Under the wire


FreshDirect is coming to the Bronx. At least its headquarters are.

The online grocer decided to move to the borough after outgrowing its current facility in Long Island City. New Jersey and New York both wooed the company, but New York eventually won the contest by forking over $120 million in city and state incentives, including tax breaks and energy-related grants. Jersey offered $100 million.

The decision was announced on Feb. 7 and is expected to create approximately 1,000 new jobs. The city is also expected to retain 2,000 jobs from its Queens location. 

FreshDirect, an online grocery store that delivers to people’s homes, will invest $112 million to build a brand new facility at the Harlem River Yards.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. lauded the agreement for bringing jobs to the borough with an unemployment rate (as of December) of 12.4 percent.

But many Bronxites oppose the plan. They cite a lack of transparency in the decision-making process to move the plant to the Bronx, that there is no living wage job guarantee, FreshDirect does not accept food stamps and the development will get in the way of the planned Harlem River Greenway’s connection to Randall’s Island, which, according to Gothamist, already has federal fund allocations.

Critics also point to the fact that FreshDirect does not deliver to the majority of the Bronx, only zip codes 10471 and 10463 and part of 10470, Riverdale and Kingsbridge. The grocer only delivered to 10471 and part of 10463 until residents in Kingsbridge and Van Cortlandt Village started a letter writing campaign in 2010. FreshDirect now delivers to all of 10463. It also delivers to most of Manhattan, much of Queens and Brooklyn, and even drives through the Bronx to deliver in Westchester.

Some of those opposed to FreshDirect’s move to the Bronx say the city should not hand over taxpayer money to a company until it funds a decades-old plan to create a greenway and waterfront park along the Harlem River. 

As for transparency, the city held a public hearing on the issue on Feb. 9 after the deal was already announced.

“To find out that there is a new project, funded by public monies, that does not support the creation of said greenway, [it’s] very disturbing,” wrote Joyce Hogi of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, in prepared testimony. 

Mr. Diaz launched a Facebook page entitled Bronxites for FreshDirect on Monday as part of an effort to show FreshDirect people in the Bronx would use its services.
Mr. Diaz is also working with FreshDirect to make that happen. His office released a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday. FreshDirect agreed to work with the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation and the beep’s office to increase Bronx deliveries and promote job openings to Bronxites.

Many of the comments on the page blasted the deal. The page had 72 “likes” as of Tuesday afternoon.

“This is a plan to utilize public lands without reviewing community input and demonstrates a total lack of cooperation and consideration with the constituency that will be directly and adversely impacted by this proposal … Too bad there wasn’t an unlike button!!!!!!!!!!!!” wrote Karen Argenti of the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality on the Facebook page.

A group of activists opposed to the plan banded together to form the South Bronx United! Stop FreshDirect. Other groups are joining the opposition, including Occupy the Bronx and the Fort Independence Park Neighborhood Association.

The deal probably would not have been struck if a living wage mandate, even the most recent watered down version of the bill, had already been on the books.
Speaker Christine Quinn, Councilman Oliver Koppell and Mr. Diaz came to an agreement on legislation that would require any company receiving taxpayer subsidies to pay a living wage, but which excluded any tenants of a developer.  
Even this living wage law would have covered FreshDirect and since New York was competing with Jersey, FreshDirect may have decided to settle across the Hudson where there is no living wage mandate. Although the agreed upon bill has not even been released, the latest version of the bill included all companies who received more than $1 million in taxpayer subsidies.

Currently, many FreshDirect employees earn less than a living wage. It is unclear exactly how many jobs earn less than the defined “living wage” of $10 per hour with benefits or $11.50 without. But the company is currently advertising for a variety of job openings — including for packers, janitors, kitchen associates and part-time deliverymen — that start at $8 to $8.75.

Talk about raising wage mandates seems to have shifted away from living wage to minimum wage. If the state were to increase its minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50, as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and state Sen. Jeff Klein propose, pay at FreshDirect would probably rise to remain above the minimum wage line.

Church and state

The state Senate passed a controversial bill on Feb. 6, to allow religious groups to use city-owned schools when the buildings are not in use. Every local senator (state Sens. Gustavo Rivera, Jeff Klein and Adriano Espaillat) voted in favor of the bill.

Religious organizations have been allowed to use school space for more than a decade despite a citywide ban, pending a federal court’s decision on a case involving the Bronx Household of Faith renting space at a PS 15 in University Heights.

The court decided in June to uphold the city’s ban and the churches were given until Sunday to move out.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that many churches held their last services in schools and some were struggling to find new spaces in which to worship. Many groups said they are hopeful the state legislature can pass legislation so they can continue to use the schools they’ve called home for years.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has strongly opposed allowing churches to use city-owned spaces, saying it goes against the division between church and state.
Kingsbridge Heights Councilman Fernando Cabrera and Marble Hill Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez have hosted multiple protests against the city’s ban.
The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, which handed it over to the Assembly.

Mr. Klein said he voted for the bill because many churches in Latino and African American communities do not have the money to build a church. He said those congregations deserve a place to worship.

“We’ve had a system in place for many years without any problems,” Mr. Klein said, adding that nobody will be forcing religion on anyone because services are held only when school-related activities are not taking place.

Future of the armory

Since the city reissued a request for proposals on the Kingsbridge Armory on Jan. 12, many of the same suitors who pitched their ideas to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr.’s task force have shown interest in developing the Armory.

Rangers legend Mark Messier and Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes want to develop the Armory into a hockey/ice skating facility with a school. It took over a year to get a single temporary rink in Vannie, so if he city’s Economic  Development Corporation decides on Mr. Messier’s plan, we’ll have to see how long it takes to get eight indoor rinks at the Armory. 

Crain’s reported on Monday that a film studio, megachurch, retail center and sports arena were still possibilities as well.

Queens-based Silvercup Studios, World Changers Church, Vornado Realty Trust and New York Sports & Entertainment all have shown interest in the site.

Proposals will be accepted through March 22.

Engel scores high

Rep. Eliot Engel received a score of 94 percent from the New York League of Conservation Voters for how he voted on environmental issues in 2011. The league grades congressmen based on their votes.

New York’s congressman got an average score of 74, compared to the national average of 45.