Bronx residents furious over public plaza that’s been unusable for years

THE HUB, the Bronx -- It's a public plaza but the general public hasn't had access to it for years, even though they're the ones paying for the open gathering space.

The situation has angered residents of a Bronx community for most of the last decade and on Tuesday, elected officials brought together residents, community activists and businesses to rally Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration to complete a project they say has gone unfinished for far too long.

Abdou Mohammed, who manages a deli that faces the plaza on Third Avenue, said the construction fences and road barriers that have kept the plaza shut down for most of this decade have had a chilling effect on businesses.

"Too many stores is closed," Mohammed said.

His deli is next door to two vacant storefronts, each with "For Rent" signs out front.

He agreed with other residents who said the situation is contrary to what they've expected in this section of the Bronx, where six streets, two subway lines, eight bus lines and thousands of pedestrians per hour all come together in a large intersection.

The plaza, which was set up by the closure of a block of Willis Avenue 10 years ago, was intended to add order and access to a public space. Instead, the public is none too pleased.

"We need it finished so we can sit in the park," resident Wanda Smith said. "We have to walk in the street against two-lane traffic just because the park is closed."

Smith, like dozens of other pedestrians every minute, has to walk in Third Avenue traffic in order to reach the many transportation options at The Hub. It's because the pedestrian plaza has had no access while it's been under construction for the last five years.

Because of situations like that, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer said he felt compelled to organize a rally of activists and residents.

"Hopefully, this will shake the bureaucracy to get something done," Stringer said.

One of the other organizers of the rally was City Councilman Rafael Salamanca, who represents the district.

"We started the design for this project in 2009," Salamanca said at the rally. "Here we are in August 2018 and this project has not been completed."

Salamanca, Stringer and other participants in the protest blame the city's Department of Design and Construction for the lengthy delays. The DDC is leading the project that's not only long overdue, but also way over budget, according to the local business improvement district.

"It went from a $300,000 project and now we're just shy of $13 million," said Michael Brady, executive director of the Third Avenue B.I.D.

It was unwelcome information for Tina Meade, who lives in the South Bronx and pays taxes there.

"All they did was put up a couple of benches," she said. "That's not worth $12 million."

Even more funding has gone to waste, according to Brady. He said that because the B.I.D. had been told by the city that the plaza would be completed by November 2015, he had, on more than one occasion, finalized contracts for public events to be held there since then.

"From Zumba instructors, to tai chi, to movies on the plaza" -- they all had to be canceled, he said.

But instead of those events that might have brought the broader community together at the plaza, the public space remained shut down, Brady said. The space features a large open area next to a large infinity pool-like fountain, which is not yet operable.

PIX11 News observed, however, that the plaza is getting at least limited use from an unintended clientele. The 1/6th of an acre space is littered with hypodermic needles. Clearly, abusers of illegal drugs have had no problem shooting up in the park.

It's a situation that's left residents, local businesses, community activists and elected officials in agreement that Roberto Clemente Plaza, a public space named after a sports hero and activist, remains disappointingly inactive.

The DDC issued a statement to PIX11 News about the severe delay of its planned public space opening.

"DDC understands and shares the community’s frustration with the delays of the restoration of Roberto Clemente Plaza, which was caused primarily by the contractor’s bankruptcy after the project was already underway," the statement reads. "The project is now very close to completion, and awaits a final component for the fountain. We look forward to opening a beautiful new public space with the community within the next few weeks."

PIX11 News intends to follow up on this story to see if the plaza opens before autumn begins.