankees now have formal bike parking for 160 bikes. This seems like a great way to encourage fans to bike to the game, making what should be a natural link between healthy, invigorating transportation and watching a ball game.

And, as icing on the cake, as of last week, there is now parking for eight bikes at the new Yankees-E. 153rd Street Metro-North station (12 bikes if four people use the Hunter College Method).

Actually, make that the Yankees-E. 153rd Street Intermodal Hub.

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2009 in U.S. Passenger Railroading

The historic first train stops at Yankees-E. 153rd Street station at 5:49 a.m. on Saturday, May 23, 2009, one of many such firsts throughout the year.

2009 was a huge year for U.S. regional and intercity passenger railroads. Ridership was down slightly from 2008 because of the economy, but it was still near historic highs. At the same time, 18 new stations opened around the country, while only two closed. Here’s a rundown of the year’s activity.

February 2, 2009: Westside Express Service, a new regional rail service outside Portland, Ore., opened with five stations. This is a commuter line that allows passengers to connect to TriMet light rail at Beaverton. Other stations are Hall/Nimbus, Tigard, Tualatin and Wilsonville. Service is provided by diesel multiple units operating in married pairs.

February 6, 2009: New Jersey Transit launches Atlantic City Express Service between New York City (Penn Station) and Atlantic City.

May 11, 2009: Amtrak’s California Zephyr ceased stopping at Sparks, Nev. Which probably is not a huge loss since there is a station on this long-distance route about one minute away in Reno.

May 23, 2009: Metro-North Railroad opens Yankees-E. 153rd Street station in the South Bronx, serving Yankee Stadium on game days with up to 6,000 fans per day on three lines in its first year of operation.

July 26, 2009: New Jersey Transit opens its new station at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, serving sports fans on trains to and from Hoboken Terminal, and connecting to many lines at Secaucus Junction, including trains to New York City’s Penn Station (where fans can transfer to the Long Island Rail Road). Beginning on September 20, NJ Transit and Metro-North Railroad began offering game-day service to Secaucus Junction from New Haven, Conn., a first-ever joint service involving the two railroads that travels through three states and uses some Amtrak-owned tracks.

August 1, 2009: New Mexico’s Rail Runner Express opens Santa Fe County / N.M. 599 station.

September 9, 2009: Rail Runner Express continues its expansion, and continues the trend of trains-to-sports-complexes, by opening the Lobo Special Events Platform.

September 25, 2009: Amtrak’s Empire Builder begins serving Icicle Station in Leavenworth, Wash.

October 26, 2009: Amtrak trains begin serving a new station in New Buffalo, Mich., on the Wolverine and Blue Water trains. Across town, the station on the Pere Marquette line was decommissioned.

November 16, 2009: Northstar Commuter Rail service launched service with six stations in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area: Big Lake, Elk River, Anoka, Coon Rapids-Riverdale, Fridley, and Downtown Minneapolis Ballpark/Target Field.

November 21, 2009: Amtrak’s Cascades trains begin serving a new station at Stanwood, Wash.

What will 2010 have in store? Yonah Freemark offers some clues over at The Transport Politic.

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