Group Hopes to Transform Port Morris Gantries Into Riverfront Park
PORT MORRIS — On what is today a derelict patch of the South Bronx waterfront, kayakers could one day dock and splash onto shore, children will dart through thick grass and picnickers will lounge on spread blankets.
And above it all, two five-story arches will tower over the crowd, framing the East River before them.
That’s the vision, at least, of some community activists.
In its current state, the Port Morris site of the mid-century arches — gantry cranes once used to lift ferries in and out of the river — is locked behind a fence and strewn with litter.
But thanks to the efforts of some community activists, an influential preservation group has included the site on its short list of attention-worthy properties — a move that could jumpstart the plan to transform the derelict plot into a vibrant park.
The site could “serve as a lynchpin for a revitalized public space and a more robust public engagement with the waterfront,” said Harry Bubbins, a member of the community group, Friends of Brook Park, which has adopted the gantries site.
The Historic Districts Council will name the Port Morris gantries as one of its 2012 “Six to Celebrate” sites. The designation entitles Friends of Brook Park to a year’s worth of the council’s technical support as it works to build local and official support for its revitalization vision.
In 1999, several Mott Haven residents, including Bubbins, converged on an abandoned lot at the corner of 141st Street and Brook Avenue. Calling itself Friends of Brook Park, the group enlisted the help of local schools and families to remove trash from the site, shoo away drug dealers, plant trees, build a chicken coop and construct gardening plots.
More than a decade later, the group wants to work its magic again, this time at 134th Street and the East River in the mostly industrial neighborhood of Port Morris, where the old gantries have been left to rust on the waterfront. From the early 20th century until the 1960s, the site served as a ferry hub; in 1948, the gantries came into use.
Today, barbed wire snags empty grocery bags as they flutter past the abandoned riverfront lot, which is wedged between an oil company, a crane yard and a small power plant. The gantries themselves have grown brown with rust, and pieces of its shell have fallen away, leaving its inner framework exposed.
Friends of Brook Park, however, envisions the space as a green crossroads where hikers, cyclers and paddlers could converge to take in the East River views and reconnect with the city’s nautical past.
“There are almost six miles of southern coast from Hunts Point to Yankee Stadium with no official access, but plenty of public space opportunities,” said Bubbins.
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, the nonprofit preservation group, said that the untapped potential of the borough’s southern shoreline was a major factor in the its decision to back the gantries project.
“The Bronx waterfront is a remarkable place that no one is really aware of,” Bankoff said. “This is one of things that we really hope to shine a light on.”
Friends of Brook Park currently is lobbying the state’s Historic Preservation Office to designate the gantries as a historic site, which would qualify it for certain grants. Several local elected officials, including Rep. José Serrano and Assemblywoman Carmen Arroyo, have sent letters to the office in support of the designation request.
Meanwhile, in order for the gantry site to become a city park, community members must send a proposal to the Parks Department asking the agency to take over control of the park. A Parks spokesman said the agency has not yet received such a proposal.
If community leaders did ask the Parks Department to manage the site, the agency would undertake "a careful examination of the property, including its history, current conditions and use, and its context in the surrounding neighborhood" before determining whether to seek control of the site, said Zachary Feder, the Parks spokesman.
But in order to get the Parks Department on board, not to mention private donors, Friends of Brook Park will need to show that the local community is enthusiastic about its redevelopment vision. And while some nearby residents say they would welcome a new park, others are more skeptical.
“That would be nice,” said Jose Ramos, who lives in a residential building on 138th Street, about a half-mile from the site. “There’s no parks or nothing around here.”
But Mayra Carrion, a mother of two who resides on Cypress Avenue, said the gantries’ industrial surroundings and their proximity to the Bruckner Expressway would discourage some locals from visiting, particularly parents of young children.
“There’s nothing over there,” said Carrion. “Who wants to cross that dangerous highway with their kids?”
Bubbins says he is confident that as more residents learn about the project and offer their input, community support will grow. He said he's much more concerned about the possibility of a private developer snatching up the space and transforming it without regard for the local community.
“Without preservation status," said Bubbins, "the community would be vulnerable to inappropriate or out of scale development."
And if that happened, he added, "we could possibly lose a potent anchor for community revitalization along the waterfront."