MOTT HAVEN — FreshDirect broke ground at its controversial Bronx facility on Monday as protests denounced the project just outside of the construction site.
While local leaders and elected officials praised the online grocer for bringing new jobs and economic vitality to the South Bronx, about 30 protesters railed against the new facility for damaging the borough's air quality with truck traffic and preventing residents from using the waterfront along the Bronx Kill.
"We're here to bear witness to the sacredness of our children's lungs," said Rev. Rubén Austria, founder of the South Bronx nonprofit Community Connections for Youth. "We're here to bear witness to the sacredness of the air we breathe. We're here to say that our health is sacred."
The protesters, who set up by 132nd Street and St. Anns Avenue — near the site where the depot will be built — chanted slogans like "Children's health over corporate wealth!" and "When your community's under attack, what do you do? Fight back!"
There were numerous baby strollers at the protest as well filled with signs reading "My child's health is more important than your convenience" and "FreshDirect sucks the air from our children's lungs!"
Jennifer Scarlott, a 56-year-old environmental activist from the northwest Bronx, said she joined the protest because the arrival of FreshDirect in Mott Haven could exacerbate asthma rates in the area, which she referred to as an environmental justice issue.
"We're all united in our desire for our kids to grow up healthy," she said. "This neighborhood is called Asthma Alley for a reason."
The mood was much calmer and quieter just a few feet away in FreshDirect's official groundbreaking ceremony at the Harlem River Yard, where the talk focused instead on new jobs and opportunities for commercial growth that the grocer would bring to The Bronx.
Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., an ardent supporter of bringing FreshDirect to the borough, addressed some concerns of the protesters during his remarks.
Diaz argued that FreshDirect's arrival in The Bronx could actually improve the borough's health, as it would make it easier for people to get access to fresh produce and meats.
"When we speak of respiratory ailments, when we speak of health disparities, we know that a lot of that has to do with the types of foods that we eat," he said. "And so from a health standpoint, FreshDirect is going to help solve that."
FreshDirect expects to be done with construction on its new 500,000-square-foot facility by the end of 2016, according to the company's co-founder and CEO Jason Ackerman.
Ackerman declined to say how much the facility would cost, but described it as an investment of significantly more than $100 million. It will house the company's corporate headquarters and food manufacturing and distribution facility.
Roughly 600 of FreshDirect's nearly 3,000 employees live in The Bronx, and many of the additional 1,000 employees that the online grocer plans on hiring will be Bronxites as well, according to a company statement.
This was not enough to satisfy the protesters, who stayed out after the groundbreaking ceremony had ended and continued to voice their opposition.
"There has not been any response to the concerns of this community," said A. Mychal Johnson, a local activist who has been very involved with anti-FreshDirect efforts in the borough. "We know what this project brings. It brings more diesel trucks."