In December of 2016, I had the opportunity to spend the morning with Steve Smith and Ana Lavdas to learn about the rich history of and future plans for what appeared to be an empty waterfront lot, but in reality, was much more.
It was clear to me that Steve was passionate about the Bronx’s history and shares his enthusiasm about his vision for Oak Point Properties and how it ties into a resilient and sustainable future for Hunts Point. Steve showed us some of the artifacts he has found on the site over the years and described in detail how they each tie into phases of Bronx history; beautiful glass bottles that once held Bronx River drinking water, certificates for bonds to build railroads, several handguns (and even a small cannonball) from the days that the site served as a “literal dumping ground.”
Steve’s connection with the land goes as far back as the beginning of his marriage: he and Ana laugh about how he signed the final documents for the purchase in his wedding tuxedo, arriving at the ceremony to tell his soon-to-be wife, “by the way before you say I do we’re $60 million in debt”.
When asked about how his vision was shaped by working in the Bronx, Steve described a process of inadvertently finding common ground with the community:
“The City identified this property as a potential jail site and started a condemnation process that would have locked me into bankruptcy and would have taken many, many years to do and I probably would have lost everything. I opposed that jail project primarily out of my own self-interest; I wouldn’t be able to continue owning the property. But in doing so, I teamed up with the community. We all worked together, and we all succeeded in convincing the city to abandon the jail effort.”
When discussing what resiliency means to them, community members drew connections between energy resiliency, social resiliency, ecological restoration and waterfront access, workforce development and promoting local minority and women-owned businesses. Within the Hunts Point Resiliency project, the Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency and the New York City Economic Development Corporation are working closely with Hunts Point residents and stakeholders to shape our approach to building infrastructure to achieve some of these same goals.
In that vein, when the wholesale market Jetro expressed interest in purchasing part of the property and Steve saw the utility of “keeping the site high and dry” above the floodplain and an opportunity to creatively use the soil that had been excavated during the remediation process. He also installed one of the largest solar arrays in the city on Jetro’s roof, and describes the economic and resiliency benefits that Hurricane Sandy brought into focus: the area that Jetro occupies had no wind damage, no puddling, and no power outages.
Sandy was not kind to all of their property, however. After months of first working with scientists and landscape designers to understand the unique land-water interfaces of the site, including wetland areas and numerous types of bulkheads and seawalls and collaborating with Bronx ecological training groups to work with residents to learn about and plant vegetation to support the growth of wetlands, the shoreline was gutted during the storm. Their carefully planted vegetation was uprooted and a nearby pier ended up in the middle what had been a thriving multi-acre restored marsh.
These days, Steve is occupied constructing a marine terminal that will transport cement from an “extremely low environmental footprint” plant in Quebec by transporter ships that will be offloaded pneumatically at the dock to be loaded onto trucks at night and delivered around the city. He estimates this will reduce 1.5 million truck traffic miles per year, a huge environmental benefit, and is even more excited by the successful engagement he had with the Hunts Point community to “design the project so it has the least impact, and the most benefits.”
Steve believes that collaboration with the community has led to both a better project and an easier time getting approval: “It was hard to get Army Corps to pay attention because they were working on so many things after Sandy, but community groups all wrote letters of support for a large industrial project, which is out of the ordinary. In fact, every letter said, ‘we’ve never written a letter of support for such a large industrial project, but these guys have done it right, they’ve worked with us.’” Part of the plans include the wildlife conservation area, featuring 2.5 acres of nesting and feeding grounds for birds and a half-acre of public promenade that will provide public access to view this unique ecosystem and landscape without disrupting it.
As for Ana, she has started her own company to run construction on the property andis prioritizing hiring other Bronx-based MWBEs. She spoke to the importance of bringing people from the neighborhood onto her project teams.
Ana sums it up succinctly at the end of our conversation: “It’s a big vision, but I think that Steve, many years ago, got it. And people in the community taught Steve.”