SOUTH BRONX — The controversial Piano District billboard was never supposed to be controversial, according to the developer behind the now famous sign.
Keith Rubenstein, founder and principal of Somerset Partners, said that the billboard by the Third Avenue Bridge was just meant to promote his upcoming developments and pay tribute to the period of Mott Haven's history when it was known as a hub for manufacturing pianos.
"We didn’t mean to offend anybody or infer that we were rebranding the entire neighborhood. That wasn't the intention of or the meaning behind the billboard," he said. "Obviously, there were a lot of people offended, so we listened to those comments and the people who made them, and we took it down."
The strong reaction that locals had to the sign, such as the creation of the hashtag #WhatPianoDistrict, took Rubenstein by surprise.
However, once he did some more neighborhood outreach, he came to understand where they were coming from, he said.
"After hearing some of the people’s descriptions of it and listening to what their reaction to it was, I can understand how they could have inferred that it was a rebranding of the neighborhood when in fact it was not," he said.
Somerset Partners teamed up with The Chetrit Group to purchase two South Bronx sites at 101 Lincoln Ave. and 2401 Third Ave. for $58 million, and they plan to turn the area into a retail and residential complex.
The development itself may still have a name, but Rubenstein stressed that they did not have to call it the Piano District if people found that offensive.
Rubenstein is helping to open a new coffee shop, art gallery and design studio in the neighborhood as well, and he hopes to provide locals with job and training opportunities that would let them benefit from the new businesses coming to the neighborhood.
He has met with the neighborhood group South Bronx Unite to discuss his ideas and said he is encouraged that many of their goals for the community are the same, such as improving local schools and public access to the waterfront.
"We’re pretty much aligned on all of the issues that are important to them, that they have been advocating for on behalf of the community for years," he said.
Rubenstein maintained that he and the group could accomplish these goals by working together, noting that the development he is building on the water will include a public esplanade that will provide access to restaurants.
South Bronx Unite member Mychal Johnson said he was happy about Rubenstein's commitment to improving waterfront access but cautioned that actions spoke louder than words.
"He can be a strong partner in that," he said. "He says he’s 150 percent behind the idea and fully committed to it happening, so let’s see how much action he can put forth to making that happen."
Two-bedroom apartments in the residential and retail complex will likely rent for between $3,000 and $3,500, and although he would not provide specifics yet, Rubenstein said he is also working on a project that would bring more affordable housing to the area.
"If and when that happens, I’ll be very pleased to announce it, and I think that the community and the local government will also be pleased," he said.
He emphasized that the most important thing he learned from the anger over the Piano District billboard and the controversial party his company and The Chetrit Group held in October was the importance of talking to locals as his plans for the South Bronx move forward.
"It just became really evident that we needed to make sure that everybody understood that we were not in this to build buildings and turn our back to the community," he said. "We wanted to help the community achieve some of the goals that they’ve been working so hard to achieve for many years."
"He has to be part of the fabric here," he said. "You just can’t put up a building and not know what’s going on on the ground here, some of the things that people are going through here."