Locals throw tomatoes at FreshDirect Bronx relocation

A controversial plan for the online grocery giant FreshDirect to move from Queens to a state-owned site in the South Bronx must be cleared by the City Planning Commission — and local residents will be gathering Wednesday night to make their objections heard.

The meeting at Bronx Community Board 1 comes a week after the community group South Bronx Unite filed a legal appeal in State Supreme Court in the Bronx seeking to block the new facility.

FreshDirect trucks deliver groceries in much of the New York City region — and Bronx residents want to keep its city headquarters out of their neighborhood. Matt Peyton/AP Images for FreshDirect

FreshDirect trucks deliver groceries in much of the New York City region — and South Bronx residents want to keep company headquarters from moving to their neighborhood. Matt Peyton/AP Images for FreshDirect

The organization originally sued in March, only to have its case tossed out on mostly technical grounds by a judge last month.

With significant aid from the city and state, the grocer is poised to relocate to the Harlem River Yard at East 132nd Street, which has been leased to a private company.

According to a 1990s land-use plan, part of the roughly 100-acre piece of land is zoned for the use of a rail yard.

FreshDirect’s 2011 application to the city Industrial Development Agency, which has pledged subsidies to the company, had indicated that no zoning changes were necessary.

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for FreshDirect told The New York World: “We are pursuing a slight modification to the original HRY development plan from 1995 that requires approval from the City Planning Commission and the Mayor’s Office.”

Opponents claim the online grocery store would add to the neighborhood’s environmental and health burdens as well as increase truck traffic on already congested streets.

According to Christina Giorgio of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which is representing South Bronx Unite, before FreshDirect can build on the site, the grocery giant will have to obtain a zoning override from Empire State Development Corp. “This is a long drawn-out process,” said Giorgio, “that requires a public hearing and comments.”

Kathleen Schmid, a city attorney in the environmental law division, confirmed in an email that the Bloomberg administration and the company are exploring zoning changes. “The city is currently working with Fresh Direct to identify any necessary land-use actions prior to the company’s relocation,” she said.

Schmid said that the judge hearing the community lawsuit “properly found that the New York City Industrial Development Agency’s environmental review of Fresh Direct’s relocation to the Harlem River Yard was conducted in accordance with law and properly identified that there will be no significant adverse environmental impacts.”

The city, said Schmid, is confident that the judge’s decision will be upheld on appeal.

South Bronx Unite charges that the arrival of FreshDirect will rob the neighborhood of a proposed new public-access waterfront and will worsen already high rates of asthma in the area.

“We have enough already,” said South Bronx Unite member Mychal Johnson, an 11-year resident of Mott Haven and a former member of Community Board 1. “We have too much.” According to Johnson, FreshDirect’s relocation would add roughly 1,000 diesel trucks to a congested area.

The South Bronx already houses a printing plant for the New York Post and a FedEx distribution facility, as well as a waste transfer station and power plants.

A 1995 covenant tied to the state-owned land stipulates that an intermodal transportation terminal is to be built on the site, meant to improve regional air quality and reduce road and bridge congestion by replacing trucks with railroad cars. 

If Harlem River Yard Ventures aims to modify “the Development Plan,” the covenant states, “HRYV agrees that no such use shall be undertaken and no building permit shall be applied for or issued for any such use or development, until the city has approved such use or development.”

The covenant also mandates that any proposed change to the Harlem River Yard not interfere with the intermodal terminal or cause overutilization of nearby streets.

According to an engineer’s deposition in the lawsuit, “The proposed Fresh Direct project would eliminate any possibility of operating the intermodal terminal,” by occupying land needed for the facility.

South Bronx Unite has gathered nearly 800 signatures against FreshDirect through an online petition, and 45 New York City organizations have signed on to voice their opposition, Johnson said.

While FreshDirect presented its plan at a June Community Board 1 meeting, residents were still unsatisfied, according to Harry Bubbins, a Mott Haven resident as well as one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

“There has been no community input,” Bubbins said.

The plan has received the endorsement of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who announced FreshDirect’s move in February 2012.

“This project was announced as a done deal before a public hearing,” Giorgio said. “It was a done deal before the community has the chance to do anything.”

It’s unclear when the case will appear in front of the appellate court, Giorgio said. But for the residents and community groups in the South Bronx, the fight isn’t over.

“I’m confident we’re going to stop this,” Bubbins said.

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