Community board chaos erupts over FreshDirect

Residents at a June 27 meeting at Hostos Community College demanded FreshDirect officials return to answer more questions from the Community Board.

Residents at a June 27 meeting at Hostos Community College demanded FreshDirect officials return to answer more questions from the Community Board.

Voting process leaves Board 1 members, residents angry, confused

As lawyers and representatives of FreshDirect came to address South Bronx residents and Community Board 1 at a June 27 meeting in advance of the company’s proposed move to Port Morris, the response they received from the community was a resounding: “Not so fast.”

After numerous residents spoke out against the move at the gathering at Hostos Community College, and three spoke out to support it, a lawyer and a spokesman for the online grocer reiterated previous promises to bring jobs with benefits and other perks for Bronxites.  

Responding to repeated criticism that the company’s delivery trucks and employee traffic will add to local pollution problems, spokesman Richard Leal countered that the company’s promises of converting to an all electric trucking fleet within five years should put residents at ease.

As the result of a special agreement between the state and the Galesi Group that manages the Harlem River Yards where FreshDirect hopes to build, the board and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. have 30 days to decide if the deal should go forward, before passing it on to the mayor. Mayor Bloomberg would then have 20 days to render a decision.

But residents expressed concern that an already daunting traffic problem will become worse if the deal passes. Critics contend FreshDirect would generate up to 1,000 truck and car trips per day.

“It doesn’t matter where I get off, I can’t find a route to my house [near the Bruckner Expressway] that won’t take half-an-hour,” said Mott Haven resident Dr. Marian Rivas.

Resident Monxo Lopez, who lives three blocks from the proposed site, worried that FreshDirect’s arrival could doom local bodegas that are loyal to the neighborhood.

“Those are the ones who deserve our sympathies and our help,” he said, telling the board to “do the right moral thing. I beg you to prevent the city from giving $127 million” to the company.

Others argued that the remaining speck of undeveloped land on the flood-prone Harlem River Yards where the new facility would be built should instead be designated for public use.

“We are completely surrounded by water, but don’t have one access point,” said Corrine Kohut, who lives blocks from the site.

But others argued the company would provide badly needed jobs.

“My kids’ parents love working there,” said Stephen Ritz, Dean of students at the Hyde Leadership Charter School in Hunts Point. Many of his students’ parents work at the Long Island City plant, Ritz said, adding that FreshDirect’s presence would help introduce residents to healthier foods grown on local farms.

Frank Garcia, chairman of the Hispanic Bronx Chamber of Commerce, argued that businesses in Mott Haven are hurting and that FreshDirect “buys from a lot of our members in the Bronx,” helping to keep them from closing.

But an attorney for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Christina Giorgio, received the loudest applause when she announced her group would appeal a judge’s decision three weeks ago to throw out a lawsuit brought by residents to stop the move.

“There are a lot of hoops this company still has to jump through,” said Giorgio, whose group represents the plaintiffs.

A Highbridge resident, Killian Jordan, likened the city’s deal with FreshDirect—and Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.’s support for it—to the Yankee Stadium deal over a decade ago, when then-BP Adolfo Carrion removed residents of Community Board 4 for opposing it. Former Community Board 1 member Mychal Johnson, an outspoken opponent of the deal, was the sole board member Diaz did not reappoint last month.

But as the meeting appeared to be winding to a quiet close, chaos erupted.

“I’m very upset because we had the opportunity to ask them questions and we didn’t,” said longtime board member John Johnson.

When the board’s district manager Cedric Loftin tried to reassure him and other disgruntled members and residents that he would call an executive meeting to probe FreshDirect’s representatives more carefully, saying “You will have that opportunity” to raise questions,” then added, “do not ask for time frames,” residents were angered.

As board chair George Rodriguez tried to adjourn the meeting, several board members and residents shouted that the meeting could not end because a board member’s motion concerning doubts over public access to the announced executive meeting had gone unaddressed.

“I’m asking you to please represent the community,” Kohut urged board members as they streamed out of the room.

Newly appointed board member Michael Brady, co-owner of the Clock Bar in Port Morris and a registered lobbyist, left his first Community Board 1 meeting disturbed by what he had witnessed.

“In all my years I have never seen such flagrant disregard of procedure,” he said. “There were no rules.”

He and another recent board appointee, Linda Ortiz, conferred after the meeting.

“We’re freshmen together and we’re both disappointed,” said Ortiz, who was surprised that FreshDirect’s representatives had left the meeting after their presentation, even though many residents remained.

“I was for FreshDirect and now I’m against them,” Ortiz said.