Business / Environment / Politics

City woos FreshDirect to the South Bronx

Dissenters let city officials know what they think about Fresh Direct moving to the neighborhood at a public hearing on Feb. 9.

Advocates object to deal to keep company in NYC

Over the objections of Bronx environmentalists and many local community advocates, the online grocer FreshDirect will move to Port Morris, thanks to a package of taxpayer subsidies worth nearly $130 million.

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. announced the agreement on Feb. 7.

In return, the company has promised to add more than 600 new jobs over the next eight years and to purchase 10 all-electric refrigerated trucks that emit no pollutants, helped by $1 million in state funds, and invest $112 million to build its new headquarters.

Founded in 1999, FreshDirect has outgrown its Long Island City facility. Its search for a new home sparked a bidding war with New Jersey.

The new FreshDirect headquarters will be on a 16-acre parcel in the Harlem River Rail Yard, state-owned land leased to a real estate development company, the Galesi Group. The rail yard also houses the New York Post printing plant and the “garbage train,” on which since 2007 Waste Management has transported more than 2,000 tons of garbage a day out of the city, rankling Mott Haven residents with its noise and smell.

The public officials hailed the agreement for preserving jobs and creating new ones, including nearly 700 temporary construction jobs. They said the subsidies would ultimately pay for themselves through new economic activity.

Critics of the deal cite its high cost and the speed with which it was rushed through without public input. They complain that the location of the new plant jeopardizes plans to build a pedestrian bridge to Randall’s Island and to create public access to the waterfront, and warn that the additional truck traffic to and from FreshDirect will further foul the air in a neighborhood where asthma is epidemic.

On his blog Welcome2Melrose, Ed Garcia Conde, the self-styled Mayor of Melrose, asked, “why, Mr Diaz, was this done so sneakily behind our backs? Why weren’t we part of the process as is our right?

“I am concerned about 130 truck trips back and forth a day in my neighborhood,” Mott Haven resident Donald Dunn told a public hearing of the city’s Industrial Development Agency two days after the deal was announced. He added, “I am concerned that this plan will disrupt the development of the waterfront that we have worked so long for.”

Mychal Johnson, a member of Community Board 1′s economic development and land use committees, said at the Feb. 9 hearing that the vote to allow the move should be postponed to give residents time to learn more about it.

“Is this our only voice on something that directly affects our health, our employment, our children, our neighborhood?” Johnson asked.

His call was echoed by City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito in a letter to the city agency, in which she expressed concern over what “appears to be the lack of transparency and public input,” and questioned FreshDirect’s labor practices.

Nevertheless, on Feb. 14, the agency board voted 15-1 to approve the subsidy package. Only City Comptroller John Liu dissented, saying the price tag was too high.

For the governor, the mayor and the borough president, the key issue is jobs. “Creating almost a thousand new jobs is a real victory for the Bronx,” said Cuomo.
Citing a similar agreement to keep the Hunts Point Produce Market in its current location, Diaz gloated in an interview with Channel 7 News that “New York beats New Jersey in another food fight” and questioned how anyone in today’s economy could let jobs leave the city.

Larry Hickey, Fresh Direct’s senior vice president of business operations, said FreshDirect pays workers $12 per hour, and added that health care kicks in after six months on the job.

But the advocacy organization GoodJobsNY claimed that 40 percent of FreshDirect employees earn less than $25,000 a year.

Responding to the intense criticism, the borough president negotiated an agreement with FreshDirect that includes a promise to intensify efforts to train and hire Bronx residents for the 620 new jobs the company says it will be filling over the next eight years. It sets a target of 30 percent of non-union hires for Bronx residents.
The company also promises to have a 100 percent “green fleet” within five years.

In answer to the complaints that with the exception of Riverdale and Woodlawn FreshDirect does not serve the Bronx, the company agreed to meet with the borough president to discuss plans for expanding its delivery service in the borough.

While the agreement sets targets for employment and milestones for fulfilling its promises, it does not set aside jobs for local residents. FreshDirect agrees to seek out “qualified unemployed persons in the Bronx.” The Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, in turn, will hold training programs and job fairs to prepare and recruit workers.

“These are all just promises,” said Bettina Damiani of GoodJobsNY. “The lack of accountability is extraordinary.”

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