Court denies appeal to block FreshDirect

fd truckAn appellate division of the State Supreme Court yesterday upheld a lower court’s decision to throw out a lawsuit brought by South Bronx residents that would have blocked FreshDirect from building a new facility on the Harlem River Yard in Port Morris.

Residents and community organizations under the umbrella of grassroots group South Bronx Unite filed the lawsuit in 2013, contending that the deal between the city and FreshDirect violates the rail yard’s lease with the state. That lease calls for trains rather than trucks to use the facility. The city has promised to provide $80 million in subsidies to the online grocery company, saying that a two decades-old environmental impact study on the area is good enough. 

Representatives for South Bronx Unite were disappointed with the court’s decision. A spokesman for the group, Mychal Johnson, called it “a reinforcement of the tale of two cities.”

South Bronx Unite contends that the environmental study, which was conducted in 1993, is badly outdated. They say pollution from FreshDirect’s trucks would worsen the area’s traffic problems and alarmingly high asthma rates, greatly outweighing any advantages the company would bring.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., however, praised the court’s decision in a statement, calling it “a victory not only for FreshDirect, but for The Bronx as a whole.” Diaz called the project “crucial to the future economic health and vitality of the Bronx,” adding he was “glad to see that the continued legal efforts to stop this critical project have been thoroughly dismissed.”

Diaz reiterated the company’s claim it will create 1,000 new jobs and will eventually convert to a non-polluting, all-electric trucking fleet.

Numerous community groups have joined South Bronx Unite in opposing the project, said Rev. Ruben Austria of Mott Haven.

“More than 50 organizations stand with us in opposing this project, and more than 1,000 people city-wide are boycotting this company because of its intentions for the South Bronx,” he said. Austria, Johnson and seven others were arrested and later released on March 21 when they conducted a sit-in in front of the East 132nd St. site where FreshDirect hopes to build its new facility.

But FreshDirect co-founder and CEO Jason Ackerman called the court’s decision “a huge victory for those who care about creating good jobs” in the South Bronx.

Gavin Kearney of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which is representing the residents in the lawsuit, said he was “surprised by the decision of the Appellate Division given the strength of our claims,” adding he expects to take the case to the Court of Appeals.”

In December, opponents were encouraged when Rep. Jose E. Serrano, who represents the South Bronx in Congress and serves on the state’s Empowerment Zone Board, opposed a $3.5 million subsidy for FreshDirect, effectively blocking that grant.

Still ahead: Oral arguments will be made on the state transportation department’s sublease of the waterfront parcel to FreshDirect at the Supreme Court building on the Grand Concourse on April 7th.