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Port Morris Merchants Unite to Prod Neighborhood's Redevelopment

By Patrick Wall | October 17, 2012 10:30am

PORT MORRIS — A trio of trendy hangouts along Bruckner Boulevard has teamed up with a handful of nearby businesses to entice visitors and investors alike to reconsider a neighborhood that burst onto the scene last decade, but has progressed fitfully since then.

The people behind the Bruckner Bar and Grill, Clock Bar and Ceetay, a new sushi bar, met with the owners of Verde Flowers and restaurants Wish 37 and El Habanero over the summer and agreed to form a merchants group, which expects to gain nonprofit status this month.

Their idea is to coordinate spending and outreach to lure new customers to their corner of the southernmost Bronx, along with investment by the city and private developers.

“The group will have one voice — a strong voice — to help the area grow stronger,” said Alex Abeles, Bruckner’s owner and a partner in Ceetay. “Right now, people don’t have a reason to come to the area unless they’re coming to one of our restaurants.”

Port Morris had for decades plugged along as a riverside manufacturing strip before zoning changes in 1997 and 2005 allowed for new residential and commercial uses north of Bruckner Boulevard.

Around the time an old piano factory on Lincoln Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard was converted into lofts in the early 2000s, followed by the opening of the Bruckner Bar and Grill in 2006, a throng of artists and young professionals surged in, hunting cheap rents and the next hot neighborhood.

The Lincoln Avenue loft building, called the Clock Tower, is now fully occupied, with 95 studio to three-bedroom units that rent for about $1,200 to $2,500 a month, according to the management firm. Nearby, a smattering of new restaurants has joined the Bruckner, most recently Ceetay and Clock Bar at the base of the tower.

But if some expected the artists and the upscale eateries and apartments to ignite a Williamsburg-style redevelopment boom, that hasn’t quite happened.

“It’s definitely a slow transition,” said David Simone, first vice president of sales for Massey Knaka Realty Services.

Unlike waterfront stretches of Brooklyn, where deserted factories gave way to high-end condominiums, the area south of Bruckner Boulevard along the Harlem River still bustles with industry.

Demand for local real estate has rebounded since the market crash, but more for industrial than residential space, Simone said, citing the district's distance from the nearest subway station and its scarce shopping options.

"It’s definitely a changing neighborhood," he said. "But it still lacks a lot of the essential services and retail."

The merchants group convened partly to jumpstart this uneven redevelopment.

One way they hope to do this is by convincing people from other parts of the borough, and even from around the city, that this sliver of The Bronx is a "destination" neighborhood.

With the help of the nonprofit SoBRO, they have pruned trees along the boulevard and will install planters. They also approached the city's Department of Transportation about adding metered parking spaces.

Visitor brochures and a website may be on the horizon, along with more joint events with groups like the Bronx Museum and the Bronx Council on the Arts.

“Everyone comes into our establishment and says, ‘This is a great place, we just never knew about it,’” said Michael Brady, Clock Bar’s general manager.

The group’s other major objective is to spur investment in the neighborhood.

Brady said he has spoken with Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers about the possibility of opening a book and art supply store in the neighborhood. Other merchants pine for a local grocery or pharmacy.

The group also plans to seek federal redevelopment grants and to lobby the city for infrastructure improvements.

City agencies “have not committed there what they have committed to every other place,” said Marlene Cintron, president of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, who said her agency mainly funds small loans for individual firms, rather than broad redevelopment projects.

“The city should be in it 90 percent and then me with my 10 percent,” she added.

Of course, not every local business owner is sold on the value of a merchants group or buys the idea that more foot traffic means more sales.

Mary Brimage, who has run Thrift World Antiques in locations around Bruckner Boulevard since 1997, said few of the people who frequent the new restaurants venture into her store.

“I don’t see nothing different,” said Brimage, 68. “It’s all hype, trust me.”