Toward the western end of Spofford Avenue in the South Bronx, the street dips downhill and offers a view of the midtown Manhattan skyline, about 5 miles southwest as the crow flies. In the mostly industrial Hunts Point neighborhood, there’s a consistent rumble of trucks rolling through. There’s also a massive complex, fenced in with barbed wire. Nearby, you can still find a big old sign that reads “Bridges Juvenile Justice Center; Mayor Michael Bloomberg.”
“Bridges” was what the city of New York renamed the once notorious Spofford Juvenile Detention Center after it promised to shut it down in the late 1990s, but didn’t. The city finally closed the place in 2011, and this fall, after a year-and-a-half long process, it’s moving forward with a plan to do something way different with it. NYC Economic Development Corporation recently approved a joint proposal to redevelop the 5-acre site into a live-work campus catering to existing local businesses and residents.
The plan includes 740 apartments, all designated for low- to moderate-income families; 49,000 square feet of light industrial space; 21,000 square feet of ground floor retail/commercial space; and 48,000 square feet for community facility space (including 15,000 planned square feet for artists). There’s also space for a 15,000 square foot grocery.
“I’m personally excited about bringing a balance, bringing economic development while maintaining a real focus on the community that exists in Hunts Point,” says Ismene Speliotis, executive director of the Mutual Housing Association of NY (MHANY), a nonprofit affordable housing developer. “The idea is to regenerate commercial and residential activity without displacement.”
MHANY was one of three organizations that put together the joint proposal. Founded in 1986, MHANY’s portfolio includes building and/or managing over 1,600 housing units across the city, virtually all of them designated for low- to moderate-income households. Eight buildings in MHANY’s portfolio are in the Bronx, including four in the same Hunts Point neighborhood as the Spofford site, plus one more across the street currently in pre-development.
Hunts Point residents helped to shape the project. The building will include four-bedroom apartments, a rarity in NYC, in response to the needs of a large local Latino community in which three or even four generations often share a home.
Spofford will be MHANY’s first project with industrial space, which offers better economic prospects for residents of lower educational attainment or language barriers, especially compared with retail.
“Our residents and people on our waiting list are really poor,” says Speliotis. “We’re excited about the economic opportunity with regard to good jobs.”
NYCEDC’s initial request for expressions of interest was clear about a desire to boost living wage employment. The requirement to create and sustain high-quality jobs will be embedded in NYCEDC’s ground lease to MHANY and its co-developers. For the developer’s part, MHANY has strong local ties to the labor movement and the Fight for $15 minimum wage raise campaign, and all of its current apartment building maintenance workers are unionized and local.
The other co-developers are Providence-based Gilbane Development Company, which works all over the country, and Hudson Companies, an NYC-based for-profit affordable and mixed-income housing developer. NYCEDC cited several strengths of the joint proposal, including the combined experience of the three co-applicants, and the promise of 35 percent of contracting work going to minority- and women-owned businesses (MWBEs) during construction. The final application also included the letters of intent from an array of businesses committed to be anchor tenants in the proposed development. Almost all are local MWBEs.
The announced anchor tenants include Il Forno Bakery, Soul Snacks, Bascom Catering, Mass Ideation, Hunts Point Brewing Company and Lightbox NY film studio. The Hunts Point neighborhood is known for being the location of Hunts Point Cooperative Market, the world’s largest food distribution center, giving the neighborhood a distinctly high level of truck traffic.
MHANY worked closely with The Point Community Development Corporation, based in Hunts Point, to recruit the anchor tenants. One of the main sticking points was finding businesses that wouldn’t simply be moving jobs from one part of the neighborhood or the city to another. Speliotis credits The Point’s executive director, Maria Torres, and co-founder Paul Lipson (who left, but remains active in the Bronx), for doing the legwork to find the right mix of businesses that were looking to expand or open a second location, while also offering quality jobs.
“It was important to not just grow here and deplete another area, but really a net growth,” says Speliotis.
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Oscar is a Next City contributing writer, and was a Next City 2015-2016 equitable cities fellow. A New York City-based journalist with a background in global development and social enterprise, he has written about impact investing, microfinance, fair trade, entrepreneurship and more for publications such as Fast Company and NextBillion.net. He has a B.A. in Economics from Villanova University.