City To Vote on Fresh Direct Deal Tuesday, Despite Pleas to Delay Decision

By Patrick Wall | February 14, 2012 8:07am | Updated on February 14, 2012 12:42pm

PORT MORRIS — A city agency will vote Tuesday on a controversial subsidy package for Fresh Direct worth about $84 million, despite demands by South Bronx residents and a council member to postpone the vote.

Before the Industrial Development Agency decides if it will offer Fresh Direct public benefits to help it build a new headquarters in the South Bronx, City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito wanted it to consider issues residents have raised about the company’s labor practices and its impact on the neighborhood.

She asked it to postpone its vote until residents have had more time to voice their concerns — to no avail.

"Members of the surrounding community feel that their concerns are not genuinely being taken into account," Mark-Viverito, whose district includes East Harlem and the southern tip of the Bronx, wrote Monday in a letter to the agency.

The agency’s board of directors will vote Tuesday on whether to offer Fresh Direct about $84 million in tax breaks and capital investments, which is part of a larger package of benefits from the state, city and the Bronx worth nearly $130 million.

In return, the online grocer has promised to create about 1,000 new jobs by 2021 and to invest $112.6 million to build a new operations center at the Harlem River Yards in Port Morris.

Meanwhile, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation announced Monday that they had made their own agreement with Fresh Direct, which they said addressed many of the community’s concerns about the proposed move.

In her letter to the agency, Mark-Viverito said that she welcomed any offer of new jobs in the Bronx, but that Fresh Direct should respond to “troubling allegations” about its labor practices before it receives any public funds.

Fresh Direct employees and the Teamsters Local 805 union, which has filed unfair labor practice complaints against the company, told her office that employees "faced a great deal of resistance from management" when they tried to organize, Mark-Viverito told DNAinfo.

According to the union, Fresh Direct held anti-union meetings, distributed misinformation about unions and threatened employees who sought to unionize, the councilwoman said.

"We need to ensure that we are not rewarding businesses that refuse to create an environment where workers feel comfortable organizing and seeking union representation," Mark-Viverito said.

A Fresh Direct spokeswoman, Maria Coder, said Monday that the company declined to comment on Mark-Viverito’s letter. Last week, Coder told the Daily News, “We strive to maintain compliance with all labor laws and regulations.”

In her letter, the councilwoman also asked the agency to determine whether Fresh Direct’s new facility could delay construction of the Randall’s Island Connector, a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Bronx Kill that has been planned for years.

And she said the company should agree to make use of rail lines at the Harlem River Yards site in order to reduce air pollution in the area, which has some of the city’s highest rates of asthma.

Meanwhile, local residents and activists formed a group, South Bronx Unite! Stop Fresh Direct!, which plans to rally outside the agency’s offices in Lower Manhattan before it meets Tuesday at 9 a.m.

The group has pointed out that even though Fresh Direct would locate its headquarters in the South Bronx, the company currently does not accept food stamps and only delivers to three zip codes in an affluent section of the northern Bronx.

"We are in dire need of fresh food in this community, but Fresh Direct won’t even deliver in the South Bronx," Rev. Ruben Austria, a group member and Mott Haven resident who runs a local nonprofit for youth, said in a statement Monday.

On Monday, Diaz said that his office, the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation and Fresh Direct had developed a so-called memorandum of understanding.

The agreement sets goals related to local hiring, buying some products from Bronx vendors, expanding Fresh Direct’s delivery zone to include new Bronx neighborhoods, accepting food stamps and using fewer diesel-powered trucks, said a spokesman for the borough president’s office.

It does not address the company’s labor practices or its use of rail at the proposed site, said the spokesman, John DeSio.

"I am very excited that … we have come to an agreement with the company that will ensure their commitment to the Bronx for decades to come,” Diaz said in a statement Monday.

A spokesman for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, which administers the IDA, said the agency had received the councilwoman’s letter and that it “welcomes and appreciates all public comments,” which it would consider at the board meeting Tuesday.

The spokesman, Kyle Sklerov, added: “In all, this project would provide an economic benefit to the city worth hundreds of millions of dollars, far outweighing the investment” from the city in the form of the subsidy package.