Who Benefits from Public Land in the Bronx?

Mychal Johnson points out underutilized space on a South Bronx Unite bike tour, April 16 (Photo courtesy Abigail Montes / My Beloved Bronx 2016)

Members of South Bronx Unite, a local environmental justice coalition, welcomed four newborn babies into the world last year. One of the four has already had to be hospitalized for not getting enough oxygen, according to Mychal Johnson, a founding member of South Bronx Unite. “Breathing is a real problem in our community,” Johnson told me. His newborn son, who is sixteen months old, already uses a nebulizer.

The statistics speak for themselves. A 2007 study found that asthma rates for children living in the South Bronx were eight times higher than the national average. There are more than 35,000 cases of child asthma and 100,000 cases of adult asthma in the borough. Within New York City, the South Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood, where Johnson lives, ranks first for child asthma hospitalizations and third for avoidable adult asthma hospitalizations.

“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.”

The Bronx is home to over a million people. Bordered on all sides by major highways and home to the country’s largest food distribution center, the South Bronx already attracts constant truck traffic. Over the last fifteen years, residents of the South Bronx have watched as more and more highly polluting facilities have moved into the area, including two waste transfer sites, four power plants, a FedEx trucking station, and two newspaper printing operations (the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal). Each of these sites emit fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which can be lodged deep into a person’s lungs and affect their breathing. PM2.5 is closely associated with asthma, lung disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, in full), and heart disease. (Cardiovascular disease affects more than 20 percent of the Bronx population—about 300,000 people.) For the power plants, that particulate matter is in the smog coming out of their smokestacks; for the FedEx Station, waste transfer sites, and printing stations, it’s in the exhaust spewing from their relentless convoy of diesel trucks.

For many residents, the last straw came when the high-end grocery-delivery company FreshDirect announced in 2012 that it was relocating its trucking facility from Queens to Mott Haven. The FreshDirect relocation would bring an estimated 1,000 truck trips a day to a neighborhood already clogged with air pollution. In response, a coalition of Bronx organizations, residents, and environmentalists formed South Bronx Unite, whose grassroots struggle for environmental as well as housing justice in the neighborhood they call home could serve as a model for marginalized communities nationwide.

In their four years campaigning against FreshDirect, South Bronx Unite has put public education and outreach at the core of their efforts. Their street protests and online advocacy have already attracted significant public support. A South Bronx Unite petition calling for a boycott of FreshDirect has garnered over 1,400 signatures to date. They’ve also kept pressure on the company through regular rallies, forums, and other events in the neighborhood and beyond. In one of their most recent, on April 16, South Bronx Unite conducted a “toxic” bike tour around the area. The tour, a public education effort, brought together thirty cyclists, who visited multiple sites of pollution and discussed the environmental justice history of the South Bronx, learning why the sites moved there and how the community is fighting back.

What has made the FreshDirect relocation particularly frustrating for residents is the direct involvement of the state and city government in facilitating it. Together, New York city and state have pledged some $120 million in subsidies and grants to FreshDirect. What’s more, the facility is being erected on a portion of the Harlem River Yard, a stretch of industrial waterfront owned by the New York State Department of Transportation. The arrangement raises the question: Who benefits from public land in a borough that is at once an industrial sacrifice zone and the target of aggressive gentrification? And how does it affect the residents who call the South Bronx home? In a neighborhood where residents have long complained about the lack of green, public space and where private developers are buying up entire blocks of land as affordable housing continues to disappear, the question is especially pressing.

In 1991, the city leased the waterfront land to Harlem River Yard Ventures, Inc., a private developer, for ninety-nine years with the intent to develop an intermodal rail system—something New York badly needs. In fact, the lack of rail infrastructure is one reason the city is so dependent on heavily polluting diesel trucks. The proposed intermodal rail terminal would have eliminated some 30,000 truck roundtrips into and out of the city each year, according to its 1993 Environmental Impact Statement.

But the rail station was never built; what appeared at the waterfront instead, year after year, were sites that contributed to the air pollution in the South Bronx, and the Mott Haven neighborhood in particular. Today, the Mott Haven waterfront is home to the FedEx hub, printing stations, and two of the South Bronx’s four power plants—all of which rent their properties from Harlem River Yard Ventures, Inc. The FreshDirect facility is slated for the last remaining available acres of the Harlem River Yard. George L. Stern, an expert in railroad operations and construction, noted in an affidavit to the Bronx Supreme Court that with the FreshDirect facility in place, building an intermodal rail terminal on the Harlem River Yard would be impossible. FreshDirect would not only block this solution to diesel dependence but, with its 1,000 trucks, also exacerbate the problem.

FreshDirect did not respond to multiple requests for comment; however, the company has expressed previously that its move will benefit the Bronx by creating jobs. On FreshDirectFacts.com, the website FreshDirect created to deflect the spiraling public relations fiasco around the relocation, it says it plans to add 1,000 jobs. However, many of FreshDirect’s foes have noted that there is no guarantee or legal provision that they must hire Bronx residents. FreshDirect also mentioned buying ten new electric trucks to offset pollution—but, as urban planning scholar Tom Angotti points out, that represents just 4 percent of their entire fleet, and Bronx residents have reported apparent purchases of additional diesel trucks as well.

The jobs argument has convinced a few, including elected officials like Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. But members of South Bronx Unite have heard this argument before—namely, every time a new environmentally hazardous site is proposed for the neighborhood.

“The fact is, if you’re not healthy you cannot work, and we have a very unhealthy community,” says Johnson. “The supposed need for employment [has] been the driver for creating this large industrial zone that we have,” Johnson told me. “But it’s [still] not trickling down to jobs in our community. The only result of it is a really poor-health community.” The Bronx’s unemployment rate continues to be the highest in the five boroughs.

Many have also expressed concern that, thanks to lobbying efforts in city council four years ago, FreshDirect doesn’t have to pay its workers a living wage. In 2012, when City Council voted into law a $10-an-hour “fair wage” bill for companies receiving city subsidies, FreshDirect was specifically exempted after lobbying against it.

The wage issue may recede into the background as New York phases in its just-passed $15 minimum wage over the next three years, but the city government’s privileged treatment of FreshDirect worries South Bronx residents. On the campaign trail, Mayor Bill de Blasio cited the FreshDirect subsidies as an example of the type of corporate welfare he would halt, as one pillar of his “tale of two cities” campaign, in which he called for redressing the overwhelming income inequality in the city. But midway through the first term of his mayoralty, he seems to have all but abandoned that promise. In emails released in 2014, Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen discussed with FreshDirect lobbyist Harry Giannoulis the prospect of retreating on de Blasio’s campaign promise as long as FreshDirect promised better-paying jobs.

With the political winds proving fickle, South Bronx Unite has pursued a legal strategy alongside their advocacy and direct-action efforts. Since June 2012, SBU and their lawyers from the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest have been arguing in Bronx Supreme Court that the FreshDirect relocation is unconstitutional, since it is using public land for solely private benefit. Article VII, Section 8 of the New York State constitution states that public land cannot be given to a private corporation unless the outcome will have a tangible public purpose (such as furthering education or mental health). SBU argues that FreshDirect’s relocation has no benefit to the public, and will instead be a public detriment, since it means abandoning the intermodal rail terminal.

The most recent appeal to the New York State Appellate Court sought to establish the state’s direct involvement—and thus the applicability of this clause—by noting that the Department of Transportation approved the final FreshDirect move. But on April 7, the five judges denied the appeal on the grounds that it did not present any new information. South Bronx Unite’s legal avenues going forward are limited. “The only possibility is to seek leave to appeal from the Court of Appeals, which is not commonly granted,” said Rachel Spector of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the law firm handling the case.

The lawsuit has been a long battle for South Bronx Unite. Time and time again, the courts have sided with FreshDirect. Meanwhile, the group has pressed on with other organizing efforts, such as protests and political education, that do not depend on the courts to determine what’s right for their borough.

“We’re still going to furiously make FreshDirect . . . the face of what’s gone wrong in our community for decades—where we have no community input in projects that adversely affect our quality of life,” Johnson says.

Another avenue is to pressure local politicians to cut off state and city subsidies and support to FreshDirect. “It’s time for our elected officials to step up . . . [for those] who represent the community in the city council, state, and Congress to get more involved,” says Harry Bubbins, a Bronx resident and member of South Bronx Unite. He adds that the elected officials could “have hearings or . . . administratively stop any cash or tax breaks to FreshDirect.” SBU has already won a few local politicians to their cause. The campaign points to the example of Congressman José Serrano, who in 2013 blocked a $3.5 million grant from the federal government to FreshDirect while on the board of the New York Empowerment Zone after local protests led by South Bronx Unite.

South Bronx Unite has also turned their attention in recent months to another critical issue facing their neighborhood: gentrification. Last November, responding to a real estate developer’s attempt to rebrand Mott Haven “the Piano District,” SBU members joined fellow Bronx residents for a rally at Borough President Ruben Diaz’s hearing on housing. They blasted Diaz for attending the real estate developer’s “Bronx is Burning” party, as well as for his backing of the FreshDirect relocation.

South Bronx Unite’s involvement in battles over environmental justice as well as over housing and gentrification points back to the deeper question of who controls public land, and to what end. To this twofold problem, the group has presented a novel solution: a community land trust. In 2015, the group joined with fellow community groups such as Friends of Brook Park to form the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Trust, as well as to release a statement of principles for private developers looking to build in the neighborhood. Johnson explains that the campaign against FreshDirect and the community land trust are “related because we’ve seen what’s going on with public land and it’s not really benefiting the public. . . . The leasing of that land [twenty-five] years ago to a private entity for ninety-nine years, the mass purchasing of land in our community by private developers to build with our public moneys and without zoning changes. That’s all related to the needs of our community and our efforts to control our own public land.”

The community land trust (CLT) seeks to put into practice what South Bronx Unite has been pushing the state and city to do since 2012: involve the community in the development of public spaces and let Bronx residents have a say in what happens to their neighborhood. A CLT is a nonprofit entity where a community of people co-owns and governs the land together. The Bronx coalition has yet to acquire any land but is currently looking at two city-owned vacant sites in Mott Haven for their trust. Integrating those sites into the CLT would mean that development on them would need to be led or approved by the trust’s members. (If the waterfront had been part of a CLT, for example, FreshDirect would have had to get the approval of the community before building their facility on the land.) “We created a community land trust to halt [the] prospective market of city-owned property in our community. . . . The community should have the right or the ability to hold land in the trust for the community’s benefit,” Johnson said. The trust has been incorporated and the next step, after acquiring the land, is for the coalition to decide how to use it.

Meanwhile, the Mott Haven-Port Morris Community Land Trust has sought to put pressure on real-estate interests entering the neighborhood (including Somerset Partners, Carnegie Management, and Savanna) with their Statement of Principles for Private Development. The statement addresses eight points: jobs, housing, environmental justice, community art, community cohesiveness, local economic development, health equity, and public-private projects. It notably calls on private developers to support the Waterfront Plan, a community-designed plan to provide public green space and waterfront access to Bronx residents. The statement concludes:

With respect to private development projects receiving city subsidies, zoning variances, land use changes or in any other way involving the government and thus requiring community input and/or approval . . . [they] should also ensure timely notice and meaningful public engagement in the planning, building and maintaining of such projects. Additionally, we would like to see the city work with affordable housing developers to erect more 100% affordable housing in the South Bronx, and all publicly-owned vacant and/or available real estate should be prioritized for community-driven development initiatives, including transferring such real estate to local land trusts.

FreshDirect is in direct violation of these principles. There’s still a chance to stop the company’s new facility before it actually opens, but time is running out: the facility is slated to open later this year. Nevertheless, South Bronx Unite’s long battle with the company and city may have paved the way for larger victories. It will be hard for a private company to use public land without the engagement of Bronx residents again. And as struggles around gentrification and climate justice heat up across New York and across the country, the case of the South Bronx suggests that groups working around both issues have much to learn from each other.


Raven Rakia is a journalist based in New York City. She writes about environmental justice, prisons, and police.

This article was produced in collaboration with In These Times.

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