Hostos hosts first public meeting since deal was first announced
Some 100 Mott Haven residents locked horns with about as many FreshDirect employees on Nov. 17, at a contentious public hearing on the state’s plans to subsidize the online grocer’s proposed move to the Port Morris waterfront.
At a packed auditorium at Hostos Community College, the sides heatedly debated whether the state should provide nearly $10 million in state subsidies for the company to relocate from Queens. Local residents passionately criticized the proposed move, urging the Empire State Development Corp. board not to finance it, while FreshDirect workers equated their employer with family.
The public hearing was the first on the issue since the city announced plans to subsidize the move in February 2012, to keep it from accepting a similar bid from New Jersey officials. Mott Haven residents and other advocates have argued that an estimated 1,000 daily trips by delivery trucks and employee vehicles to and from Port Morris will worsen air pollution that contributes to health problems in an area dubbed Asthma Alley, and will hurt local mom and pop food stores.
Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., who has championed the move, argues the company will bring needed jobs to the neighborhood, but opponents contend the jobs don’t pay enough and won’t offset the pollution threat.
“We’re asking legitimate questions, yet they have been able to run this project through with very little public input,” said Mott Haven resident Mychal Johnson, a founding member of the local coalition South Bronx Unite, at a rally in front of the college on the Grand Concourse prior to the hearing. The group wants the city to stop industrial activity on the waterfront and instead create public access points, an idea recently endorsed by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
South Bronx Unite sued the city in hopes of stopping the move. The suit was thrown out, but the plaintiffs hold out hope the state will nix the deal on the grounds it violates the terms of the 20-year-old lease on the waterfront parcel prohibiting any increases in traffic.
Marty Rogers, a lifelong resident of Mott Haven who helped organize residents in the 1990s to banish the largest medical waste incinerator in the state from Port Morris, said the deal, like the construction of the incinerator, has neglected public input.
“I would have never thought that in the 2000s in New York City, there would be deals behind closed doors that would screw people,” he said.
When the hearing began, FreshDirect employees, clad in green company t-shirts, applauded pleas from fellow workers to pass the $10 million grant.
“These people, just as I do, come from public housing in this community,” said Larry Blackmon, the company’s vice president of governmental and community affairs and a former Bloomberg administration official, leading a round of cheers from employees. “I have walked and I have talked with them and they tell me how much they love FreshDirect.”
One worker, Perry Montgomery, spoke of camaraderie in the company, and said the move would enable him to walk to work. Others, speaking in Spanish, said the company’s liberal hiring policy has allowed them to work, and to rise within the company, when they lacked options.
But of the 60-some people who spoke, opponents outnumbered supporters more than 3-to-1. They argued that few of the company’s workers, and none of its executives, live close enough to feel the effects of the local asthma epidemic. When local resident Libertad Guerra asked how many of the FreshDirect employees lived in the neighborhood, only one responded. Residents frequently jeered at FreshDirect’s speakers throughout the four-hour hearing.
Several residents pointed out that although many local adults suffer from asthma, children are at highest risk. John Thomas, a teacher at the Urban Assembly Bronx Academy of Letters on Morris Ave., said he routinely finds that students who missed class have been hospitalized with asthma, or are with sick relatives at area clinics. Local religious leaders, too, sounded the alarm.
“When I found out, it boggled my mind,” said Rev. Danny Diaz, one of three Bronx pastors to speak out against the move. “Low-wage work is not good news. Destroying the waterfront is not good news.”
Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr., who is also a minister, held a press conference in advance of the hearing to laud the proposed move. His son, the borough president, reiterated his support in a press release, saying the proposal would “create new jobs on an underutilized industrial waterfront,” and “develop the blueprint for corporate America to work hand-in-hand with elected officials, community organizations and the people of this borough to make sure those jobs go to Bronx residents.” He added he was confident the company would live up to its word in hiring local residents, expanding deliveries to Bronxites and building a delivery fleet of non-polluting electric trucks.
But City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district includes Mott Haven, opposed the deal. In a prepared statement read by one of her staff members at the hearing, she called the deal “emblematic” of the former Mayor Bloomberg’s heavy-handed economic policies.
The evening’s final speaker, Yajaira Saavedra, co-owner of Mexican restaurant La Morada on 141st Street and Willis Ave., spoke barely above a whisper as she choked back tears. Saavedra had waited four hours for her three minutes to speak. She said she remembered her grandparents struggling to survive as agricultural workers in Mexico, fighting against powerful “food corporations” she equated with FreshDirect. The company, she predicted, would perpetuate “the same kind of poverty I had to live through as a child.”
“I come not for a $10 million handout,” but to urge the state not to support the deal, she said.
The story was corrected to reflect that the hearing’s final speaker, Yajaira Saavedra, said her grandparents struggled while living as agricultural workers in Mexico, not while founding La Morada Restaurant. La Morada opened in 2007.