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Eco-Activist Looks to 'Harness the Power of Gentrification' in Hunts Point

By Patrick Wall | July 26, 2012 2:34pm

HUNTS POINT — To many, the dreaded G word — gentrification — signals an influx of outsiders intent on refashioning a neighborhood to their liking, complete with glass condo towers and restaurants.

But to Majora Carter, the Bronx-born green guru who has just launched a real estate development nonprofit, the process can become a community-led act of reinvestment and renewal.

“I want to figure out a way to harness the power of gentrification,” said Carter, 45, calling real estate development a “platform” for “social, environmental and economic change.”

Four years after leaving the green jobs nonprofit she founded in Hunts Point to launch a for-profit consulting firm, Carter has returned to the neighborhood where she was raised and still lives to pilot the new development-minded nonprofit.

The fledgling group’s first project, Carter hopes, could be the transformation of the massive juvenile detention center on Spofford Avenue, which the city shuttered last year, into a housing, healthcare and culinary school complex.

But before Carter submits a proposal for the site, she will need to convince community leaders with an ingrained distrust of developers that she is not like the rest.

“She started as somebody in [environmental justice] fighting for the community,” said Maria Torres, president of nonprofit The Point, where Carter once worked.

“Now she’s coming back as a developer,” Torres said. “Especially in real estate, that’s a minefield.”

Over a few eventful years in the early 2000s, Carter founded the nonprofit Sustainable South Bronx, spearheaded the creation of the popular Hunts Point Riverside Park, helped establish an early green jobs training program and won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

In 2008, she left her nonprofit post to start the Majora Carter Group, a for-profit green development consultancy, and to host “The Promised Land,” an award-winning radio show. Both gigs, along with regular speaking engagements, often pulled her away from The Bronx.

But lately, her sights seem set on Hunts Point.

Her firm is surveying local residents and leaders about their hopes for the community. Last month, she announced plans to open a tech startup incubator in the neighborhood.

And, in a decidedly lower-tech push for revitalization, her group has been handing out free “Pick It Up” signs aimed at neighborhood dog owners.

Carter describes these efforts, along with her new real estate-centered nonprofit, as “hometown security” — the notion that struggling communities need a holistic mix of economic activity, clean air and water and attractive housing to become stable.

While her work linking economic and environmental projects made her famous, her plan to convert the Spofford site into a mixed-use apartment building would represent her first major foray into housing.

“Suffice it to say, Majora plans to disrupt the affordable-housing world to a similar extent that she disrupted the environmental and anti-poverty fields with her work in the previous decade,” said James Chase, the firm’s vice president of communications and marketing, and Carter’s husband.

Specifically, that could mean mixed-income affordable apartments, an urgent care center and a culinary job-training program inside the 164,000-square-foot behemoth on Spofford Avenue, between Tiffany and Barretto streets — where Carter’s father worked as a janitor when the building was still an infamous juvenile detention center.

Carter’s new nonprofit, called Hometown Security Laboratories, would develop the complex as part of a wider Hunts Point redevelopment plan, which could include revamping local storefronts, advising small business owners and helping homeowners capitalize on the value of their property.

As the area livens up and newcomers are drawn to the inexpensive real estate, Carter said, her agency will attempt “community transition management” — welcoming new residents and investors, while preventing old-timers from cashing out and leaving.

For now, any specific plans for the Spofford site are just a wish list.

Before the city will even ask for developers’ proposals for the site, officials must meet with community members and stakeholders to hear their ideas for the space — a process that could last up to a year, according to Eric Bederman, spokesman for the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

Meanwhile, Carter is talking to local leaders about the site and pitching her preliminary vision for its future.

Rafael Salamanca Jr., district manager of Community Board 2, said Carter presented her Spofford proposal to a board committee in the spring. While the members were receptive to her plan, they also want to hear from other potential developers, Salamanca said.

“They want to hear multiple ideas from different organizations,” he said.

But other board members suggested that some neighborhood leaders may be initially skeptical about Carter’s return to Hunts Point redevelopment.

In fact, Sustainable South Bronx, the nonprofit that Carter founded in 2001 and ran until 2008, has so far declined to meet with Carter, according to Chase, her husband.

Michael Brotchner, the agency’s current executive director, would not comment on Carter’s latest venture, saying only, “Majora Carter is no longer affiliated with Sustainable South Bronx.”

Chase said he hopes that Carter’s “proven track record,” as well as her choice to live, work and invest in the community over many years will eventually ease any concerns about her new project.

Eventually, Chase added, other developers will eye the Spofford site, but, “None of them will be as committed to this community and the South Bronx in general as Majora Carter.”