Suit asks judge to order a new environmental study
A lawsuit filed by a public interest law firm on behalf of several Mott Haven residents says the city pushed through a deal to provide $130 million in subsidies to food delivery company FreshDirect far more quickly than it should have, to avoid scrutiny and to ensure quick approval of its deal while steamrolling any opposition.
The suit asks a judge to order the city to conduct a comprehensive environmental review to determine whether the 2,000 daily truck trips the plaintiffs say the company would add to the area would have a harmful impact on a neighborhood already saddled with the city’s highest asthma rates.
On the front steps of the Bronx County Courthouse on the Grand Concourse, an attorney for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest publicly announced the filing of the suit on June 13. About two-dozen Mott Haven residents applauded it.
The plaintiffs contend the city relied on an outdated assessment of the Harlem River Yards in Port Morris when it should have conducted a new full-scale environmental impact statement, rather than a brief review. They say the pollution from FreshDirect truck trips per day rolling through the streets of Mott Haven and Port Morris will far outweigh any benefits the company promises it will bring by creating jobs.
“The job thing they’re trying to flash in front of our eyes is backed with nothing,” said Alexander Avenue resident Libertad Guerra, 37.
“Two-thousand trucks in a neighborhood, even if they were electric, the traffic [builds up],” Guerra added.
The company says that number is wildly exaggerated.
FreshDirect signed a non-binding agreement with Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. shortly after the city deal was announced in February, saying it will create up to 620 local jobs over the next eight years and convert to an all-electric trucking fleet within five years.
“These are vital environmental issues. They have to withstand scrutiny of the public and be up to snuff,” said Gavin Kearney, the attorney who filed the suit, adding the city “ignored the fundamental way the neighborhood has changed” since an Environmental Impact Statement was conducted in 1993 to determine the effect of train traffic and trucks serving the Harlem River Yards.
“The city is saying, ‘That’s okay, because there was a proposal 19 years ago and that would have been worse,’” said Kearney. “You can’t just railroad this thing through. This neighborhood is particularly vulnerable.”
In an email to the Herald, FreshDirect’s CEO Jason Ackerman countered that the plaintiffs and their attorneys are wrong about the number of truck trips his company will make, adding “It’s unfortunate that this small and vocal group is trying to deny local residents the jobs and benefits FreshDirect will bring to the Bronx.”
“A thorough environmental impact review was conducted that shows the new facility will generate far fewer truck trips and less traffic when compared to the 1993 approved uses of the Harlem River Yard,” Ackerman wrote, adding an engineering firm hired by the company found there would be “no adverse air quality impacts” created by the move.
The environmental assessment commissioned by the company this year in anticipation of its move to Port Morris says that 469 trucks will go to and from the FreshDirect facility, for a total of 938 trips. Employees commuting by car to and from work will add another 1006 trips.
In a letter to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Ackerman characterized many of the plaintiffs’ assertions as inaccurate. Among them, he wrote the new facility’s presence will not impede efforts to provide residents with access to the Harlem River, as some advocates charge. “This matter has nothing to do with our move to the area,” he wrote.
Mott Haven housing advocate Maxi Rivera, one of the plaintiffs, came to the rally on the courthouse steps from a senior center at Patterson Houses that could have its budget slashed by the end of the month if the mayor follows through with proposed cuts.
“The mayor is cutting child care, after-school and senior programs, but they’re paying $130 million in subsidies. For $130 million we could keep day care and senior services open,” he said.
If FreshDirect decides to go ahead with construction despite the lawsuit, a judge could order an injunction to stop it.
Mott Haven activist Mychal Johnson, another plaintiff in the suit, said he is optimistic the courts will agree the city unfairly ignored the community’s needs.
“I think it’s really good that we’ll have our day in court and let a judge decide,” said Johnson. “We are not New York’s dumping ground.”
This article has been updated to add FreshDirect’s response to questions that were received after the article was published.