Fresh Direct, one of the country’s largest online-grocery companies, is about to open a 500,000-square-foot complex in the South Bronx, a move that has fueled a rift between some neighbors who welcome the new jobs, and others who fear pollution from the facility will worsen their asthma rates, already the highest in the city.
The prospect of a new fleet of delivery trucks roaming the streets of a neighborhood already burdened with high pollution has worried many, leading to a lawsuit against Fresh Direct and governmental agencies, and to subsequent efforts by the company to try to mitigate complaints.
Backed by $83 million in tax subsidies from New York City’s Industrial Development Agency and at least $9 million from New York state, Fresh Direct’s facility is designed to give its delivery trucks better access to the five boroughs, thanks to a strategic position near bridges to Manhattan and Queens.
The company also promised 1,000 new jobs for Bronx residents when the relocation plan took off in 2012, and established a direct channel with the local community board for citizens to submit their job applications directly. More jobs would be welcome in the Bronx, which in 2017 had a 5.5% unemployment rate, compared to 4% in Brooklyn and 3.5% in Manhattan, according to the latest labor statistics.
Fresh Direct representatives said in a statement that the company has hired more than 1,000 Bronx residents since 2014 to work in the new facility. Cedric Loftin, district manager of the Bronx Community Board 1, said that the board received only seven applications from residents since Fresh Direct started its recruitment plan roughly five years ago, suggesting that recruitment efforts were probably more effective outside of institutional channels.
But in a neighborhood where about 13% of the adult population suffers from asthma, many are concerned that Fresh Direct’s presence will make things worse.
“It’s a fight for fresh air,” said Ivelyse Andino, an asthmatic South Bronx resident and health-care worker who has opposed the opening of the plant since the beginning.
The initial plan to relocate the facility from Long Island City prompted 20 residents, including Andino, and four community organizations in 2013 to sue Fresh Direct, various city and state agencies, and Harlem River Yard Ventures, the company behind the Harlem River Yard. The plaintiffs argued that Fresh Direct’s trucks would pollute the neighborhood, and they also questioned the validity of Fresh Direct’s lease agreement with the Harlem River Yard. This part of the petition was rejected and determined the ultimate dismissal of the lawsuit in 2015.
Mychal Johnson, one of the plaintiffs and founder of a local community organization named South Bronx Unite!, sees the dismissal as environmental injustice. “We’re a poor community of color. We feel that any other community would not have been given this type of judgment,” Johnson said.
Other community members took a different approach. Princella Jamerson, president of the Mill Brook Houses Tenant Association, and Daniel Barber, president of the Jackson Houses Tenant Association, represent low-income residents of New York City Housing Authority buildings. Both have been sitting on a community advisory group that was created to mediate between Fresh Direct and South Bronx residents, and are satisfied with the company’s efforts.
As an asthmatic, Jamerson was concerned about the pollution but doesn’t believe that preventing one company from moving into the neighborhood would solve the problem.
“I have asthma, so I’m very concerned.”, she said. “If you were to map out the whole SB, you’d see that there’s nothing but highways that surround the whole area. But for people to be so focused on Fresh Direct coming to the community…you can’t blame one company for the amount of pollution that’s here.”
Jamerson cited an award given in 2015 by the Environmental Protection Agency to Fresh Direct for its efforts to reduce emissions in the Northeast as evidence that the company isn’t out to poison the South Bronx. And to her, the job opportunities that Fresh Direct offers are the most valuable thing.
Barber seemed to stand along similar lines: “We have a lot of residents that have been given job opportunities”, he said. “Fresh Direct has shown that they want to partner with the community and work with them.”
Fresh Direct’s efforts to reducing emissions came after it was fined $50,000 by New York state in 2009 for violating anti-idling laws — that is, for leaving truck engines on unnecessarily during stops. Fresh Direct representatives contacted for this story confirmed that the company has taken steps to reduce emissions, but did not go into more detail.
It still isn’t clear how many trucks at the new Harlem River Yard will be diesel (as most commercial trucks are) or lower-emission models. A Fresh Direct website with information about the upcoming move states that a “green transportation fleet with clean technology to reduce pollution in the Bronx” is being developed, and that 10 electric trucks have been ordered for the new facility.
Still, there are cues; the new facility has enough room for 26 trucks to be loaded and unloaded at the same time, and will operate on a 24-hour basis — according to workers currently employed at the facility.
Mychal Johnson and his fellow plaintiffs don’t expect that pollution in the South Bronx will diminish anytime soon. They have commissioned a study by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health to measure pollution in Mott Haven and Port Morris before and after the opening of the Fresh Direct facility. The researchers, coordinated by Prof. Markus Hilpert of the Mailman School, have put measuring devices on windows across the two neighborhoods to measure traffic along major roads and at intersections using radar counters. Carbon levels are being measured with detectors. The first phase of the study was completed in October, and the second one will start in the spring, after the opening of the Fresh Direct complex.
A few blocks north of the facility, near the Brook Avenue subway station, some business owners are optimistic about Fresh Direct, while many others weren’t aware of the upcoming opening. Haseeb Ishfaq, store manager of Texas Chicken and Burger on Brook Avenue, has served lunch to Fresh Direct workers during the construction phase, and hopes to continue. “I hope it’s going to be good for the business,” he said.