MANHATTAN — A new community group of Yorkville and East Harlem neighbors and businesses is fighting against the city's plans to build a $125 million waste transfer station along the East River at East 91st Street.
It calls itself Residents for Sane Trash Solutions, since they think a facility capable of processing up to 5,280 tons of garbage daily is a crazy thing to put in a densely populated neighborhood near public housing, schools and the Asphalt Green recreation center.
The group has hired heavy-hitting lawyer Al Butzel — famous for helping defeat the controversial Westway project on Manhattan's West Side in the 1980s— and introduced itself in a letter sent last week to local neighborhood and business associations which calls it "scandalous" to spend taxpayer dollars on a such a "prohibitively expensive" facility.
The group's president, Jed Garfield, who lives near the planned facility and works in real estate, said he had never been politically active before, but when he heard this project was funded and moving forward he felt compelled to act.
"My wife said if they build it, 'Let's move,' I said no," he explained about his decision to fight.
"There are many viable economic alternatives to do this," said Garfield, suggesting the city build an off-ramp from the Willis Avenue Bridge and then put the facility near the Hunts Point in the South Bronx where "it would not actually touch any neighborhoods except the Hunts Point Market."
This, however, would go against the goal of the Bloomberg administration's trash plan, passed in 2006.
The plan is designed to enable each borough to handle its own trash — rather than keep the burden on a handful of outer-borough neighborhoods like the South Bronx and North Brooklyn. It also aims to help the city move more garbage onto barges to cut down long-haul truck traffic.
But many Upper East Siders are outraged by the possibility of trucks rumbling just feet away from where their kids play ball at Asphalt Green.
Garfield, for instance, is concerned about his children, ages 10 and seven, who play soccer and football at the recreation center.
"It's easy for people to point fingers and say, look at the white Upper East Side, they don't want this in their neighborhood," Garfield said, "but to build a 10-story trash station next to a playground is just stupid. … I keep waiting for someone to say, other than the environmental justice platform, that there is a good reason to put it there."
Another group, the Gracie Point Community Council, has long been fighting the project and is involved in ongoing litigation to stop it.
Residents for Sane Trash Solutions may eventually follow suit, Garfield said.
Butzel, an Upper East Side resident who has been involved with battles on the West Side but never the East Side, said he got involved after getting a call from someone saying they were down to the wire.
"I'm often there at the very end," Butzel said. "It may be a right facility, but it's in a wrong place. It's really next door to a residential community."
He believes there are other "derelict waterfront sites" in the city.
He, too, suggested Hunts Point, and while he opposes the city's plans for a trash facility at Gansevoort Street on the West Side, he suggested they build one along the Hudson River at Pier 76 at West 38th Street where the NYPD has a tow pound.
Butzel was the lead counsel against the Westway project, which was first proposed in 1969. That plan would have buried the West Side Highway below 40th Street and built a park over its roof. It would also use landfill to create opportunities for real estate developments similar to Battery Park City.
It was ultimately nixed in 1985 after a judge ruled that the project might harm the Hudson River's striped bass. By then, the political will for the project waned and money was instead used for public transit.
The fish might play a role at East 91st Street. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently reviewing the impacts of the facility on marine wildlife before deciding to issue a permit to the city to build.
But unlike the Westway, which was contending with the effects of 200 acres, this would only increase the dock from the existing defunct waste transfer station — that had operated for 40 years until 1999 — from one to two acres.
"It may not sound like a lot," Butzel said, "but it's not irrelevant."
Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, who has spent 20 years fighting for the boroughs to handle their share of trash, was outraged that this new group would suggest a Bronx alternative, especially since Manhattan generates 40 percent of the city's solid waste.
Bautista said the trucks would not queue up along York Avenue, as many residents fear, and claimed there would be "no odor" since the garbage would be enclosed in containers in the state-of-the-art facility and then be put on barges.
Each barge, he claimed, would eliminate 28 long-haul trucks.
"They need to rebrand because none of their solutions are sane, much less fair," Bautista said of the new group. "Every successful NIMBY fight means it's in our front yard, back yard and alley ways."