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Urban Planners Propose Green Alternatives to FreshDirect's Bronx Facility

By Patrick Wall | January 29, 2013 7:33am

MOTT HAVEN — Urban planners opposed to a sprawling new headquarters FreshDirect hopes to build along the South Bronx waterfront have instead proposed a different, greener future for the area.

Imagine a park or a bike trail instead of a truck depot or driveways, two urban planners suggested at a public presentation last week; or, consider a public gathering hub rather than a private industrial development, they urged.

“In the eyes of so many people in City Hall and elsewhere, this is just a dumping ground,” said Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College who was one of the presenters. “We want to show them what else is possible.”

Local opponents of the FreshDirect plan organized the event at the Bronx Bricks Gallery on East 140th Street in hopes of recruiting neighbors in their fight against the online grocer's planned 500,000-square-foot facility, which would occupy one of the last open spaces on the South Bronx shoreline.

 A proposal for the remaining Harlem River Yards space by Mott Haven architect Juan Carlos Taiano. Rather than build a new industrial complex, Taiano suggested converting existing buildings for public use and creating parks in the open spaces.
A proposal for the remaining Harlem River Yards space by Mott Haven architect Juan Carlos Taiano. Rather than build a new industrial complex, Taiano suggested converting existing buildings for public use and creating parks in the open spaces.
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Juan Carlos Taiano

Speakers pointed out that the site is part of a state-owned but privately controlled waterfront strip called the Harlem River Yards, which was meant to act as a rail hub that would reduce road traffic. Instead, it has been used to house a waste transfer station, a FedEx facility and printing plant that all rely heavily on trucking, they pointed out.

Rather than offer the Yards’ remaining plot to FreshDirect, whose plans predict about 1,900 daily vehicle trips to and from the site, why not, the speakers asked, create a public space that would protect the environment, draw landlocked Bronxites to the water and create a natural storm barrier?

“We have some of the highest asthma rates in the South Bronx and the highest obesity rates [in the city],” said Mychal Johnson, a Mott Haven resident and member of South Bronx Unite, a local group that opposes FreshDirect’s move to The Bronx. “So we need to create things that cancel those negative effects, such as parks and trees.”

Angotti and a colleague at Hunter College, Carla Betancourt, proposed a horseshoe-shaped building for the 13-acre site, which they say could house a community center, art galleries, a restaurant or other public areas. The green space in the middle could become an urban garden, they added.

Juan Carlos Taiano, a Mott Haven resident and retired architect, envisioned the site as a park with athletic fields and an open-air auditorium, bordered by bike and pedestrian trails along the river. He also described shoreline spots where locals could dock boats and kayaks and a stretch under a large overpass nearby where area merchants could set up stalls to sell food and crafts.

Wild shrubs and plants could even act as natural sponges to absorb floodwaters, Taiano explained through an interpreter.

“Another storm obviously is coming,” said the interpreter, Monxo Lopez. “So this is a way of protecting the area.”

Taiano's plan relies on "upcycling," or converting existing buildings, to minimize the environmental impact and construction costs.

FreshDirect's planned facility would cost the company, which is set to receive nearly $130 million in state and local subsidies, about $113 million to build. A representative attended the event but did not speak.

The company issued a response Monday.

“The Bronx has suffered from high unemployment for years and we are going to create jobs for local residents,” the statement said, referring to plans for the new Bronx facility.

City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has spoken out against the FreshDirect plan and represents Mott Haven, attended Thursday's meeting. In May, she and another council member wrote to the state's Transportation Department asking it to audit the 99-year lease it signed — ceding public control of the site — in the early 90s with the private firm, Harlem River Yard Ventures.

The lawmakers argued that, although the waste transfer station does use the railroad, the firm failed to develop a truly intermodal rail hub in the Yards as the lease required, and instead subleased the 96-acre site to companies that still rely heavily on trucking.

Meanwhile, Harlem River Yard Ventures collects $500,000 a month in rent from those subleases, while paying the state just $43,000 a month for the site, the lawmakers added.

“We are concerned that this property has been and continues to be used in a manner that is causing severe harm to the residents of the South Bronx,” wrote Mark-Viverito and Councilwoman Maria del Carmen Arroyo, who also asked the state to forbid construction on the planned FreshDirect facility during the audit.

South Bronx Unite, the organizer of Thursday’s event, filed a lawsuit to block FreshDirect’s move to the Yards, which is still pending in court. Angotti, the urban planner, filed an expert affidavit supporting the suit.

A state DOT spokesman said the agency cannot comment on the Harlem River Yards lease while the lawsuit to stop FreshDirect from relocating there is still pending.