ThinkProgress/Ari Phillips

‘Environmental Racism’ And The Fight For Green Space In The South Bronx

SOUTH BRONX, NEW YORK — An undeveloped area couched between a waste transfer station and a FedEx shipping facility with the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge passing overhead is just about as wild of a place as exists in New York City. It’s the site Mychal Johnson, an environmental activist in the South Bronx, wants to turn into a waterfront park. There are other designs on the space, however, namely the new headquarters for FreshDirect, an online grocery delivery service, which would bring a massive warehouse and over 1,000 diesel trucks, plus a fueling station, to the site.

“When you have a space like this that’s undeveloped, don’t put a 500,000-square-foot warehouse on it,” said Johnson, a founding member of South Bronx Unite (SBU), a local environmental justice group, as he looked out over a wind-strewn parcel of land along the South Bronx waterfront in New York City in late September.

Johnson, 50, spends most of his time fighting this proposal. A real estate agent and former South Bronx Community Board member, he founded SBU over two years ago when FreshDirect initially announced it would relocate. In September, he was one of 37 civil delegates — only four of whom were from the U.S. — to attend the United Nations Climate Change summit for his work in environmental justice. Members of SBU were featured prominently at the front of last month’s historic climate march through Midtown Manhattan.

“The crime and the drugs; this is not the South Bronx of the past,” said Johnson, his frosty gray goatee bobbing as he talked. “A lot has changed and improved for residents since those hard times. Now why do we have to wait for those higher income earners to get here before we create something that can really benefit the community.”

Johnson was referring to other recent urban renewal projects in New York City that feature green space, such as the High Line Park in Lower West Side, Manhattan or the Brooklyn Bridge Park. These parks are a valuable asset to the communities they inhabit. They entice businesses, improve quality of life for residents, and offer tangible environmental benefits, including storm surge buffers in the case of another Sandy-like storm.

The South Bronx waterfront, which borders Randall’s Island, is lined, in part, with a 5000-ton-per-day waste transfer station, a power plant, and the New York Post and Wall Street Journal printing and distribution centers. Because of its industrial past, the area already has some of the highest asthma rates in the country, and rates of death from asthma are approximately three times the national average. It also suffers from elevated obesity rates and is an acknowledged food desert.

At the same time, the South Bronx has gone through two rezonings in the last 20 years to reform the area from being strictly industrial to more residential, mixed-income, and mixed-use. There is only one real park in the vicinity, according to Johnson, St. Mary’s, and several supposed parks that are all covered in asphalt. There is no shortage of basketball hoops; they simply blend into the dense urban landscape with little of the relief one expects from a recreational space.

“So they want to move 1,000 diesel trucks to an area already suffering a health crisis?” said Johnson. “Where else would that be OK? There’s some environmental racism going on here.”

As of 2010, the South Bronx represented the poorest congressional district in the country, according to a Center For American Progress breakdown, with 256,544, or 38 percent, of its residents living below the poverty line. Since then it has been redistricted and is now part of New York’s 15th Congressional District. The median household income for the district is $25,801 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The median household income for the nearby 12th District, which stitches together the east side of Manhattan with parts of Brooklyn and Queens, has a median income of $91,628. It includes the current Long Island City-headquarters of FreshDirect.

Even as the relocation process pushes forward, with New York offering FreshDirect $140 million in subsidies to stay in the state rather than move to New Jersey, Johnson remains positive that his grassroots actions are making a difference.

“They called it a done deal in February of 2012, but they haven’t put a shovel in the ground yet,” he said. Johnson said that he thinks it’s always possible to win when people come together and fight for something that’s not only affecting their lives but also their neighbor’s lives. He viewed his role at the U.N. Climate Summit as one illustrating a microcosm of how local issues, mostly in communities of lower economic status and of color, add up to create the global climate crisis.

“I feel that the issue of environmental justice is the local effect of what grows into climate justice and global warming,” he said.

While South Bronx Unite is opposing to the FreshDirect relocation, the group is proposing a plan that creates something the community doesn’t have: waterfront access and space. The Mott Haven-Port Morris Waterfront Plan calls for a green ribbon of seven sites that would open up green space while also mitigating storm surges that threaten the community. Johnson worries that another major storm could cause a local electricity substation to fail and leave vulnerable people without power in many of the area’s large public housing edifices. The waterfront exists in flood zones 1 and 2 according to FEMA maps, and flooded substantially during SuperStorm Sandy. Johnson said the proposal is being considered by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation as a priority project.

FreshDirect is leasing a 28-acre parcel of the nearly 100-acre South Bronx waterfront industrial site owned by the New York State Department of Transportation. The company did not perform a new Environmental Impact Statement for this site, instead basing their traffic projections and pollution numbers on a 1993 study done for a previously proposed rail-to-truck offloading station.

“They based their Environmental Impact Statement on 21-year-old data,” said Johnson. “This community changes every year, and rezoning has taken place twice since then. This wasn’t taken into account with the EIS.”

Johnson also said that Particulate Matter 2.5, or fine particulate matter, which can cause premature death and harmful effects on the cardiovascular system, wasn’t part of the EIS. These particles can form when gases emitted from power plants, industries and automobiles react in the air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA established PM 2.5 National Ambient Air Quality Standards for the first time in 1997, four years after the EIS was performed. According to the EPA, diesel trucks emit 0.202 grams-per-mile of PM 2.5, compared to 0.044 grams-per-mile for standard gasoline vehicles.

Williamsburg Is An Example Of What Not To Do

In a cautionary tale of how rezoning and redevelopment can work against the environmental justice issues of a community, look across the East River to Williamsburg in Brooklyn, said Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of NYC Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA). While he said South Bronx Unite is waging the good fight, NYCEJA believes industrial waterfronts are a key component and necessary sector for the communities they work with. In Williamsburg, the Latino population dropped 20 percent in the decade leading up to 2010, from 60 to 40 percent, and that was during the recession years. Bautista attributed this change to rezoning that led to widespread gentrification and displacement in the name of real estate speculation.

“Home and property owners tend to be the ones that are most anti-manufacturing zoning,” said Bautista. “Williamsburg is an example of what not to do. If the interest is to improve local environmental quality, I presume you want to do that for the people that live there, not just clean-up for other people of higher income and resources.”

In the case of the South Bronx Waterfront, there are a number of competing concerns. NYCEJA supports smaller manufacturers mostly, like auto shops and metal fabricators. FreshDirect and FedEx are different. As far as the waste transfer station, Bautista said that his organization encourages the city to export waste using rail or marine export rather than trucks, as that’s more environmentally sound, “but that’s small comfort to those who live in and around that community.”

He also said that larger companies tend to be the ones that win tax subsidies and environmental concessions, as has clearly been the case with FreshDirect. While Bautista highlighted the benefit that relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs can bring to lower class communities, he does not want this to be interpreted as being soft on pollution prevention or other environmental justice issues.

“Part of the problem is that people still cleave to the dated paradigm of pitting environmental justice against economic development,” he said. “I wholeheartedly refute that paradigm. We need to protect the environment and we also need a place where people can work. We champion mixed-use waterfronts — with manufacturing, open space, and residential — and as a society we need to make sure they are all compatible.”

NYCEJA isn’t a part of the formal campaign against FreshDirect and didn’t speak directly to whether or not the relocation should be permitted.

Monxo Lopez, a cartographer with New York City and Geographic Information System teacher, said that many local business owners are unhappy with the FreshDirect project because it unfairly uses public money to give preference to outside companies. Lopez has worked with Johnson at SBU for over two years on a volunteer basis.

“FreshDirect is not obligated in any way to provide a single job to anyone in the Bronx, it’s all just promises,” said Lopez, who has lived in the South Bronx for a decade. “So we’d rather see local business owners being supported.”

Lopez’s greater concern about the relocation plan stems from climate change and how bigger storm surges will impact the waterfront property. He said climate change shouldn’t be a “byproduct of plans, but the first consideration,” and that plans must take into account “the geographic reality” of the area.

If Lopez had his way, the area would be covered with “light construction” that acts to protect the community from more flooding. “Rather than have water come all the way to the residential area, the landscape should be used in a way that employs recreational levees to somehow protect the area,” he said. Lopez said that SBU has helped bring the struggles of the local community to the forefront, and demonstrated that the health crisis the community faces is man-made.

“So there are human solutions to those problems,” he said. “And that starts with an accountable and responsible government.”

FreshDirect Rotten On Labor, But Still City-Approved

FreshDirect sees its move to the South Bronx as a job creating opportunity for a community in need, however, the company has a stained record when it comes to labor. The company has received multiple accusations of underpaying workers and has faced at least nine unfair labor claims with the city, state, and federal agencies. According to Welcome2theBronx, a Bronx-based blog, FreshDirect’s subsidy application revealed that these discrimination claims included “unfair labor practices and claims of discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, age, disability, religion, and gender.”

Earlier this year FreshDirect drivers filed a class action lawsuit alleging that the company is violating federal and state law by withholding more than $23 million in overtime wages and tips per year from drivers.

“A FreshDirect warehouse worker working full time for a year makes a touch under $20,000,” reported the New York Times in 2012 when FreshDirect first proposed the move. “Thanks to city, state, and Bronx subsidies, FreshDirect will be paid about $130,000 per job to create 1,000 more of these jobs.”

The deal was approved by the administration of former New York City major Michael Bloomberg. Current Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke out against the relocation during his campaign but has yet to address the issue.

“We have to take subsidies away from big companies like FreshDirect. Give them to small businesses in the forms of loans,” de Blasio said in September of last year. Johnson said his group is yet to hear back from de Blasio, even though they had over 400 South Bronx residents email or phone his office requesting a response.

“If you’re truly a progressive and you come from the grassroots, and most of your staff comes from grassroots and labor, then you should understand or at least give us respect for a call back,” said Johnson. “Let’s at least talk about what’s wrong with this community and what’s been going on for decades.”

De Blasio’s office did not respond for comment on this article, however, emails obtained by the New York Post this month found that FreshDirect’s direct lobbying efforts led the de Blasio administration to drop his campaign promise to end the firm’s city subsidies. The company’s decision to give unionized employees — about half of its workforce — a 20 percent raise over the next three years apparently led Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen to agree to stop pushing back against the project. Mayoral spokesman Wiley Norvell also said City Hall doesn’t have the leverage to stop the project.

FreshDirect declined to be interviewed for this article, but provided a written statement. Launched in 2002, FreshDirect now operates in five states. The company said that after 12 years in Queens, they need to relocate in order to continue to grow the business and better serve customers. They say the move will create about 1,000 new jobs, many of which will go to Bronx residents, and that working with Bronx-based vendors has yielded over $16 million for local businesses.

“The new facility is being designed to be an efficient and environmentally friendly operation,” said the company. Operations are currently divided into three locations, and consolidation in the Bronx will significantly reduce overall carbon footprint, according to the statement. Additionally, deliveries from the new site will make immediate use of the Bruckner expressway, allowing most of the vehicles to bypass the closest residential neighborhoods.

“We are committed to continuing to identify steps that we can take to minimize our impact on the environment — from food sourcing to packaging to our fleet,” wrote FreshDirect. “We chose this site in the Bronx because of its convenience for our nearly 2,500 employees, nearly 20 percent of whom live in the Bronx, as well as the excellent transportation access.”

FreshDirect has promised to have an all-electric trucking fleet within five years of moving to the Bronx, but that is also a non-binding gesture. After Superstorm Sandy, the company replaced many of its trucks with similar diesel versions, leaving community members skeptical.

On The Waterfront

Even with the backlash raised by SBU and other community groups, the new FreshDirect facility is still supported by many. A lawsuit seeking to halt the project was recently dismissed and the state’s economic development agency has voted to approve the project’s financing.

“FreshDirect will be a good neighbor to the people of this borough, and we look forward to their relocation,” John DeSio, communications director for the Office of the Bronx Borough President, said. Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is a longtime supporter of the relocation, and has openly disagreed with Johnson. In June 2013, Johnson accused Diaz of booting him from the borough’s Community Board 1 for his open disapproval of the deal.

With Johnson no longer on the board, Desio said that “it is worth noting that Bronx Community Board 1, where the project is located, overwhelmingly supports the project.”

DeSio said that with the relocation to the Bronx, Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor Bloomberg saw an opportunity to utilize an “unused parcel of industrial land” to preserve 2,000 existing jobs in the city while creating 1,000 new jobs in the Bronx. He also said FreshDirect has already addressed many of the criticisms that were made when they announced their move through hiring initiatives for local residents, adding service to the entire borough, efforts to expand services to those who receive government assistance to buy food, and the new contract with unionized workers.

The borough has plans for housing, commercial space, and parks along sections of the Bronx waterfront — just not in the area around the Bronx Kill waterfront where FreshDirect is proposing to relocate. DeSio mentioned the Special Harlem River Waterfront District, a mile or so up the west side of the borough’s waterfront. In announcing the plan, Diaz said it would lead to development similar to the Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The proposed site of the FreshDirect facility is part of the Harlem River Yards, land that is owned by the New York State Department of Transportation, but leased for 99 years to Harlem River Yard Ventures (HRYV), part of the Galesi Group. The area is a key component of a long-term goal of bringing more railroad freight service to the area to reduce regional traffic congestion on all the bridges and highways. This intermodal freight transport has not yet occurred and FreshDirect’s relocation is another indicator that the realtor has other priorities.

Johnson is not the only one proposing a large project with such local emphasis. The South Bronx Greenway is part of a city-led initiative to create links between the waterfront and Bronx residents. This 2006 initiative includes the Randall’s Island Connector — a pedestrian and bike pathway leading from the South Bronx to the 400-plus acres of recreational facilities on nearby Randall’s Island. Launched in December 2013, the project is on track to be completed early next year according to the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC).

“The Randall’s Island Connector will provide South Bronx residents and visitors with new opportunities on the waterfront and bring them closer to the many amenities offered on Randall’s Island,” said EDC spokesman Ian Fried in a statement earlier this summer.

The bridge is located several blocks from any subway stations in an area controlled by HRYV along the Bronx Krill waterway. After much consternation over whether HRYV would give up land in their lease for the bridge, they eventually agreed to an easement to allow for its construction.

“There’s no rebuild New York happening here,” said Johnson at the site of the proposed FreshDirect facility. The rush of overhead cars muffled his voice as he spoke. A few blocks away the smell of the waste transfer station wafted into the air.

“We have the largest maritime industrial area in the city. The other supposed working waterfronts have been de-zoned and they’ve started making waterfront parks out of them and increasing quality of life. You create jobs by creating green space because that’s where people go and recreate.”

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