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The Search Is on for Healthy Food Vendors to Serve This South Bronx Plaza

Food vendors could be coming to The Hub, now that it is being rebuilt after reclamation from automobiles in 2008. Image: Garrison Architects
New food options could be coming to Roberto Clemente Plaza at the Bronx Hub. Image: Garrison Architects
Food vendors could be coming to The Hub, now that it is being rebuilt after reclamation from automobiles in 2008. Image: Garrison Architects

In the Meatpacking District, people can grab a seat and buy healthy prepared food from a vendor in a bustling plaza. But New Yorkers who live in less affluent neighborhoods tend not to have the same options -- at least not yet. A new effort aims to bring several vendors to a plaza under construction in the South Bronx.

Each of DOT's public plazas has a local partner in charge of maintenance, tasked with keeping the space clean and putting out tables and chairs each day. While well-funded business improvement districts back plazas in the city's central neighborhoods, plazas in low-income communities rely on a more diverse mix of supporters, from community development corporations to merchant associations.

Many of the city's high-profile plazas also include food kiosks or other concessions to help fund maintenance. There are 11 active plaza concessions agreements, according to DOT, but those arrangements are tougher to set up in communities with fewer resources.

Retail offerings near these plazas are often limited. Many residents who commute into Manhattan also do much of their personal spending near work, sapping local retail strips of customers. Plaza supporters in the South Bronx hope they can reverse that pattern, boosting local shopping options and funding plaza maintenance by bringing in vendors.

The idea will be tested at The Hub, a major bus and subway juncture in the South Bronx. While nearby vacancy rates are low, the retail scene -- dominated by wireless phone stores, fast food, and discount department stores -- could be serving a wider spectrum of the neighborhood's needs.

The area surrounding The Hub is among the city's poorest, with average incomes well below the rest of the Bronx and the city as a whole. Yet there is more than $658 million worth of consumer demand within just one mile of The Hub, according to the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, known as SoBro, and the Department of Small Business Services [PDF]. The organizations produced a brochure to attract retail tenants with a headline summing up the neighborhood's dilemma: "Too Many Shoppers. Not Enough Stores."

“We have over 200,000 people that travel through here [daily], and it's important that we make the space pedestrian-friendly," said Jamila Diaz, senior director of business services at SoBro. "We put in a proposal for Roberto Clemente Plaza."

The space, named for the Pirates' Hall of Famer, was reclaimed from automobile traffic in 2008 [PDF]. Since then, it's served mostly as an open area for pedestrians to walk between stores, bus stops, and the subway. A project from the Department of Design and Construction is rebuilding the plaza with permanent materials, including seating, plantings, and upgraded paving.

SoBro is negotiating with the city to take on the role of maintenance partner, and wants to see concessions as part of the mix to help fund upkeep and add new retail options for local residents.

The organization surveyed residents of 25 nearby housing developments to find out what kind of food and shopping options appealed to them. "What we discovered with the survey was that people wanted healthier options... that they couldn't find in the area," Diaz said. Salads, organic offerings, and juices were popular requests. "It's been hard for us to attract tenants who offer that."

"People sometimes have this idea that people in the South Bronx don't purchase things or don't eat that," Diaz said. "It's a great opportunity for economic development."

SoBro plans on issuing a request for proposals later this year, and wants concessionaires to get started quickly before setting up a more permanent arrangement. "We're thinking of being really creative, like making them pop-ups, or having trucks," Diaz said. "Then we would have to build out the kiosk itself."

Earlier this month, the project won a $100,000 grant from the Department of Small Business Services. The funds will help pay for the first round of vendors and to draw up a playbook to make things easier for other plaza managers in low-income communities who are interested in operating concessions.

The Neighborhood Plaza Partnership works with more than two dozen plazas and is putting together a best practices report.

“There are some good models of how an RFP is written," said Laura Hansen, NPP's managing director. Most examples, however, are from plazas in high-rent Manhattan neighborhoods and not areas like the South Bronx.

"We’re doing a lot of thinking about how you craft an RFP that makes sense for the neighborhood," she said. "This is our chance to help people figure it out."

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