How a basic Bronx supermarket rezoning devolved into food fight

Local developers aiming to bring new housing and commerce to the low-density neighborhood have faced stiff pushback

Marjorie Velázquez with Bruckner Boulevard (Getty, NYC Department of City Planning, iStock)
Marjorie Velázquez with Bruckner Boulevard (Getty, NYC Department of City Planning, iStock)

UPDATED 5/23/22 11:08am How hard would you fight to save a batting cage and 12 vacant parcels in your quasi-suburban Bronx neighborhood? Pretty hard, if you wanted to keep 339 apartments — some of them affordable — out of your backyard.

In what project supporters call a classic case of Nimbyism, hundreds of Throggs Neck residents are rallying against the development proposed for their community’s main thoroughfare.

A rezoning sought by several longtime area businessmen would allow for four buildings no taller than eight stories — modest by New York standards, but beyond the pale for some members of this quiet corner of the Bronx.

It seems to have made little difference that the applicants have run businesses in the area for decades.

“We’re not your Tishman, not your L&L,” said Peter Bivona, a member of the development group and part-owner of a Super Foodtown supermarket in the neighborhood. “We’re a part of the fabric of our community, and the community is turning against us. That’s where our feelings got hurt.”

The drama began in July when Bivona and fellow Bronx business and landowners applied for an upzoning along Bruckner Boulevard. Working as Throggs Neck Associates, they planned four developments with the 339 apartments, a revamped supermarket, and 54,000 square feet of commercial space.

Residents of the sprawling neighborhood have vehemently opposed the project in online petitions, public meetings and op-eds.

The developers’ problems worsened in September, when the district’s incoming Council member Marjorie Velázquez asked them to delay their application until she took office in January. Citing infrastructure concerns, she came out against the project after taking her seat, which under the Council’s tradition of member deference would force the developers to change it to her liking.

“It is paramount that any new development in our community addresses existing inequities; and due to the current lack of existing infrastructure, such as adequate school space, parking, public transportation, and other needs and environmental issues, I cannot endorse this project,” Velázquez told TRD.

Bivona has run the Super Foodtown at 2945 Bruckner Boulevard with his brother Joseph since the two bought it in 2001. Peter Bivona says the store’s annual tax bill has reached nearly $250,000, and they have to revamp the grocery and add apartments above it to keep the property afloat.

“It’s a grind. Our expenses are climbing like crazy and employees are hard to find. We need a way to capitalize on our investment from 22 years ago,” Bivona said.

Another pair of brothers, Franco and Marco Marciano, control a broad swatch of the development site through Civita Holding Corporation, public records show. Much of their portfolio is vacant land, but if rezoned it could host 86 apartments and 13,400 square feet of commercial space. It would include the tallest building of the four proposed structures: 84 feet, or eight stories.

The development group includes a third set of brothers, Peter and Louis Zuccarello, who ran a garden shop until it was driven under by a Home Depot. They own a series of low-rise commercial spaces along Bruckner Boulevard hosting a florist and a batting cage, among other businesses. Next door, marine scientist James Cervino owns a property formerly held by notorious landlord Jacob Selechnik, dubbed “Jake the Snake” by tenant advocates long ago.

“Instead of keeping it abandoned, run-down empty lots, they decided to develop it,” Bivona said of the Zuccarellos.

Local activists say the developments would overwhelm local infrastructure and the low density that defines the area. They have protested at community board meetings and outside the Super Foodtown.

“We acknowledge that part of Bruckner Boulevard has had empty commercial storefronts for years,” local community board heads Joseph Russo and Matt Cruz wrote in the Bronx Times. “Bronx Community Board No. 10 remains ready to find businesses to occupy vacant storefronts. However, such development cannot come at the expense of the community.”

One key statistic has emerged from hours of community board fights as a kind of Nimby Rorschach test. The proposed developments would add 94 apartments fitting the city’s definition of affordable. Since 2014, the entire community district that includes Throggs Neck has produced just 58 such homes, according to a report from the New York Housing Conference.

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In other words, the developments would produce more than five times as many units as the area has built in the last eight years. To supporters, notably yes-in-my-backyard group Open New York, that’s a sorely needed policy correction. To opponents, that’s too much for the area’s already-taxed resources.

“These people, they want to keep the community the way it is,” Bivona said. “They don’t want affordable housing because everybody in that community bought their house for $30,000. They’re fine.”

The area’s current lack of housing production is intentional. In 2004, the Bloomberg administration added it to the city’s Low Density Growth Management Areas. The designation downzoned neighborhoods and promoted suburban-style sprawl by raising parking requirements for projects, limiting density and encouraging larger yards. Every other neighborhood in the program is on Staten Island.

The handful of affordable homes built in Throggs Neck’s Community District 13 in recent years are not exactly low-income housing: A family of three with an income of $198,000 — nearly triple the district’s median household income — would still qualify for one. The new developments’ apartments would be for households making no more than 80 percent of the area median income.

In most of the city’s 59 community districts, proposals are typically criticized for not providing enough affordable housing. The Throggs Neck opponents argue that this one provides too much. At a Community Board 10 hearing about it Thursday night, five people came over to Open New York’s Will Thomas to yell at him; Thomas tweeted that one called him a “fucking clown.”

Some local resources are strained, but environmental forecasts predict only a slight impact from the projects. If approved, the new residents would bring the local elementary schools’ utilization rate — the number of students divided by the school’s capacity — to 145 percent, according to the rezoning’s environmental impact statement, a severe level of overcrowding. But the estimated 82 new elementary school students would only increase the number of students by 3 percent.

The developers don’t have financing for the projects yet. “We can’t even secure zoning!” Bivona said.

As the tumult spilled out into the local press, the developers have found or hired several allies with experience in land use disputes.

Steven Sinacori, a real estate attorney at Akerman, helped connect the developers and is providing advice on the land use review process, which takes up to seven months. William Bollinger, a longtime development consultant for JCAL Development Group, has helped the developers navigate the specifics of development. After more than a year of pushback from neighborhood residents, the Marino Organization was brought in to handle public relations.

Members of Open New York, which endorsed Velázquez in her campaign, recently voted overwhelmingly to get involved in the rezoning battle. The pro-housing group plans to turn out local members to give Council member Velázquez a basis of community support, according to its political director Logan Phares.

“We see it as our job to turn out and give her the backup she would need to support the project,” Phares said.

The strategy has worked in some areas, but this is Open New York’s first try in Throggs Neck. At Thursday night’s hearing, the developers’ representative tried to ease the concerns of locals, telling them they are not proposing a homeless shelter or Section 8 housing, and they are not Antifa, Thomas reported.

When he said they weren’t trying to make a fast buck, the crowd yelled for two minutes, and a board official told the audience they were making the community look bad, according to Thomas.

Velázquez sent a letter saying she does not support the project in its current state, but did not attend the hearing, citing threats made against her. The board — up to 50 local volunteers appointed by former Council members and the borough president — then cast its advisory vote against the rezoning.

The vote that really matters, Velázquez’s, is a few months off.

This story was updated to include comment from Council member Velázquez.