By  on April 11, 2005

NEW YORK — The mixed-use developer The Related Cos. is best known here for the $1.6 billion Time Warner Center, home to luxury condominiums, retailers and world-class restaurants and theaters. Now it plans to build a vertical mall in one of the city’s poorest areas: the South Bronx.

The $330 million plan for the Gateway Center at the Bronx Terminal Market includes 1 million square feet of multi-level retail, a 3,000-car parking garage and a four-acre public park and esplanade along the Harlem River. The site also includes room for a 250-room hotel and a bicycle racetrack and badminton center for the 2012 Olympics, for which New York is a contending city.

Unlike Time Warner Center’s tony Central Park South neighborhood, the South Bronx is perhaps best known as a former urban disaster area. In the Seventies families left the area in droves, while commercial and residential landlords often set fire to their buildings in order to claim insurance money.

Currently, the 26-acre Related site, just south of Yankee Stadium and bordered by River Avenue to the east and 149th Street to the south, includes a handful of Twenties-era decrepit warehouses partially occupied by fruit and vegetable wholesalers. According to the New York City Economic Development Corp., the Bronx Terminal was once one of the largest Hispanic wholesale food operations in the country and was home to more than 100 businesses. Now there are fewer than 30. Some of the buildings are hazardous and slated for immediate demolition, and in the words of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the area is a “monumental eyesore.”

And there’s no place to shop.

“This is the big empty of retail in the Bronx,” Robert Ursini, senior vice president of Related Retail Corp., said Tuesday at an Urban Land Institute panel on retail development. “We hope to be open by 2009.”

Related’s plan, however, isn’t without opposition. Several city councilmen criticized it and accused Bloomberg and the assorted economic development groups involved of favoritism because Related didn’t go through a public bidding process for the land. And recently, the few dozen tenants remaining in the Bronx Terminal have sued the company to stop their eviction.“They’ve been offered a generous buyout by both the city and the developer,” said Jesse Masyr, partner at Wachtel & Masyr LLP and attorney for Related. “If they take it, we’re committed to trying to stabilize the next year for them. If they choose not to, everyone will have to exercise the appropriate legal rights.”

A call to the tenants’ attorney was not returned.

Related is currently completing its plans, and expects to have its environmental impact statement and design completed in the next 30 days, said Masyr. It will then submit the plan to the city and undergo the Uniform Land Use Review Process, for public approval, before it can break ground.

“We’re trying very hard to get over the issues we have right now,” said Rafael Salaberrios, president of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corp. at the ULI panel. “But we believe in Related’s plan.”

Retailers appear to believe in the rebirth of the Bronx, too. Though Ursini kept mum on specifics, potential tenants for the Gateway Center — Target, Sears and Home Depot — are all operating in other revitalized areas of the borough, as are a number of retail banks.

“What you give up in average household income, you make up for in volume,” said Ursini. “We expect a significant chunk of the shopping in our new center to be local residents.

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