In February 2012, a bidding war between the Bronx and New Jersey broke out regarding where the online grocer FreshDirect’s new warehouse would be built. A 400,000 square foot site in Port Morris, the South Bronx, along the Harlem River waterfront, was chosen due to over $100 million in state and city tax incentives. The deal was facilitated by the Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, and former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg. The project is estimated to bring $112.6 million in investment to the Bronx and approximately 2,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs .
The Bronx is one of the five New York City boroughs, geographically situated between Manhattan and Westchester - two of New York State's most affluent counties. Three major highways run from Westchester to Manhattan, passing through the Bronx: the Major Deegan Expressway, the Bronx River Parkway, and the Bruckner Expressway. A large number of Westchester residents commute daily to Manhattan, resulting in traffic congestion and pollution.
Mott Haven is a neighborhood in the South Bronx near Port Morris, where Harlem River Yards is located. 44,193 people live in Mott Haven; there are 15,903 total households, and out of those, 9,759 are family households . The median household income is $26,801.00, and 17,592 people live below the poverty line . Mott Haven is a majority-minority community; 27.1% of the population identifies as Black, 67.8% identified as Hispanic, 3.0% identified as white, and 0.7% identified as Asian .
Over the past 20 years, the neighborhood has undergone changes that led to a shift from industrial to residential/recreational. Old warehouses were converted to residential units, and new developments were built and occupied . There is a severe lack of green and open space in Mott Haven to comfortably accommodate the residents' needs. In a study conducted by New Yorkers for Parks, it was determined that parks in Mott Haven lacked tree canopy coverage, and most playgrounds consist of asphalt . Green-space is important in urban areas for reducing pollution, the urban heat island effect, and providing opportunities for residents to spend time in nature. The minority community of Mott Haven is disproportionately affected by pollution from diesel truck and car emissions; the local government has failed to adopt harm reduction practices and invest in residents' health.
South Bronx Unite, a volunteer group of concerned South Bronx residents, launched a campaign against FreshDirect and filed a petition soon after the deal was announced. The organization felt that the Bronx residents were not involved enough in the democratic decision-making process, and certain aspects of the deal were hidden from the public. South Bronx Unite petitioned against New York City Industrial Development Agency, New York City Economic Development Corporation, New York State Department of Transportation, Empire State Development Corporation, Fresh Direct LLC, UTF Trucking, INC., and Harlem River Yard Ventures, INC . The petition stated that “this action arises from the New York City Industrial Development Agency’s (IDA) discretionary decision to provide approximately $83 million in tax subsidies and other financial assistance to Fresh Direct for the Purpose of relocating its operations from Long Island City, Queens to the Harlem River Yard in the South Bronx and the IDA’s issuance of a Negative Declaration in which the IDA found there was no possibility that the Fresh Direct project would have any adverse environmental impact” . The petition included statements from concerned South Bronx residents and members of South Bronx Unite who will be “directly and adversely” affected by the increased pollution, traffic, emissions, noise, etc. that the FreshDirect relocation will bring. The lawsuit outlines South Bronx Unite's case for opposing the company's relocation.
The largest issue with FreshDirect is that they refuse to perform an updated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the effects of the move, claiming that a 21-year-old environmental study was adequate . This Environmental Review was conducted in 1993 and described the Harlem River Yard Intermodal Terminal as the “centerpiece” of the land use plan . This terminal was never built; therefore, South Bronx Unite believes this warrants a new review. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) was approved in 1994, and the NYS Department of Transportation acknowledged the need for the project. This FEIS was approved to address the potential environmental impact of all future activities at the Harlem River Yards for the 99-year duration of the lease . South Bronx Unite argued that the increasingly residential nature of the area and recent rezonings indicate an even greater need to reassess this outdated review. In their study, the DOT found several areas where the terminal would have negative environmental impacts. The Record of Decision (ROD) found that the project is compatible with the surrounding area's industrial character. South Bronx Unite argued that this was no longer accurate due to City's rezoning in 1997 and 2005, leading to increased residential homes, parks, and schools in the neighborhood . The 1993 Environmental Impact Statement failed to account for the change the neighborhood had undergone and will continue to undergo since rezoning. Regarding transportation, the ROD found that increased rail use would reduce transportation costs and 27 million vehicle miles per year . The terminal was never built; as a consequence, none of these benefits were reaped. It was concluded that the development would result in adverse environmental impacts related to increased automobile and truck traffic for traffic. The DOT ordered modifications to existing traffic controls, but these were never made. It was found that the project would lead to a decrease in emissions from cars and trucks because of the increased use of rail transportation; the terminal was never built, so no miles were ever eliminated . Finally, in the ROD, it was found that the plan would result in a significant increase in noise levels mainly occurring at night due to traffic volumes, and this was unavoidable . As of 2012, none of the benefits outlined in the FEIS were realized because the rail system was never developed. The community only experiences negative effects and an increase in pollution/traffic from the business practices of Harlem River Yards. An additional warehouse distribution center for FreshDirect, adding hundreds of diesel trucks to the Yard, will only continue to exacerbate these problems, and negatively impact air quality.
The organization believes that the lease agreement the New York State Department of Transportation is operating on with Harlem River Yard Ventures is outdated and no longer fits the community's needs. The 99-year lease to Harlem River Yard Ventures began in 1991 and was designed to reduce traffic and congestion by developing a rail system . This has not been accomplished in the past 21 years - they now sublease the land to companies that continue to contribute to truck traffic/congestion/diesel emissions and block the waterfront . This plan has essentially been abandoned, and instead, a “Truck Intensive Industrial Park” has been developed . South Bronx Unite claims in their lawsuit that because the lease depends on the operation of a rail system, FreshDirect should not be allowed to build their warehouse on that land.
Increased health risks in an already compromised community are a major concern with this move. In Mott Haven, the South Bronx neighborhood that this diesel trucking hub will most intensely affect has some of the highest asthma rates in NYC and the United States. One in five children has asthma, and residents experience asthma hospitalizations five times as much as the national average and 21 times higher than other NYC neighborhoods . Existing truck-transported freight contributes to the South Bronx's high asthma rates due to their high carbon monoxide and PM emissions . Development of industry in this area prevents efforts for creating green-space and blocks access to the waterfront. FreshDirect released their very contradictory truck routes, some of which are impossible and would result in diesel trucks passing directly through residential neighborhoods with homes and schools. The only way to lower these rates is to reduce truck traffic and congestion.
Additional concerns included the promise of jobs from FreshDirect. The subsidy funds carry no mandate to add any jobs or hire anyone from the South Bronx, and FreshDirect has a history of discriminatory and unfair labor practices . South Bronx Unite acknowledges and understands that unemployment is a prevalent issue in the Bronx, but it is not worth compromising a vulnerable population's health. The health of the community should be placed above profit and jobs. Mychal Johnson, a South Bronx resident and South Bronx Unite member, stated, "unemployment does not cause asthma" .
Lawyers for the City responded to South Bronx Unite's petition stating that recent changes in the neighborhood had been considered, and the legal requirements for assessing environmental impact had been met. FreshDirect’s lawyer stated that no zoning change would be required to occupy the site, and the company had factored employee growth into its traffic estimates . The City and FreshDirects's lawyers requested that the suit should be dismissed. The Bronx Supreme Court Justice Mary Ann Brigantti-Hughes rejected the petitioners’ arguments, dismissed the lawsuit’s other claims, and threw out the case . This action gave FreshDirect the green light to proceed with their warehouse construction in Port Morris.