Board 1 votes to approve, but some say the vote was flawed
The office of Community Board 1 became a cauldron of body heat and enflamed tempers, in the latest bitter clash between angry Mott Haven residents, board members and staff and lawyers and lobbyists for FreshDirect.
About 60 residents squeezed into the board’s tiny headquarters in Melrose on July 10 for the board’s vote on the online grocer’s plan to move to the Harlem River Rail Yards in Port Morris.
Many thought the board would vote on whether the plan violates a 20-year-old agreement between the state and the Galesi Group, which leases the rail yard from the State Department of Tranportation. That agreement calls for freight train service as a key feature of any use of the property. It also says new businesses in the yards should not contribute to traffic problems.
In a turbulent meeting, the board voted to approve what FreshDirect called “a slight modification” to the 1995 agreement.
However, after the meeting, a lawyer for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, Christina Giorgio, said board members were misled and the vote was invalid. Her group is representing plaintiffs in a lawsuit to keep the grocer from relocating to Port Morris.
“If they take the position there was a vote, that would be a violation of parliamentary rules,” said Giorgio, after watching the three-hour meeting meander to a bewildering conclusion.
When the meeting began, FreshDirect spokesmen touted the jobs the company will bring, then introduced four employees wearing the company’s green and orange colored polo shirts to illustrate the point. But before the workers could speak, residents loudly objected that the company pays low wages, has lobbied to avoid complying with a fair wages bill and has denounced its own undocumented workers when they sought to join a union.
A Mott Haven resident and art gallery owner urged the board to vote down the deal for violating the agreement with the state, citing the added truck traffic and the new facility’s vulnerability to flooding.
“I realized from one of the studies that the state did that this is a flood plain area. We all know the Bruckner Bar was flooded and hasn’t come back in business yet,” said Linda Cunningham, founder of BronxArtSpace on 140th St.
“Subsidizing a company whose primary business is trucking to add onto what is already part of a bigger problem is wrong-headed,” she said, and suggested the city instead convert the area into a park.
Mott Haven resident Corrine Kohut, a participant in South Bronx Unite, the coalition opposing FreshDirect’s move, urged the board to ignore pressure she alleged was being exerted on them to vote for the project.
“That’s not what this meeting is about,” Kohut said, arguing its purpose was for members to “submit comments with respect to whether 1,000 diesel truck trips will add an additional burden on our streets.”
Company spokesman Richard Leal countered that the number of truck trips the company will generate is far fewer than its detractors claim, and that most deliveries will occur during off-peak hours.
All evening, tempers flared. A protester and a supporter nearly came to blows as they argued over which was more committed to the neighborhood’s well-being. Several residents interrupted the discussion, chanting, “Open the door” so double-doors would be opened so residents standing in the hallway could hear the testimony.
Another boiling point was reached when board member Walter Nash asked “Why didn’t FreshDirect come to the board before going to the borough president’s office?”
A FreshDirect lobbyist, Harry Giannoulis, said he had tried to arrange meetings with residents through former board member and outspoken project opponent, Mychal Johnson, but that Johnson ignored him.
Johnson, who was at the meeting, strongly denied the claim.
Linda Ortiz, one of the few board members to address the land use issue, said she would vote against the deal.
“It is reasonable to assume that the FreshDirect move to the district will have a stifling effect on current and future business development in the area,” she said, citing the community board’s annual statement of needs.
The meeting sank into deeper chaos when board member Michael Brady began reading the stipulations listed in the 1993 agreement. He continued reading for several minutes, even as District Manager Cedric Loftin and board chair George Rodriguez tried to shush him so a vote could be taken.
The vote was taken over Brady’s filibuster.
Board members and residents looked on in uncertainty until Officer Hector Espada of the 40th Precinct told attendees the meeting was over and shooed the crowd out of the room. Brady remained seated at the table, reading. Sitting nearby, board member John Johnson appeared exhausted.
“This procedure is all wrong,” Johnson said. “He’s 100 percent right, everybody voted without listening to his comments.”
Afterwards, Marlene Cintron, president of the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, was as unsure of the results as everyone else.
“We’re not even sure what they voted on,” she said, outside the community board office.
But Cintron insisted that the non-binding agreement between Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and FreshDirect would ensure that the company keeps its promise to convert to an all-electric fleet and hire Bronxites.
In a statement hailing the board’s vote the day after the meeting, FreshDirect said it has hired 70 Bronx residents since being offered $127 million in subsidies to move from Long Island City to Port Morris, and it renewed its promise to have an all-electric fleet within five years.
Giorgio, the lawyer for opponents of the move, said community board members had a nearly illegible copy of the original agreement to evaluate, with parts missing, and almost no time to review it.
“The community board didn’t analyze in any way, shape or form the most important thing in front of them,” she said, adding her group will continue to fight its case.
The board’s findings go to the City Planning Commission, which is expected to approve the change to the Harlem River Yards agreement by July 15 and pass the plan to the mayor, who has 20 days to decide.