SOUTH BRONX — A new billboard put up near the Third Avenue Bridge boldly proclaims that Port Morris has officially turned into the Piano District — adding more fuel to the neighborhood's contentious debate about gentrification.
The billboard, located right by the intersection of Bruckner Boulevard and the Third Avenue Bridge, features a background consisting of black and white piano keys and promises viewers that "luxury waterfront living" is on its way to the South Bronx, along with "world-class dining, fashion, art + architecture."
The sign bears the logos of Somerset Partners and The Chetrit Group, the companies that joined together to buy two properties along the Harlem River at 2401 Third Ave. and 101 Lincoln Ave. for $58 million with plans to turn them into a residential community featuring retail.
Keith Rubenstein, founder and principal of Somerset Partners, did not respond to a request for comment but has previously spoken of his hope to rebrand the neighborhood as the Piano District based on its history as a hub for manufacturing pianos.
The sign has hit a nerve with some South Bronx residents who view it as an indication that their longtime worries about gentrification in the neighborhood could now be coming true.
"It’s proclaiming some fears that people have [about] the community being changed to something that may lead to displacement, or a difference between one side of the neighborhood and the other because of luxury housing being built," said Mychal Johnson, a longtime environmental advocate for The Bronx.
"We’ve seen from other areas of the city what that can look like, and it's concerning to many," he continued.
Real estate forecasters have been naming the South Bronx waterfront as the city's next hot spot for years, and although those predictions never fully came to fruition, investors are bullish on the neighborhood once again, especially as waterfront properties in Queens and Brooklyn have become increasingly unaffordable.
"I think there’s a leap to start calling it the Piano District," he said. "I think people should look at it as a district that is changing, that is growing, that has many things to offer existing residents and people that are looking to relocate there. And a name does not change the vibrancy of this district."
Sam Toosi, manager of the nearby Charlie's Bar and Kitchen, has long been confident that the South Bronx will become a revitalized part of the city and said he thought the Piano District could become a lasting name for the area.
"I think the people that are behind the billboard and the recent real estate purchases are capable of making the rebranding and the repackaging of the neighborhood take off," he said. "I think they’ve sunk a lot of money into the neighborhood now, and they're not just going to watch that money blow out the window."