The Fight for Public Control of Land in the Bronx

Residents’ last-ditch attempt to keep out a polluting trucking hub.

Raven Rakia May 25, 2016

Mychal Johnson points out underutilized space on a South Bronx Unite bike tour on April 16. (Photo Courtesy of Abigail Montes)

The com­mu­ni­ty group South Bronx Unite (SBU) has bat­tled for four years to stop the gro­cery store FreshDi­rect from build­ing a truck­ing facil­i­ty. The dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter would be the lat­est high­ly pol­lut­ing oper­a­tion in a neigh­bor­hood with child­hood asth­ma rates eight times the nation­al average.

Who benefits from public land in a neighborhood that is at once an industrial sacrifice zone and the target of aggressive gentrification?

Time is run­ning out: The facil­i­ty is slat­ed to open lat­er this year. But in the process, SBU has shak­en up New York pol­i­tics and pio­neered a mod­el for pub­lic con­trol of neigh­bor­hood land.

Breath­ing is a real prob­lem in our com­mu­ni­ty,” says Mychal John­son, a found­ing mem­ber of SBU. The South Bronx’s Mott Haven neigh­bor­hood, where John­son lives, ranks first in New York City for child asth­ma hos­pi­tal­iza­tions. Johnson’s 15-month-old already uses a nebulizer.

You go to any large gath­er­ing and you ask peo­ple in our com­mu­ni­ty, Does any­one here know any­one who has asth­ma?’ and … high­er than 90 per­cent of the peo­ple raise their hand,” says John­son. It’s an epidemic.”

Bor­dered on all sides by major high­ways and the site of four pow­er plants, the South Bronx also sees heavy truck traf­fic. The neigh­bor­hood is home to the nation’s largest food dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ter, which has been joined by two waste trans­fer sites, a FedEx truck­ing sta­tion, and two news­pa­per print­ing oper­a­tions (the New York Post and the Wall Street Jour­nal). Diesel trucks and pow­er plants emit fine par­tic­u­late mat­ter, which can become lodged deep in the lungs and is close­ly asso­ci­at­ed with asth­ma and heart dis­ease. For each of those dis­eases, the Bronx has the state’s high­est mor­tal­i­ty rate.

For many res­i­dents, the last straw came when FreshDi­rect announced in 2012 that it was relo­cat­ing its truck­ing facil­i­ty from Queens to Mott Haven. The move would bring over 1,000 diesel trucks a day, and the facil­i­ty is being erect­ed on pub­licly owned water­front intend­ed for an inter­modal rail sys­tem — some­thing that would have alle­vi­at­ed New York’s depen­dence on diesel trucks.

Espe­cial­ly frus­trat­ing for res­i­dents is that the state and city facil­i­tat­ed the move. Togeth­er, they have pledged more than $120 mil­lion in sub­si­dies and grants to FreshDirect.

The arrange­ment rais­es the ques­tion: Who ben­e­fits from pub­lic land in a neigh­bor­hood that is at once an indus­tri­al sac­ri­fice zone and the tar­get of aggres­sive gen­tri­fi­ca­tion? In a bor­ough where res­i­dents have long com­plained about the lack of green, pub­lic space, where pri­vate devel­op­ers are buy­ing up entire blocks of land, and where afford­able hous­ing is dis­ap­pear­ing, the ques­tion is espe­cial­ly pressing.

Since SBU formed in 2012, the coali­tion of Bronx orga­ni­za­tions, res­i­dents and envi­ron­men­tal­ists has fought against FreshDi­rect on mul­ti­ple fronts: street protests, online peti­tions, a law­suit and pub­lic edu­ca­tion cam­paigns. On April 16, SBU con­duct­ed a tox­ic tour” by bike of local sources of pollution.

These efforts have put the issue front and cen­ter in city pol­i­tics. On the cam­paign trail in 2013,Mayor Bill de Bla­sio cit­ed the FreshDi­rect sub­si­dies as an exam­ple of the cor­po­rate wel­fare he would halt.

But two years into his may­oral­ty, de Bla­sio has shown no sign of end­ing the sub­si­dies. In emails between Deputy May­or Ali­cia Glen and FreshDi­rect lob­by­ist Har­ry Gian­noulis released in 2015, Glen dis­cussed the prospect of retreat­ing on de Blasio’s cam­paign promise as long as FreshDi­rect promised well-pay­ing jobs.

While FreshDi­rect says it will bring 1,000 new jobs to the area, there is no pro­vi­sion that the com­pa­ny hire local­ly — and mem­bers of SBU say they’ve heard such promis­es before. The sup­posed need for employ­ment [has] been the dri­ver for cre­at­ing this large indus­tri­al zone that we have,” Mychal John­son says. But it’s not trick­ling down to jobs in our com­mu­ni­ty.” The Bronx’s unem­ploy­ment rate is the high­est in the five boroughs.

SBU filed suit in June 2012 to block the relo­ca­tion. The coali­tion argues that the deal vio­lates the New York State con­sti­tu­tion by using pub­lic land for sole­ly pri­vate ben­e­fit. So far, the courts have sided with FreshDi­rect. On April 7, SBU lost an appeal.

With lim­it­ed avenues left and the polit­i­cal winds prov­ing fick­le, SBU is invest­ing in a new strat­e­gy: a com­mu­ni­ty land trust (CLT), a non­prof­it col­lec­tive that owns and gov­erns a piece of land.

The Mott Haven-Port Mor­ris Com­mu­ni­ty Land Trust, estab­lished in 2015, seeks to put into prac­tice what SBU has been push­ing the state and city to do since 2012: Involve the com­mu­ni­ty in the devel­op­ment of pub­lic spaces. If the water­front had been part of a CLT, FreshDi­rect would have need­ed its approval to build a facil­i­ty there. The Bronx coali­tion has yet to acquire any land but is look­ing at two vacant city­owned sites in Mott Haven.

Mean­while, the Mott Haven-Port Mor­ris CLT is putting pres­sure on devel­op­ers with a State­ment of Prin­ci­ples for Pri­vate Devel­op­ment. Among oth­er things, the state­ment calls on pri­vate devel­op­ers to cre­ate well-pay­ing local jobs, dou­ble the amount of afford­able hous­ing, and sup­port a com­mu­ni­ty-designed plan to pro­vide pub­lic green space and water­front access.

SBU is con­tin­u­ing its direct action efforts and hopes to pre­vent FreshDi­rect from open­ing this year. What­ev­er the out­come, how­ev­er, SBU’s long bat­tle has changed the polit­i­cal land­scape. It will be hard­er for a pri­vate com­pa­ny to use pub­lic land again with­out the engage­ment of Bronx residents. 

This arti­cle was pro­duced in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Dis­sent mag­a­zine. Read an extend­ed ver­sion here.

Jour­nal­ist based in New York City. She writes about envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, pris­ons and police.
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