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Big plans for Oak Point

BEST Academy workers planted trees on this site on Oak Point Ave. over the summer.

New wetlands rises; food distribution facility in the works

A newly planted three-acre wetland and plans for a new food storage and distribution facility are the latest signs of change in one quickly evolving corner of Hunts Point.

Hundreds of recently planted trees and shrubs now stand on the new nature preserve along the East River waterfront on the site of the Oak Point rail yard, where the city abandoned plans to build a jail two years ago. The wetland is part of a 16-acre parcel owned by Connecticut-based developer Steven Smith, who sided with neighborhood activists who fought to keep the city from taking the land.

But the preserve is just a small part of Smith’s bigger overall plan to transform the parcel. Two years ago, the developer sold 12 acres from the original 28-acre site to food wholesale giant, Jetro Cash and Carry, which last year opened a 200,000 square-foot food supply outlet across from where the saplings now stand.

Now Smith wants to build a three-story building on the remaining 13 acres next to the wetland, with 20,000 square feet of refrigerated space. The facility would supply produce to Jetro and other big food distributors, he said, adding he opted to create the wetland when the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation told him the lot would be an ideal spot for a protected habitat for birds and wild vegetation. North and South Brother Islands, both uninhabited nesting grounds for birds, are a few hundred feet offshore from the site.

“People will be able to walk along. There will be little shops, and they can see the birds,” Smith predicted.

Although visitors will not be allowed on the preserve, Smith says, users of the South Bronx Greenway nearby would be able to see it from a 30-ft. walkway the developer wants to build.

Native trees and aquatic plants will help prevent erosion on the site, said Michael Brotchner, executive director of the environmental non-profit Sustainable South Bronx. Graduates from the organization’s BEST Academy training program spent six weeks planting trees and shrubs on the site this summer.

“There is a huge synergy between the second phase of Oak Point campus and Jetro,” Smith said, estimating the new site will cost $85 million to build, and may open as soon as 2014.

As a means of minimizing any additional truck traffic to Hunts Point’s notoriously congested streets, Smith says he will seek to use barge and rail transportation to get some of the food to and from the new hub.

Paul Lipson, the former chief of staff for Congressman Jose E. Serrano, who is consulting on the project, said the projected complex will be a natural fit for the area, and will not compete with the Terminal Produce Market a few miles away.

“We are complementary to the Food Markets–we’re really a boutique operation,” said Lipson, adding plans also include a smaller retail market that would sell food to the public.

“There are social benefits as well as private returns to this project,” he said.

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