Group digs in against FreshDirect

The FreshDirect site at the Harlem River Yards.

Opponents aim to recruit residents in fight to keep company out

Plaintiffs suing to stop the grocery delivery company FreshDirect from relocating to Mott Haven are looking to bring public housing tenants into the fight, just as the legal team representing them has revised the terms of the lawsuit.

Echoing the lawsuit, a local tenant leader, John Johnson, says the city and state are allowing the company to relocate to the Harlem River Yards based on an outdated environmental review, and that a new review should be required to ensure traffic and pollution problems are more carefully addressed.

Johnson says he and other housing advocates will urge tenants of Millbrook and Mitchel Houses along the company’s proposed truck route to join the fight to prevent FreshDirect from adding to local air pollution.

“If they don’t give in to our concerns, we will mobilize ourselves,” said Johnson, who heads the South Bronx Council of Presidents, a group of Housing Authority tenant association leaders.

“The way they did everything this time out, there was no community involvement. We want to make sure the community is involved in every stage that’s going on,” he added.

FreshDirect officials say they will move toward a fleet of non-polluting, electric trucks within five years, and will create needed jobs for Bronx residents.

In June, the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a non-profit organization representing the grassroots group South Bronx Unite!, filed suit. They argued that traffic from FreshDirect’s fleet of delivery trucks and from employees commuting to work by car will worsen air pollution and add to the area’s asthma epidemic. City and state officials announced in February that they would provide FreshDirect with $130 million in grants and tax incentives to persuade the delivery giant to move from its Queens headquarters to the Harlem River Yards in Mott Haven rather than relocating to New Jersey. 

South Bronx Unite! made its revised court filings public on Sept. 6, arguing that the state’s original lease of the railyard to the real estate firm the Galesi Group, agreed to in 1991, stipulates that all land use on the 96-acre Harlem River Yards site must benefit the public. FreshDirect’s use of the land would not directly benefit Mott Haven residents, the 30 local plaintiffs contend.

In addition, they maintain that the area should be rezoned after undergoing a new environmental review, and that the state should back away from its pledge to provide nearly $19 million in subsidies to the company for a jobs program because that initiative excludes retailers.

In an email response to the Herald through a company spokesman, a FreshDirect official charged that the new legal challenges amount to little more than a stall tactic.

“We find it unusual that these issues are being raised at the eleventh hour,” the unsigned email read, adding that “It would appear that the only reason to have waited to raise these points is to further delay FreshDirect’s efforts to create jobs and support the Bronx community.”

But opponents are hopeful a judge will be persuaded by the new terms of the suit. Members of South Bronx United meet monthly with other residents at Brook Park in Mott Haven to discuss ways the Harlem River Yards site could be opened for recreational uses such as fishing and boating, if a judge eventually rules in their favor.

“I think the court has something new to look at,” said Mychal Johnson, one of the plaintiffs. “It’s a question not of how, but if, the project goes forward. If you win, you get a better environment.”