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Community Board Votes For FreshDirect Plan After Raucous Meeting

By Patrick Wall | July 11, 2013 12:53pm
 The board voted by a wide margin on July 10, 2013 to back a lease modification the company needs to move to The Bronx.
Raucous Community Board Meeting about FreshDirect
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MOTT HAVEN — For the second time in two weeks, chanting protestors and shouting community board members nearly derailed a board meeting on FreshDirect’s planned move to The Bronx — but on Wednesday, the fractious session ended with a vote overwhelmingly in favor of the project.

The vote capped more than a year of rallies, boycotts and legal challenges by residents who said the online grocer’s proposed waterfront facility would block access to the water and pollute the air, even as proponents welcomed the promise of new jobs and fresh food.

In May, a judge rejected a lawsuit meant to block the project — though the FreshDirect opponents have filed an appeal. Meanwhile, FreshDirect is awaiting full approval of a nearly $130 million public subsidy package for its relocation.

While Wednesday's vote technically concerned the modification of a lease on the publicly owned, privately operated Port Morris site where FreshDirect hopes to build its sprawling new facility, the vote was treated as a referendum on the entire project, which critics took as a sign that the board was either confused or misinformed about the vote.

The meeting — which was scheduled after a similarly raucous June 27 hearing ended without a vote — drew a restive crowd of FreshDirect opponents who filled the hallway outside the conference room, interrupted the company’s representatives and chanted “We want a waterfront!” and “Do the right thing!” as a police officer stood guard.

Mychal Johnson, an outspoken FreshDirect critic who was the only CB1 member not reappointed this year, called out, “This is a travesty for democracy and justice in the South Bronx!”

Earlier, when each member was given two minutes to comment on the FreshDirect project, new member Michael Brady reminded the board that its vote centered on the lease modification, which he said had not been given due consideration.

He then repeatedly read aloud a written statement opposing the modification, which he later said was an attempt to “filibuster” the vote.

This, and the protestors’ chants, prompted board member Evelyn Munoz to shout, “Sabotage!”

“They were here to attack the community board and FreshDirect,” she said after the meeting, adding, “I didn’t come here to nursemaid children.”

The original lease between the state and the private firm that runs the site, called the Harlem River Yards, stipulated how that site could be used — including a requirement that a truck-to-train transfer facility operate there in order to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution.

A separate agreement added that any changes to the lease would require city approval.

Because FreshDirect’s proposed facility includes a parking lot in the zone reserved for the required intermodal rail hub, the project was submitted to the city, which forwarded it to the community board and the Bronx borough president for input.

FreshDirect’s opponents have argued that the new facility would block the operation of that rail hub, while the company insists it would not.

On Wednesday, 25 board members voted in favor of the lease modification sought by FreshDirect, four voted against it, and two members abstained.

Before the vote, several members complained that FreshDirect made its first formal presentation to the board about a project that falls within the board’s district only in June — prompted by the lease modification request — some 16 months after the project was announced to the public.

Other members asked how the project would benefit residents and whether FreshDirect would sign a formal agreement with the board guaranteeing those benefits.

A FreshDirect official listed several promised perks — including at least 300 non-union jobs, “expanded relationships” with Bronx vendors and fresh produce for Bronx FreshDirect customers — which he noted were outlined in a written agreement with the borough president’s office.

After the meeting, several members cited the job and fresh food promises as deciding factors in their support.

“At this moment, The Bronx needs jobs,” said board member Isabel Figueroa.

They also vowed to hold the company accountable to its pledges — though it is unclear what enforcement authority the board has.

Brady said an official in the borough president’s office called him before the meeting and asked him to consider the office’s written agreement with FreshDirect before voting. (A borough president spokesman confirmed the call and said it was appropriate.)

He still voted against FreshDirect’s request.

Brady, who co-owns the Clock Bar on Bruckner Boulevard not far from the FreshDirect site, said he expected a spike in truck traffic and air pollution would turn away customers.

“So much so, that the Clock Bar could be closed within two years” of the plant’s opening, Brady said.

FreshDirect has promised a completely “green” truck fleet within five years of the relocation.

The board and borough president have until July 15 to submit their input on the lease to the City Planning Commission. The commission will then offer its recommendation to the mayor, who has 20 days to approve, reject or alter the modified lease plan.