MOTT HAVEN — Last summer, urban planner and longtime Mill Brook Houses resident Cesar Yoc noticed one of his neighbors planting flowers in a green space between two buildings — a small act that inspired some big ideas.
“She was putting together arrangements, and then we spoke about, oh, what can we do to this area?” he said. “This could be maybe a little park.”
Yoc, who was born in Guatemala but has lived in Mill Brook Houses for 24 years, began to visit other housing projects throughout The Bronx to check out their outdoor spaces, and he started noticing some common issues: lots of garbage and dog poop and not enough places to sit.
He channeled these observations into a plan to renovate the outdoor areas in his and other public housing complexes.
Yoc's plan, called Mill Brook Gardens, looks to "design and construct a smart, green, beautiful and inspiring common space to be enjoyed by all Mill Brook Housing residents," according to a presentation he created.
The proposal includes putting in improved lighting and amenities Yoc said the development currently lacks, like a recreation and education center for kids, signs where people can learn about the history of the neighborhood and a communal WiFi hot spot.
Yoc emphasized that his plan was meant to show the potential of NYCHA's outdoor spaces and was not limited to the Mill Brook Houses.
“A lot of these ideas go way beyond here,” he said.
Yoc's presentation on Mill Brook criticizes the development for having underused open space and lacking in diversity, as well as using iron fencing that sends a "strong negative message."
Tony Mitchell, who has lived in Mill Brook Houses for 40 years, was also unhappy with the black iron gates surrounding playgrounds, referring to them as disrespectful.
"I've never been locked up," he said. "And I don't like to have to pay my rent to feel that I am locked up."
The iron bars are present throughout NYCHA developments, Yoc said.
Sharee Gunn, who has lived in Mill Brook for 41 years, appreciated the part of Yoc's plan that would improve lighting.
"At nighttime, there are no lights around the building," she said. "When you come out at night to walk your dog or to go somewhere, it's a little scary."
Elaine James, who has lived in Mill Brook since 1965, requested more space for children in the neighborhood to do organized activities.
"There's really no place here where they can play," she said.
Yoc discussed his plan at the June Community Board 1 meeting and is now looking for an organization to help him do a financial analysis and work with NYCHA to move the project forward.
NYCHA is in the midst of planning a major rehabilitation for the Mott Haven neighborhood, including at the Betances, Mill Brook, Mitchel, Mott Haven and Patterson Houses, thanks to a $300,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Choice Neighborhoods Program.
NYCHA was awarded the grant in October 2012, and the agency intends to turn in its plan for the area this fall, after which it will compete with other plans for implementation funding from HUD.
NYCHA would take Yoc's ideas into consideration when putting together its final plan, according to spokeswoman Zodet Negrón.
The agency is taking criticism of the iron bars and lighting into account as well, she said.
"We are looking at these and working with all our partners and our residents to see how we can make these improvements," Negrón said. "We do recognize that it could be better, and that’s why we're so engaged in this process, and that's why we're looking to do this."
Yoc is hopeful he will be able to see his ideas to fruition.
“I have to be somewhat optimistic about it,” he said, “because what’s the point of doing an idea if you’re going to say it’s not going to work?”