State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. got out of his car to give protesters booing him the thumbs-up.

Residents protest FreshDirect groundbreaking

FreshDirect and its government backers celebrated the start of construction in Port Morris, but protesters remain hopeful the city and the state will withhold financing for the project.

Protesters rallied at Harlem River Yard on Dec. 22.
Protesters rallied at Harlem River Yard on Dec. 22.

Protesters jeer celebrating officials at Port Morris ceremony

Elected officials and Bronx business boosters huddled in a heated tent on the Harlem River Yard in Port Morris on Dec. 22 to celebrate the groundbreaking for FreshDirect on the site of its proposed new facility. After they hailed the move, predicting a boost for the borough’s economy, the company’s CEO, Jason Ackerman, joined the officials with shovels and hardhats in a pose for the cameras, to mark the start of construction.

But a stone’s throw away, some 50 protesters stood in the cold outside the gated entrance to the waterfront property, shouting slogans, holding signs and jeering the revelers who drove past them. Opponents want the city to reverse course on its pledge to provide about $90 million in tax exemptions and subsidies to help the online grocery company’s move from its cramped quarters in Queens. They have argued since the project was announced in February 2012 that the truck traffic it would generate threatens to worsen the area’s asthma epidemic.

The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Julio Pabon, a former candidate for City Council, and Mychal Johnson of grassroots coalition South Bronx Unite, led chants of “El pueblo nunca yerra, estan en nuestra tierra” (the people are never wrong, you’re on our land) and “We need to breathe.”

Officers from the 40th Precinct stood by to ensure the rally remained peaceful. The precinct’s commanding officer, Deputy Inspector Lorenzo Johnson, directed a steady stream of sanitation trucks entering and leaving the waterfront facility at the corner of 132nd Street and St. Ann’s Avenue.

“They need the police to protect them from us?” said Mychal Johnson. “This is our public land.”

Ruben Reyes, 33, an eight-year resident of 136th Street and Willis Avenue, said he was diagnosed with asthma a week ago. Reyes said he found out about the rally from his neighbors.

“It was never made public,” Reyes said of the groundbreaking “They want to keep us in the dark. It seems like money dictates everything.”

Inside the tent, the mood was upbeat as elected officials took turns at the mic. The company’s vice president of government and community affairs, Larry Blackmon, advised the attendees to “pay no attention to the background noise we hear out there,” from the protesters’ bullhorns.

Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. was jubilant that the project is shovel-ready after what he called “years of unnecessary delays and frivolous legal maneuvering. There’ve been protests and there’ve been naysayers but we’ve addressed them” with promises of “1,000 additional jobs” to add to an initial estimate of 600 jobs, he said, including work for Mott Haven residents, expanded FreshDirect delivery to the entire borough and promises to replace diesel trucks with an electric fleet.

One of the speakers, Harry Velez, said he works as a shipping supervisor at the company’s Long Island City plant, but as a South Bronx native, welcomes the move closer to home. Opportunities at the plant will help the area’s many unemployed find work, he said.

Assemblymen Marcos Crespo and Jeffrey Dinowitz, whose districts do not include Port Morris or Mott Haven, attended the event and lauded the move, but several elected officials who represent the neighborhood and oppose the project were conspicuously absent. City Councilwomen Maria del Carmen Arroyo and Melissa Mark-Viverito, State Sen. Jose M. Serrano and Congressman Jose E. Serrano sided with opponents shortly after the move was announced in 2012 and sent a joint letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo urging the state to declare a moratorium on development along the congested, polluted waterfront. None of them attended the tent party.

As a member of the New York State Empowerment Zone, Rep. Serrano in 2013 blocked a $3.5 million subsidy the company sought. In November, the Empire State Development Corp. took testimony at a heated public hearing at Hostos Community College to decide whether to provide a $10 million grant. Dozens of company employees praised the company’s loyalty and flexibility while 50-some local residents and advocates denounced the move, citing asthma concerns and a lack of transparency, among other complaints.

State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. got out of his car to give protesters booing him the thumbs-up.
State Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. got out of his car to give protesters booing him the thumbs-up.

After the protesters had dispersed, Mott Haven resident and South Bronx Unite member Corrine Kohut, said she remained hopeful that the state would weigh in and halt construction and that Mayor Bill de Blasio would douse the city’s deal, which was announced by his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. Asthma rates, particularly among children, are among the highest in the city.

“When you have that kind of health crisis, you have a right to a moratorium,” said Kohut, adding she is seven months pregnant and concerned for her unborn child. “I’m doing everything right, but I don’t have any control over environmental pollution.”