Advocate Turned City Planner Helps Reimagine the Sheridan Expressway

By Patrick Wall on July 11, 2013 9:54am 

THE BRONX — One evening last month, a city planner in a red cardigan faced a crowd of residents and advocates gathered in a high school auditorium in Soundview and launched into a brisk presentation about a study.

This was no ordinary study: it had taken $1.5 million and over two years to complete, settling on an elaborate suite of recommendations that could transform a major Bronx highway network and the communities around it.

And this was no ordinary city planner: Tawkiyah Jordan is a former advocate who came to the Department of City Planning from Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, a venerable South Bronx nonprofit that is part of an alliance of groups that partnered with the city on the study, but at times clashed with it as well.

But as she spoke for the city at that June meeting, sometimes to answer probing questions by an audience steeped in the issues, Jordan felt no prick of discomfort about switching sides.

“I guess I don’t see it as being on the other side,” Jordan said in an interview this week.

“My goals are the same, as well as my outlook,” she added, “which is, this is a really great community — and I want to see it better in the future.”

A native New Yorker who spent much of her adolescence working in a Bronx youth center run by her mother, Jordan studied urban planning in Michigan and worked as a planner in a few towns there before returning to The Bronx and applying for a job at Youth Ministries.

Since it began in the 90s, the agency has tried to help revitalize the neighborhoods around the southern portion of the Bronx River, as well as the river itself.

When Jordan arrived in 2006, she coordinated Youth Ministries’ long-term community development projects — cleaning the Bronx River, revamping Starlight Park, connecting the waterfront greenway, re-envisioning the troubled Sheridan Expressway.

Much of her job involved asking residents to describe the urban world where they lived, then imagining with them ways to make it look and feel how they dreamed it might.

So when they thought about how to keep sewage overflows out of the river, they didn’t envision new pipes and drains, but rather tree pits that would collect rainwater while beautifying the block — an idea the city embraced.

Planners “are not ‘the expert’ coming to help a community that doesn’t know anything,” Jordan said. “The community has an expertise that we don’t.”

In 2011, the city’s planning agency hired Jordan as its manager for a major project: the multiagency, federally funded study centered on the Sheridan Expressway — a short, underused highway that local groups had long sought to remove and replace with housing and public spaces.

The five city agencies involved in the study analyzed the Sheridan, but also the area around it, including its sidewalks, intersections, lighting, stores, housing, parks and waterfront spaces.

During this long process, Jordan met often with community members, helping host walking tours of the study area, visioning workshops and even an exhibit about the study in a local art gallery. (Advocates note that it was their community organizing that galvanized many residents to attend these public-input events.)

Jordan estimates that about 80 percent of the city’s final recommendations for the Sheridan and the area — which include transforming the highway into a pedestrian-friendly boulevard and expanding the Bronx River greenway — either originated with or were shaped by residents and advocates.

“I think a major reason the recommendations turned out as good as they did is because of Tawkiyah’s sensitivity to and knowledge of the issues,” said Elena Conte, an organizer at the Pratt Center for Community Development, which is part of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance, the coalition formed in 1999 to address local concerns about the Sheridan.

But there was one major proposal, which the Alliance had championed since its inception, that the city did not adopt — tearing down the Sheridan.

Last year, the city abruptly nixed that option from the study, prompting outcries from the Alliance and claims that the city had put politics before the interests of the community. (The city was in lease negotiations with tenants of the Hunts Point food distribution center at the time, some of whom opposed removing the Sheridan.)

Suddenly, Jordan faced former colleagues who felt the city had rebuffed the will of residents — a feeling that persists among some.

“I feel like we’ve been sold out,” Cerita “CP” Parker, an Alliance member, said at the June meeting. “The community wanted the Sheridan to be shut down — that obviously went over everybody’s heads.”

For her part, Jordan said that residents hold “extremely diverse” views about removing the Sheridan and that the city’s decision on the matter centered on traffic concerns, not politics.

Today, the Alliance is focused on making sure the study’s recommendations are approved, funded and implemented.

And so is Jordan, who helped shepherd the study as both an advocate and city planner.

“This is not the end,” she said. “It’s just the beginning of the next phase.”

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